Leslie Higgs, 10.19.18

Photo by  Manny Pandya

Leslie Higgs has played an influential role in the Austin wine scene for 13 years. Leslie's background includes work in some of the city's most treasured restaurants and in distribution. She is currently the Director of Operations for Aviary Wine & Kitchen, and is a true wonder woman of wine to us.

How many years have you been in the business?

My first restaurant job was at 15. I never left.

I was a host for a fine dining restaurant in Lakeway. I was waiting tables through college and then into front of house management. That's where I fell in love with restaurants and went to culinary school at Cordon Bleu here in Austin, because of course, I had to know everything, even though I never intended to work in kitchens. Expensive decision.

I was the General Manager for Jeffrey’s for five years which is where I met Greg Steiner. That's where I took the deep dive into wine because before that it was management and service operations. He opened my mind to the rabbit hole of wine. That was in 2005.

I left there and was the buyer for Mirabelle, then joined with Max’s Wine Dive and ran there program in Austin then moved to a more education based role for the company doing education programs for all of the stores. It’s been legit wine work since 2005. And then I did a stint with New Vintage [Distributing]. So I’ve done all sides which has been a lot of fun and eye opening. It makes a more balanced approach to sales on the wine side. I consult on the buying here.

Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?

It was a bottle of Chave Hermitage Blanc that I was just like ‘holy crap!’ I had no idea that those flavors, that profile, that type of thing, existed in wine. It was absolutely mind blowing.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

In this current role I’ve gotten to come back to the table. I am in absolute awe when people sit down together at a table over a bottle of wine, share food, and just sit and talk and engage. That’s always something I’ve tried to cultivate, that experience at the table, those spaces, and the team that can provide that experience.

I was fortunate to be raised in a family where we sat down for dinner together almost every night. I still try to recreate that at home. We light candles, there’s silverware at the table. It’s an important time and I love to be able to create the space for people here, for them to forget about what is going on in the world and just enjoy each other and the food.

People forget all of the moving parts that go in to creating that experience and that’s where I get excited. It’s making sure you have a well trained staff, wine is in stock, the lights are right, the tables are set. It’s all the little details that make it fun, challenging, and interesting. And it should look seamless to anyone walking in the door.

Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?

I've definitely been paid less for doing the same work or more. Something I run into regularly here when we all taste together, is when winemakers and importers come in that aren’t familiar with our dynamic here, I get overlooked unless I assert myself and I'm the last to be introduced. I’m not immediately seen as someone in that position.

How can we as women become aware of our own prejudice towards each other and change our behavior?

I don’t know that there's an overt conscious prejudice. I think many of us have just grown up in a prejudice culture. We internalize them and re-project them unintentionally.

I think we’ve been through our own self isolation of putting our heads down and getting the job done. We’ve alienated ourselves from each other and we need to rebuild those support groups and those mentorships and see each other as viable mentors. And being able to have those open and honest conversations that aren’t self promoting or degrading, but saying ‘This is my experience and this is what I'm going through,’ and being able to admit challenges and ask for help without it being perceived as weakness.

When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women in wine?

Diversity, different points of view. Potentially different wines. I mean, wine is such a subjective thing. It’s appreciated differently by different people and everyone brings their own past and experiences and everything can be projected into this bottle and the way that it’s perceived by whoever is enjoying it. So I think the more points of view and the more experiences that go in to the selection process, it just opens up so many more venues and possibilities for people that wouldn't have otherwise experienced it or [can experience it] in a different way.

What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?

I would love to see more women in positions of leadership. Women making more decisions. Being seen as a leader, as a mentor, someone who can help grow and develop. Because there are a lot of these people who want to grow more and learn more and they don’t see that path available because they don’t see somebody like them in those positions. Opening up those avenues. It just goes back to the diversification, which makes a better dining experience and wine experience for the dining public.

There's a strength, a power, and a confidence that comes with learning wine and it translates to many more avenues. It’s the process of mastering something that is so elusive, and being able to speak confidently about a subject that to so many people is replete. Red goes with meat and whites goes with fish.

What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?

Ask questions. Don't be afraid to not know something. But then go find the answer. Surround yourself with people who legitimately want to see you grow. And find people you can talk to.

And while I think women mentors are amazingly important, I fear the echo chamber, and if you’re not getting additional perspectives, then you run the risk of becoming myopic and the world of wine and the restaurant industry is too big and too vast to close off any avenues.

What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?

It looks like balance. Balance in leadership and in decision makers. It looks like equal pay. But ultimately it looks like healthier wine programs and more sustainable business.

What ways would you say you are contributing to the overall empowerment of current and future women in wine?

Education development is something that is extremely important to me. I love to share knowledge and experiences. I like building and helping to build new wine professionals, both men and women. And being a voice and a champion for anyone who truly wants to learn, dig deeper, and pursue this path. It's not one that you can do on your own.

What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?

Someone that is knowledgeable. Confident. Receptive. Nurturing. Empowered but also empowering.

What other women of wine do you admire and why?

I love Karen Dante. She’s one of the women in the Austin wine scene when it was so male dominated, that was doing her own thing at King Liquor.

June [Rodil] for bringing focus at the national level. And the people that are doing it everyday.

Mandi Nelson and Joelle Cousins being badasses and having experience on multiple sides of the business, and everyday showing what it can and should look like to be a confident professional woman in this business.