Monday, July 23, 2007

In the Cellar With Fleur De Sel

For the July "In the Cellar" column in the NY Sun, I featured Jennifer Malone-Seixas of Fleur De Sel, the intimate French bistro in the Flatiron district. I sheepishly admit that she is the first female sommelier I've interviewed since I began the column a year ago. What can I say? They're not exactly easy to find. I enjoyed talking to Jennifer. She was salty and funny and didn't pull any punches. Nor does she buy into the current sommelier dogma, viewing the elevated position and on-and-off pomposity of her profession and colleagues with considerable skepticism. It was refreshing to speak with her.

Here is the piece:

Breaking the Wine-Glass Ceiling

Jennifer Malone-Seixas stood out among her classmates when she took the American Sommelier Association's six-month "Viticultural/Vinification" course. It wasn't because she was one of just a few women in the class, or that she was the only non-industry person in the room. What really set her apart was that she took the program while pregnant.

According to Ms. Malone-Seixas, who has a talent for wry understatement, the director of the course didn't notice her condition until she handed in her final exam. Of course, baby in mind, she spat out every vintage she tasted during that half-year. That is, until the end. "When I took the exam, I did have a glass of Champagne," she said recently. "I was like, ‘Forget it!'"

In an industry dominated by men, Ms. Malone-Seixas is a rarity: a female sommelier who is not only employed by a respected restaurant, but actually runs its wine program. She has been the wine director at Fleur De Sel, chef Cyril Renaud's French bistro on East 20th Street, since November. The position follows two years at Alain Ducasse, where she was the only woman in the entire restaurant staff, and a two-week stint at Gordon Ramsay at the London. She left just before the opening.

The life of a woman wine steward is not always easy. One must frequently prove oneself, to both employers and clientele. Male diners, when first seeing her, frequently ask to see the man of the house. "It happens less here," she said. "Much more so at Alain Ducasse. They think: I'm a female, there's no way I know anything about wine. A couple times when the situation did happen, a woman would kick her husband under the table and apologize for him. But other times, I wonder if I'm to blame, when I pour the taste to the man at the table rather than the woman."

As for the people who do the hiring, while Ms. Malone-Seixas won't say there is a glass ceiling in play, she did observe that "there were quite a few women who took the ASA class with me," inferring that a concomitant percentage on New York dining floors is not in evidence. "That should be an indicator. It's curious."

Ms. Malone-Seixas's life was pointed in a completely different direction when she graduated from Vassar College with a degree in art history 15 years ago. Following commencement ceremonies, "I did what all good liberal arts graduates do and went to graduate school almost immediately after," she joked. She studied art for two more years, then got a Master's in teaching and worked for a while at the Museum of Modern Art.

After a while, however, she was itching to try something different. Her husband encouraged her to pursue her curiosity about wine. "I was always a wine drinker, but never had been interested in it in a professional sense." Growing up, there had always been good bottles in the house; her father considered Brunello di Montalcino the perfect accompaniment to any meal. "He's an Irish New York guy who wishes he had been an Italian prince," she said. She did well enough on the ASA exam for ASA president and cofounder Andrew Bell to recommend her to Ducasse. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she said, remembering the restaurant's cellar. "The tasting knowledge I built up there was invaluable." She also recalls the sheer fright of testing her newly won wine skills in such an intimidating setting. "It was nerve-wracking," she laughed. "I was so worried I was going to spill wine on people."

She no longer seems nervous. In fact, she's quite comfortable with challenges. "It adds a bit of spice to things when people are pissed. They look at the wine list" — Fleur de Sel's cellar offers nearly 1,000 choices, include pages of Bordeaux and Burgundy — "and say ‘Argh. It's so hard.' It's intense. If everyone was always happy and giving you $500 to pick a bottle, it wouldn't be a challenge."

She's also sure enough of herself to oppose certain oenophilic fads. "I steer people away from wine pairings. I don't like them, so I get very personal about it," she explained. "It's in vogue at a lot of restaurants to have a wine pairing with the tasting menu. But I think they're unnecessarily complicated. I think they're interesting in a casual way. Personally, when I'm sitting down to eat, I don't want the sommelier with me the whole time. It's not about me; it's about the wine, the enjoyment of the experience. I'm there to help people. It's not ‘Take pictures of me. I'm your sommelier.'"

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