Some of the best sommeliers in NYC are female, and these ladies not only know their wine, they effusively share their knowledge with customers and friends without any of the pretension often (rightly or wrongly) associated with that, ahem, other species of somm.
Although the Standard East Village’s pièce de résistance restaurant — a still unnamed venue by Michelin-starred chef John Fraser — isn’t slated to arrive until early next year, you can get an André Balazs fix in the interim at the hotel’s buzzy new café. The slate-blue doors burst open at Cafe Standard (25 Cooper Square, 212-475-5700) in early November; the stylish space, dressed in vibrant primary colors, is now serving casual American fare throughout the day and into the wee hours of the night, and it boasts a full complement of booze to keep you snug in your seat for hours.
Continuing my coverage of women in the NYC wine scene, I caught up with Ashley Santoro, wine director for the Standard East Village (and formerly of Casa Mono), to discuss the development of her soon-to-be-revealed wine list, the unsung (and overblown) wines of Spain, and her love of sherry and hamburgers.
Do you remember your first taste of wine and what it was?
I honestly don’t recall my first wine, but considering how my family drinks, it was likely one of Carlo Rossi’s finest jugs.
How did you first get started in the restaurant industry?
If we’re counting the brief yet formative stint as bus girl at the tender age of 15, then bussing tables was my gateway. Of all of the positions in a restaurant, it’s truly the quickest initiation to that very specific kind of energy you feel (and get addicted to) in a busy restaurant. People might not consider it all that inspiring, but it’s that initial experience that made me want to work in restaurants.
How long have you been with The Standard, and what is the focus of the list you are building?
I took the wine director position for The Standard East Village in February of this year. I’m still in the process of shaping the list, but I will say that it will pay homage to the classics and also represent what’s so exciting about American wine right now.
Are there any challenges being a female in a male-dominated industry? Any perks?
Generally speaking, this industry is challenging and demanding, regardless of whether you’re male or female. There are always going to be male guests that are going to be dismissive of a female sommelier, and I’ve had plenty of those experiences, but I think that mentality is dying off (literally).
Are there any women you admire either in or outside of the wine industry?
There are a plethora of awesome ladies doing great things, but if I had to choose one woman that motivates me to work harder and step up my game, it’s definitely Pascaline Lepeltier. She’s the real deal, a true professional and outstanding sommelier.
Do women and men order wine differently?
I wouldn’t really say that men order differently than women; it’s sort of situational. There’s an unnecessary amount of social pressure put on understanding wine, and people are afraid of looking like dummies on a date or during a business meeting, regardless of gender. I do think women tend to defer to men more often than men defer to women, but I think a lot of that has to do with restaurant service. Most servers automatically give the man the list, but I see that changing.
Are there any wines you tire of having to carry because people want them? Any you wish you could but customers won’t order them?
Since The Standard EV isn’t open yet, I can’t answer this yet. But at Casa Mono, I definitely had wines on the list that were rip-your-face-off huge and really weren’t my style, but I was working with an all-Spanish wine list at a Spanish restaurant and Spain makes a lot of massive wine. And people would certainly come in looking for them. So I always kept those sorts of wines on the list even though I never felt like they were right with the food. I’d always try and guide people to something more compatible, but there is always that person who is going to want to drink 16 percent alcohol Monastrell with razor clams. And that’s OK.
How about regions you think are undervalued or unsung?
Even though I’ve stepped away from Spanish wine, I still think there’s a ton of unsung value there. Sherry is a no brainer, along with the wines of Galicia — from Mencia to some of the lesser-known red grapes of Rias Baixas.
Have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
I think the most striking trend is how much more people want to talk about wine at the table. There is more openness and more of a willingness to not only have a conversation but to take a chance. Less fear.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
Sherry is my go-to for food and wine pairings. The possibilities are endless because you’ve got a style for every kind of food. Of all of them, I personally love working with amontillado. Depending on the producer, production area and profile, it can work with everything from shellfish, to lighter proteins, to heavier pork dishes.
What do you like to drink off the job?
I drink an absurd amount of sherry and a lot of Loire, from Muscadet to Bourgueil, cru Beaujolais, and lots of new California. Obvious, I know. I’ve also gotten myself in the habit of drinking Scotch, and I’m getting into it more than ever before.
What interests do you have outside of wine and work?
Cycling, running…and hamburgers.
If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
This is a really difficult question to ask a wine person because we’re always torn between going to a wine region and someplace where we can totally unplug. For wine, I would love to travel through the Loire Valley and head east into Burgundy. But I can’t lie and say that I wouldn’t mind sitting on a beach in Costa Rica drinking shitty lager and eating beans and rice.