Cool People. 4 Questions. 1 Bottle of Wine.
The boys’ club of wine is shaking up with a bevy of likeminded women who are introducing their unique style and knowledge to the industry. This brings us to Elli Benchimol, an Advanced-Level sommelier who’s been in the industry for 20 years spanning San Francisco to the East Coast, working with the likes Bravo’s Top Master Chef, Bryan Voltaggio. Not only is she a sommelier, a great mentor, and a music junkie. I had the pleasure of picking her brain on what it takes to be a rocking female somm in a male-dominated industry.
What’s your biggest challenge as a female sommelier?
I think any trade is challenging when you’re first getting started, and now that I’m 10 years into it, I find the challenges fun and exciting. However, when I first began, this was a very male-dominated field, somewhat of a brotherhood of sorts, so being considered part of the club took a lot of hard work and many long nights being in high-heels for over 12 hours. There were several days without getting to spend time with my kids and family. One must grow a thick skin, and ignore the boys “locker room” talk that was constantly around you.
What do you like most and least about it?
You never stop learning…this job changes every year with every vintage, and somms must constantly learn information such as new laws being passed, new spirits and reinvented cocktails, new blends and styles being developed. It allows us to be very creative. I also really enjoy the camaraderie; I have met some of my best friends in this industry. The best part is we get access to the world in the off-peak times, when all of the 9 to 5-ers are at work.
I don’t think anyone really warns you about the hours… you work long hours in the hospitality industry, holidays, weekends, and special occasions. Your guests come first, which means you have to plan around normal holidays to make them work for your family, since you will most likely be on the floor taking care of your second family, your guests. Studying for the MS (Master Sommelier) exam is probably the hardest challenge; it’s difficult to remember all of the information. However, it makes it that much more rewarding when you pass.
Do you feel that the snootiness of wine is changing? That it’s not all always about Bordeaux and Burgundy anymore?
Absolutely, our generation [Gen X] and Millennials love to try new things such as esoteric wines perhaps in a dark speakeasy with a big-bearded tatted bartender serving you. It can be challenging to sell obscure wines; you need a balance of classics that are the money-makers and of a small amount of rotating esoteric sections that keep people excited. I think it’s amusing when people say wine and sommeliers are snooty; the whole reason we’re here is to serve the guests and make their experience better. I don’t believe that’s “snooty”; we’re being helpful.
What’s the last best wine you enjoyed? And is there a song or album that you listened to while enjoying it?
My birthday presents this year from my awesome boyfriend.
- 1976 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernrasteler Doctor Riesling Auslese from Mosel, Germany
- 1976 Antoniolo Nebbiolo Spanna del Piemonte from Piemonte, Italy
- Blind Pilot, an American indie folk band from Portland. The words are very poetic, and his voice is beautiful.
Contributor: Based in Washington, D.C., Sangeeta Rao has been working in Marketing & Events for the past 15 years with an interest in food and wine. Career highlights include working in marketing/PR at the Food Network, and in event management at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Currently, she is a wine sales associate for Five Grapes, LLC, a wholesaler, and sells organic boutique wines, older vintage world wine, and a patented wine keg dispensing system to many restaurants in the D.C. area. Besides wine being her passion, she is a music lover and a travel addict.