Mandi Nelson, 8.24.18
Mandi Nelson has spent over 20 years in the wine industry, sharpening her skills on both the distribution and restaurant side of the biz, is a Certified Sommelier, a Certified Sake Professional, a founding member of the ATX Somm Society, and is currently the Sales Manager of European Cellars.
How many years have you been in the business?
Specifically wine, over 20 years. I started with bartending at a wine bar and then went to Fleming’s and worked up to be the wine buyer. I left to be General Manager of Trio at the Four Seasons. It wasn’t started yet, so I helped with getting it up and running and had a hand in creating that beverage program.
We didn't have a sommelier at that time and I created that position. Then we hired Mark Sayre as a server and then created that position for him, and then he won Texsom. It was neat to see that wine program grow and he did a fantastic job with it. And that’s when I realized my passion for wine, so I left and worked for Republic National Distributing for eight years.
I created a position for myself as Beverage Director at New Waterloo. I used to sell wine to them and do their staff education and was spending a lot of time with the group. It was an amazing opportunity. I got to create 100% French program for Le Politique, Il Bruto, dabble with retail and a casual concept with La Matta.
I was working with European Cellars with Republic and I worked a lot with them at New Waterloo because I found a lot of great family owned wines at great prices. This opportunity came up with them and they asked me if I wanted to come over and join. It's such a beautiful portfolio and I’m excited to be closer to the wineries and work with them to tell their stories.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Yeah it was when I was the buyer or server at Fleming’s, and I went to a portfolio tasting and they had Salon [Champagne} underneath the table. I tried it and thought it was the most amazing thing I ever had, and I fell in love. I never had a Champagne with so many layers and so much complexity and I wanted to know more.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A lot of the wineries I represent are really small and have these beautiful stories that need to be told. And I feel like I’m a storyteller and I love it. I get to be their voice. And right now with what’s happening in the wine world, there are so many wines that aren’t from real wineries, so being able to take time with buyers to share that story.
Can you describe any prejudices or setbacks you experienced in this industry in regards to being a woman?
Yeah, I feel like sometimes as a woman we’re not taken as seriously, but once [someone] gets to know you and sees your passion, they do. When I’m going to new markets and they don’t know me, I have to work harder to prove myself. On the sales side, you have to work a little bit harder.
When I was a buyer people were shocked that I was a woman. I would sit at the bar and work a lot when the restaurant was closed and they would come in and ask to speak with the buyer and were surprised that it was me. I try not to assume there is any prejudice and have a positive attitude.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
I think that it’s super important for us to not have that [prejudice] and we should communicate with honesty. I wouldn’t be in this position today if it weren’t for a lot of other amazing women in this field. I call other women and ask them ‘I’m struggling. How do you handle this situation?’
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
The more diversity you have, the more diverse opinions and ideas you have. That will raise the bar in general. When you have selective types of people giving opinions, you are missing out on great ideas. That's important not just with women but with people of other races and ethnicities because we’ll have more ideas and more inspiration as a whole.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I’d love to see more on the distributor level, more women in power. And more female owners.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
There’s a lot of great opportunities out there, but if you’re in a situation that is unhealthy, you don’t have to stay in it. We put up with a lot and we think it’s ok to deal with it rather than walking away. There are too many situations where we shouldn’t do that. We should foster relationships that are positive.
What ways would you say you are contributing to the overall empowerment of current and future women in wine?
So Joelle [Cousins] and I are starting the ATX Somm Society. We keep talking about our motto with this group and we want to be super inclusive. ‘Inclusive’ is that world that keeps popping up and I think it’s about being inclusive of everyone, [no matter] what test you’re studying for or where you’re at in your career. Fostering mentorships for anyone that wants to be in this industry. Seeing Lindsay Drew getting 2nd place at Texsom! I’m proud to see some of the females in Austin growing in their career and in these opportunities.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Determination. Being able to say no when appropriate. And offering and seeking mentorship is so important. I think it’s important, and a lot of women in leadership roles realize you always have to keep learning and keep teaching to be a better person. Recognize there’s always room to improve. And honesty. Not being afraid to have those difficult conversations.
What women of wine do you admire and why?
With my job at the Four Seasons, the F&B director at the time, Daniel Smith. She’s been a friend and a leader and I’ve always respected her advice and learned so much from her.
A lot of my female colleagues always help me and inspire me. Joelle for sure. Paula Rester, because she’s always been so professional in how she handles herself.
Diane Dixon is one of my heroes. She’s done so much!