Six South Shore women cultivating careers in the wine industryBy Jennifer G. Wolcott | Photography by Jack Foley
Gone are the days when wines were produced, sold and sipped mostly by men. Here on the South Shore, a growing number of savvy sommeliers, retailers and distributors are women. Often self-taught and usually well traveled, these aficionados are enormously passionate about their work and are helping to deliver delicious tasting experiences to consumers.
Kate Webber never expected to work in the wine industry or even in hospitality. But in 2004, not long after receiving her graduate degree in creative writing from the University of Virginia, her brothers asked her to help them open Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, Massachusetts. She hasn’t looked back since. Webber now holds several prestigious wine certifications, has judged international competitions and is the wine director of the entire Webber Restaurant Group. She is also the sommelier at Hingham’s Scarlet Oak Tavern. “I don’t think I could get any luckier with the career I have found,” says Webber.
FAVORITE WINE: Tasmania is part of Australia, so maybe say “huge fan of other Australian wines.”
EXPERT TIP: To learn more about wines, Webber suggests that if you find a wine you like, jot down key facts about it—the producer, grape, origin and year. Then take that information to your local wine shop and ask them to show you that bottle and introduce you to others that resemble it.
Wine Director at Tosca Restaurant
14 North Street, Hingham
Mostly self-taught, Caroline Fiske has worked in the wine industry for the past 20 years and has traveled extensively in major wine-producing countries like France, Italy and Spain.
She has been the wine director at the Hingham restaurant Tosca for the past three years. The restaurant, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, recently got a nod of approval from Wine Spectator, when its wine list ranking was raised.
“I have been working hard to expand our wine list,” says Fiske. “Not just in numbers, but in terms of depth; adding more vintages and seeing what wineries can do with different vintages.” Fiske is encouraged by the strides women have made in the industry. “Women have really good palates,” she says. “I rely heavily on my female sales reps and I have more women selling to Tosca than ever before.”
FAVORITE WINE: Fiske is a fan of sparkling wines, especially “grower” wines that are produced by the same people who cultivate the grapes.
EXPERT TIP: “Pay attention to what you like. Make notes. Pick one type of wine that pleases you and learn about it in depth. Most of all, don’t take wine too seriously. It’s supposed to be fun,” says Fiske.
Retail Wine Buyer at Fruit Center Marketplace
Hingham and Milton
Jess Benson, who studied media and marketing in college, held various restaurant jobs before she began working at Fruit Center Marketplace six years ago. She developed her wine savvy traveling to European vineyards and devouring literature about wine. Always thirsty to learn more, she enjoys engaging fellow wine lovers in conversation. “Talking and tasting is the only way to learn,” says Benson.
FAVORITE WINE: Benson thinks Brut Rosé de Nit from Catalonia is a phenomenal wine. “It pairs well with any type of food,” she says. Sipping this sparkling cava (Spanish wine) brings back fond memories of a bottle she enjoyed while on her honeymoon in Spain.
EXPERT TIP: Find a retailer you trust, let them share their knowledge with you and be open to trying whatever they suggest.
Owner of Empire Wine and Spirits
182 Summer Street, Kingston
Vicki McMenamy spent years working as a financial analyst before she decided to get involved in the wine industry. Inspired by her husband, who worked as a wholesale wine salesman, McMenamy began learning about wines. In 1999, she decided to ditch her finance career and purchased Empire Wine and Spirits with a couple of her wine mentors, Dan and Margo O’Brien of Cotuit Liquors. McMenamy later took over the business and has remained dedicated to offering customers great products at affordable prices. The store frequently holds tasting events to encourage customers to try out new varieties.
McMenamy feels that being a woman-owned wine business has been an asset. “So many of our customers are women,” she says. “I relate well to them and they feel comfortable wheeling their kids around the store in a shopping cart.”
FAVORITE WINE: McMenamy loves to cook and gravitates to “food wines” such as white burgundies, which she says are elegant and not as oaky as some traditional chardonnays.
EXPERT TIP: McMenamy advises wine lovers to take advantage of tastings at local wine shops. Her shop offers at least two tastings each week. “Don’t be swayed by the price of the wine,” she says. “Just because it’s expensive, doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Owner of Pembroke Center Liquors
14 Mattakeesett Street, Pembroke
Holly Dunlap was 19 years old—too young to sip anything but soda—when she got a job at a convenience store with a full liquor license. Even before she could legally drink, she started educating herself about wines. At 26 years old, after sipping wines from all over the world, she purchased Pembroke Center Liquors. In those early days, she says, she was lucky to have a few wine experts as salespeople who enjoyed sharing their knowledge.
Dunlap is inspired by the progress that women have made in the wine industry and especially in the field of winemaking. “Studies have shown that women have superior olfactory cells and thus a greater sense of smell,” says Dunlap. She believes this may give women a slight advantage when it comes to identifying aromas and flavors.
FAVORITE WINE: Dunlap’s favorite wine depends on the occasion, the cuisine and especially the season. “In the fall, it’s definitely pinot noir,” says Dunlap. And whether she’s drinking red or white, she always tries to choose a wine produced by a family-owned winery.”
EXPERT TIP: Dunlap suggests that a wine education could start with social media: She recommends following your favorite wine store on Facebook. “Attend free tastings. Get to know the buyer or wine manager at your local store and above all, drink what you like,” says Dunlap.
ELIZABETH VAN DER VEEN
New England Regional Manager at Tri-Vin Imports
With a background in sales and marketing and 14 years of experience in the wine industry, Plymouth resident Elizabeth Van der Veen was hired by the national importer and distributer Tri-Vin Imports a year ago to help expand the company’s portfolio. Even with her experience in the wine business, Van der Veen is always looking to expand her knowledge and is considering taking classes in the fall. “If you’re going to be good in any career, you need to keep educating yourself,” she says. “With my daughter going off to college, I may just go back to school myself.”
FAVORITE WINE: Van der Veen is keen on red wines from Spain and especially Portugal, which she says are the second most popular wines in the world right now (after rosé). For the quality-to-price-point ratio, she says, Portuguese wines are tough to beat
EXPERT TIP: “Reading and talking about wine can be helpful, but there’s no better way to learn than to taste, taste, taste,” says Van der Veen, who notes that your palate can change over the years. When she started out, for example, she was pouring herself lots of robust California Cabs, but she now prefers more subtle European wines.