To say that Emily Wines understands wine (yes, her name is undeniably perfect for her profession) is like saying that Julia Child understood French cuisine. It's one of the grossest understatements I could make. Before meeting Emily, I knew that there were not many Master Sommeliers in the United States, let alone the world. I knew that a very small percentage of that already-diminutive number was made up of women. I knew that there were tests, and that they were supposedly extremely difficult. I knew that it took some people years to pass, and that many others never did.
I knew nothing.
Standing in a room filled with more than 800 bottles of wine, Emily Wines greets me with an easy graciousness that comes from years in the hospitality industry. It is the Friday before she is to host 21 of the top Kimpton wine buyers for the selection of the "Core 100." As the wine director for all 60 of the group's properties, Wines heads corporate programs such as this one. She and her team will taste over 800 wines in a two-day period, finally settling on the 100 that will make up the core of all the Kimpton wine lists.
Wines began working for the Kimpton Group in 1999 as a server at the acclaimed Fifth Floor Restaurant. Her initial plan to work there just long enough to put herself through art school was quickly derailed as her intended course of study took a backseat to a new subject: "When I started doing the book study of wine, I began to fall in love with it. I found wine fascinating -- the culture, the history; it is such an interesting lens with which to look at the world," she says.
Under the tutelage of Fifth Floor's then-sommelier Raj Par, Wines continued to expand her knowledge and refine her palate. She passed the first level of the sommelier exam in 2001, and in that same year, became the restaurant's assistant sommelier. By the time she was promoted to lead sommelier in 2004, she had inarguably mastered the restaurant's wine list, but Wines craved another challenge. She wanted to go beyond the wines of the Fifth Floor, and tackle the wines of the world. In 2005, she passed the advanced level sommelier exam. Never one to remain complacent in her successes, Wines soon decided to pursue her master sommelier certification, the highest level of distinction.
To prepare for the three-part examination, Wines dedicated every free moment to the subject. She studied before work and on the weekends; she read at her breakfast table, on the train, and at the gym (an activity that she refers to as "flash cardio"). Books of varietals and regions peppered her Alabama Street apartment, and flashcards perpetually hid in her pants' pockets. And once a week, Wines met with her tasting group to blindly sample a selection of wines and surmise the correct wine varietal. This process -- the constant studying, the memorizing, the late nights and early mornings, and the tastings -- went on for years.
In 2008, Wine's years of preparation came to a head during a three-day examination that would test every aspect, nuance, and detail of the subject that had consumed her life. At the conclusion of the third day, a mix of exhaustion and resolution, Wines waited for the results. And she waited. And finally, after what seemed like hours, Wines heard her name. She rose, following one of the administrators to receive her results. Not only did Wines pass, becoming one of 96 Master sommeliers in North America, but she had received the highest score on each of the exam's three parts, earning her the sought-after Remy Krug Cup (and the distinction of the second woman ever to do so).
To date, 135 wine professionals in North America have earned the title of Master Sommelier; of those, only 19 are women. This, however, is something that Wines thankfully sees changing: "I can see it happening. There is a whole wave of women who are finally feeling welcomed into this industry. There's a lot more women sommeliers out there. Especially in the lower level exams, many more are coming up through the ranks. So I don't think it's going to be very long before we have a lot of female master sommeliers," she says.
Wines left the Fifth Floor in 2008 to become the Director of Wines for the Kimpton Group's 60 properties, or as Wines describes it, an "office som." Wines' current position is a mix of programming and education; she creates the opening wine lists for the group's properties, establishes quarterly programs, and organizes summits. She holds wine "boot camps" for Kimpton servers, organizes field trips to wine destinations such as Napa and Italy, and holds "Shades of Green" training sessions that educate consumers about the importance of eco-friendly wines.
In 2010, Wines launched the Wines That Care initiative, a happy hour that offers hotel guests complimentary pours of wines hand-selected for their commitment to giving back to both the community and the earth. That same year, she started Wines on Tap, a national program that reduces environmental impact and ensures consistency by eliminating variation that can occur among bottles.
And for all her knowledge, Wines is vigilantly dedicated to demystifying the subject that can be daunting and at times, unapproachable:
"I think we (sommeliers) do ourselves a disservice when we get too lofty and dictate what people should and shouldn't drink. What I always tell people who say, 'I don't really know too much about wine, but I know what I like,' is, 'You're actually an expert then. You know more about what you like to drink than I do.' I'm not going to be the one to tell you what you like to drink. I really feel like as sommeliers, we're there to serve our guests and show them a good time."
So what's next for a woman who perpetually seeks a challenge? "I don't know," she says, but almost immediately reconsiders. "I'm hoping we [Kimpton] expand to Europe. That would give me some new stuff to play around with."
And when Wines plays, she plays to win.