Ali Schmidt, 10.26.18
Ali Schmidt has spent ten years in the industry fine tuning her wine knowledge at some of Austin's top restaurants including Uchiko and Jeffrey's, and is now the General Manager and wine buyer of Austin's beloved Emmer & Rye. Go Ali!
How many years have you been in the business?
I guess ten. My first job in service was at a Potbelly Sandwich Shop. I worked at a coffee shop called Boujee Pig, which was super fun and relaxed and was the first time I was around people that really enjoyed making food and beverages.
I started working at a restaurant in Logan Square [in Chicago] called Lula Cafe. They were the first ones to do locavore cuisine in the city. That was my first nice restaurant to work in that had a wine program and the General Manager at the time was really into wine. I was intimidated by it and I remember him inviting me to wine tastings. He was super passionate and I remember we had nine Beaujolais [on the list].
My first ‘wine is really cool’ moment was there. Every Monday they did a farm dinner which was a little three course prix fixe for $35, and I went with my boyfriend at the time and we got the wine pairings. The dessert pairing was a Tokaj. It was the first time I had a wine certainly of that quality, but also there was an unfamiliarity of the aromas, like botrytis that were so weird and I remember talking my boyfriend at the time like, ‘Do we like this or do we hate this?’ I wanted to know what made that [wine] so incredible and other wines so mediocre.
Then I moved to Austin and started at Uchiko as a hostess, and fortunately, they have an eight week Wine 101 class that they require everyone to go to. That was my first wine education at all. Chris Melton was a bartender at the time and in charge of it. He is so delightful, charming, passionate.
A couple of the other hosts started getting into wine and we started a study group. ‘Somm’ had just come out and we started a study group and decided to do the Intro [Court of Master Sommeliers course]. There was a lot of cheese eating! I moved up to serving and bartending.
Gillian Robb, Monica Moreno, and I started a study group for Certified and passed at all different times. Then Gillian went to Jeffrey’s and said I had to come. I really wanted to broaden my producer knowledge and heard great things about the MMH [McGuire Moorman Hospitality] beverage classes. I went there as server then became a captain. And it was the first time I got to work with a wine list that big and play in the cellar, and we got to try everything we opened.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Table side guest interaction. One of the pluses of being the manager on the floor five nights a week is I get to talk to a dozen guests a night about wine, introducing things to people they haven't had before, and working with the team with wine training.
Having [my servers] Erin and Anna go through Intro and preparing for Certified, and seeing them grow and fall in love with wine. And trying to give them the mentorship or resources I wish I had had for sure. The people in my life were too busy at the time.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
I feel like I’ve been really lucky. I don't feel like I’ve received any overt prejudices, and on the flip side, there are opportunities that I’ve received as a woman. I got the scholarship from Les Dames d’Escoffier for my exam which is only available to women.
The thing I’ve had to be really conscious of though is taking up space. I think that's a mix of being a woman but also my own personality. I need to take up space and be proud of my ideas and make my ideas heard, because I don’t think I’m always given the platform. Sitting in the corner and waiting to be asked.
What benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women in wine?
One thing I see from women sommeliers as a whole is that they’re really interested in guest experiences and helping people find the right wine for them. As a whole women wine professionals are very inclusive, get people excited, and share their passion and there's less ego.
In a more machismo esque wine culture, it’s like “What is the best wine? What is the most expensive wine?’ and what’s lost is, “What is the right wine for the occasion and the guest?’ Inclusivity, not being judgmental of where people are in their wine discovery, and meeting them where they’re at.
I also think in our Austin community it’s a lot of the women sommeliers like Joelle [Cousins] and Mandi [Nelson] that are leading a lot of the community efforts and putting aside employer and organization so that everyone has room to grow.
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 the rest of the country catch up to Austin. I think we have it pretty awesome and we have a great community.
More female Master Somms. More continued mentorship.
I think wine wise I’ve gotten a lot of mentorship, but not in business. I'd like to see the community extend beyond wine and cover entrepreneurship, business, and how to balance all of these things. I think everyone has really demanding jobs and puts their heads down, but no one talks about all the demands of extracurricular career development, personal lives, the demands of jobs.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
The message I would give is ‘ask for help.’ Someone will always help you. I think similar to asking what you think. If you don't ask people for mentorship, advice, to invite you to things, you won’t get asked, so stepping outside of your comfort zone and asking for what you want would be my advice.
I've always been really nervous about asking people to sit down with me and give their advice or write a letter of recommendation, but they’re always so happy to and it usually turns into a longer relationship, but everyone is so busy that if you don’t ask, you’re not going to get the help you need.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
I would say more transparency. I think in Austin it's’ really awesome because we already have a lot of women in leadership positions.
I would like to see a more open dialogue of what everyone’s making, how many hours are they working, etc. What opportunities do we have? Everyone is in isolation and working really hard, and we don’t really know what is normal. What is a Somm Management job versus a Somm job? What is a reasonable workload? How do I negotiate a raise?
More transparency of career development and how to be an advocate for yourself. It's uncomfortable for everyone but women in particular. I would like there to be more mentorship on those topics.
How would you say you are contributing to the overall empowerment of women in wine?
I feel really proud of the time I spend with my staff developing their wine skills and emotionally supporting them, and the ones that are particularly interested in a career in wine, and connecting them to other resources. Connecting people is something I’m good at that I like to do, so they can create their own study groups and little communities. I had a Certified Somm introduce me to Monica [Moreno] who became my study group. Making sure they have resources to continue to connect to people.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
I think enthusiasm, kindness, and care.
For me, what I would love to see more of in wine is people being enthusiastic, excited, and inclusive. Helping people find what works for them and being less judgmental of others people’s tastes. And I think when introducing people to wine for the first time, or introducing staff, we could all do better to meet them where they're at and promote wine as a whole.
Treating everyone with respect. Taking time when being asked to help people. Being community minded. Taking time away from their own personal endeavors to support other people in the community. Having a rising tide raises all ships mentality. Recognize common goals.
What women of wine do you admire and why?
Joelle [Cousins] and Mandi [Nelson] for sure. The amount of time and effort they spend helping others...They were so so incredible with Molly [Austad] and myself, and Austin, preparing us for Texsom competitions, putting us through mock services, blind tastings. Leading by example. They’re both badasses.
Lauren Holbrook and Gillian Robb. I think they're way of balancing family and their professional roles is really admirable to me. They have dogs and children. Their ability to prioritize their family life and excel in their careers is amazing to me.
June [Rodil]! Yeah, I think she’s amazing and her ability to oversee the amount of beverage programs that she does while still hosting wine events and mentoring people on her staff is insane.
We have so many rad women. Paula [Rester].