Cheers to Women and Wine
- By: Amy Walton
Like wine? Find out why wine empowers women—and helps them connect!
When Kiera Hill was a college senior, she didn’t know the course of her life lay in a $75 bottle of Bordeaux. As she inhaled and sipped the red wine, Kiera realized she wasn’t trying what some call a “one-note wine.” Instead, she detected layers of complexity.
“It was a passionate and meaningful experience,” Kiera recalled. In fact, she raved about the wine so much that her manager at Total Wine challenged her to sell two cases at her cash register. In a couple hours, she sold out and was promoted to the sales floor. Kiera later became the wine manager, developing wine classes and tastings.
“I wanted to teach wine classes all the time!” she said.
Today the former cashier is a Certified Sommelier who teaches about wine in local restaurants and private homes. Kiera is part of the growing presence of women in an industry once completely dominated by men. These gals are cultivating vineyards, making wine, and overseeing some of the world’s most respectable wine collections.
Meet Kiera and two other Tidewater women who took serendipitous paths to a new but age-old vocation.
Vino Culture: Get To Know Your Palate
Taking Wine Classes in Tidewater Ups Your Game
Kiera readily admits she’s a workaholic who doesn’t know how to think small, especially when it comes to her passion for teaching others about wine.
The word empower is sprinkled throughout her conversations. It’s the key verb in the mission statement of her business, Vino Culture: To empower individuals to be their own wine experts.
Less than a decade ago, the now 32-year-old’s passion was Latin America, specifically economic development in its countries. She earned a degree in Latin American Studies and set her sights on moving to Mexico to pursue her Ph.D.
After six months of applying for jobs in her field, while still working at Total Wine, she briefly returned to her native Suffolk, then traveled to Guatemala. She was where she’d dreamt of being, but she realized her calling had changed.
“I asked myself, ‘What if I love food and wine and hospitality more than this?’” Kiera said. She moved back home after only three weeks in Central America and wasted no time in becoming a sommelier, taking the Level 1 and 2 exams, back to back, in three days.
“I was shaking so badly,’ she said of the Level 2 exam, “I forgot to pour the host’s wine.” Kiera was certain she’d failed. Instead, she earned the highest grade in the class, along with a scholarship for continuing education.
Now, after several years of working in the wine industry, she travels around Virginia doing what she most loves: teaching others to taste like a sommelier.
Kiera views wine as something that brings people together. “There’s something magical about wine,” she said, noting she finds merit in all varietals but favors Mencia, a Spanish grape variety used to make wines with floral and red fruit flavors.
She’s noticed a couple of recent trends among women wine consumers, such as turning away from pinot grigios and other commonly known wines to try unfamiliar types. She says women are also becoming more focused on eco-friendly and organic wines.
Kiera points out that 80 percent of taste is in our noses, so she advises always opening two bottles of wine for comparison, preferably from two different regions. She suggests taking fifteen seconds to write down what you taste and not depend on what someone else has written about the wine.
“Reading others’ notes about wine is like having a translator in a foreign country,” Keira said. “You will never become fluent in the language yourself.” In other words, rely on your own palate, not someone else’s.
Kiera’s most unexpected advice might be to drink noisily. “Be unladylike,” she said. “Slurp that wine!”
Press 626 Wine Bar: Wine is Thoughtful
But Don’t Get Stuck in Your Comfort Zone
Many afternoons, Lindsay Bennett can be found chatting with customers at her Press 626 Wine Bar in Norfolk. The 39-year-old proprietor glides among her patrons, smiling, occasionally hugging. She knows many by name.
Lindsay grew up in bars. Her parents worked in the food and beverage industry, and she half jokes that her childhood diet consisted of maraschino cherries and other cocktail garnishes. In high school, her membership in Future Farmers of America exposed her to raising livestock and crops. That became a passion and led years later to her earning a degree in biology.
She paid for school by tending bar. In the process, she got another education: At Todd Jurich’s Bistro, Lindsay came under the tutelage of popular sommelier Marc Sauter.
“I knew nothing about wine,” she said. “I didn’t know the difference between a cabernet and a zinfandel. Marc taught it all to me.”
As Marc talked with her about the world’s wine regions, Lindsay made the connection between her youthful farming experience and the roles of soil and climate in growing grapes.
At the time, she planned to continue school, with the goal of becoming an environmental lawyer. But her interest in making wine accessible and starting a family soon eclipsed the appeal of a legal career. She and her husband decided to open their wine bar and café in 2008. They opened a second location in 2017 in Virginia Beach.
Lindsay was 28 years old when she opened her business, working every job in the house. Those early years were a challenge. Many customers didn’t seem to take her role as a young, female restaurateur seriously. “It took a lot of facial lines for people to get, ‘Oh, you’re the owner,’” she said.
Lindsay is now a Certified Sommelier, an achievement she notes is harder to obtain than some science degrees. She has traveled to Australia, Europe, and California to hone her wine proficiency and try more exotic and lesser-known varieties of grape. Seven in ten of her customers are women, and she encourages them to likewise leave their own comfort zones and explore something besides “a buttery, oaky chardonnay.”
“Women are becoming more educated and are more open to trying new wines these days,” said Lindsay. She challenges women to learn more about wine by attending classes and seminars and subscribing to online educational guides like Wine Folly (www.winefolly.com).
“This may sound sexist, but wine is a thoughtful drink,” said Lindsay, a key reason, she thinks, why so many women enjoy it. She views gathering around wine as something that transcends politics and other divisive matters. Wine connects people and helps the issues of the day fade.
At the end of her own work day, what Lindsay really enjoys—besides her family—is sharing whatever vintage she’s drinking with friends. “Wine makes you human again,” she said.
Crystal Palate: Drink What You Like
But Be Willing To Explore New Varietals
Like many young girls, Crystal Cameron-Schaad wanted to be an actress. She held onto that dream when she studied theater in college. But there, her ambitions took a slight turn, and she graduated with a major in political science and a minor in mass communications. A college internship ushered her into a career in television news, culminating in a coveted spot as an anchor. After nearly 15 years in broadcasting, she moved on to a career as a spokesperson for politicians and later, a Fortune 500 company.
Seeking a diversion from her demanding job as a national PR director, Crystal took some wine classes. She’d had an interest in wine since college, when she waitressed at an Orlando restaurant known for its extensive wine selection. She started studies with the Master Court of Sommeliers and earned her Certified Sommelier designation in 2012.
But a discovery that same year moved Crystal’s hobby to the forefront of her life. She learned she had a heart defect, probably congenital, that necessitated surgery. She knew she could no longer work 70-plus hours a week.
“What am I going to do?” she asked herself. What Crystal did was launch a private event company and enroll in classes through the UK-based Wine Spirit and Education Trust (WSET).
Six years after beginning her WSET studies as an after-work pastime, the Norfolk resident earned her Diploma certification, a distinction claimed by fewer than 10,000 graduates since 1969 and considered the “gold standard” in the world of wine and spirits.
Still, many of her friends didn’t think she’d put her sommelier education to use because she’d never been in the industry. She was a hobbyist. Crystal proved them wrong.
Today, at age 41, she is a wine educator and consultant whom one client deemed a “wine goddess.” Crystal shares her passion for and knowledge of wine at her East Beach business, Crystal Palate Wine and Gourmet, where she offers an international array of wines, artisanal cheeses, and other foods.
The shop also provides an elegant, aromatic setting as a satellite location of the Capital Wine School. Crystal loves gathering people around its farmhouse table for tastings, parings, and classes. She finds that women particularly bond over wine.
“Many women find wine approachable and relaxing,” she said. “They can easily connect in a nonjudgmental way over [a glass].”
Crystal is thrilled that more females today are pursuing the science of wine, citing the increasing number of women winemakers. She thinks school programs like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are opening doors to careers in wine.
But appreciating wine doesn’t require specialized education. A little thought is enough. “When you hold a glass of wine,” Crystal said, “you’re looking at the history, the land, and the climate of the area from which it comes.
“Drink what you like,” she advised, “but be willing to explore new things.”
Crystal encourages women to take wine classes and to consider hosting themed potluck dinners featuring food and wine from various countries or regions. This summer, she and her husband will take that sort of cultural exploration one step further when they host a wine river cruise through Portugal.
She’s also working on a book that pairs food and wine with scripture. She’s looking forward to her graduation ceremony in London next January, where Crystal will receive her coveted diploma from WSET.
Meanwhile, she continues to share her love for wine through her classes. “Wine is always something to discover,” Crystal said.
For more information about these local ladies, visit:
If you’re interested in learning more about wine, here are a few websites to explore:
• Wine Spirit and Education Trust - www.wsetglobal.com
• Capital Wine School - www.capitalwineschool.com
• The Court of Master Sommeliers - www.mastersommeliers.org
• Sommelier Trade Review - www.somm.us