Jill Zimorski, 4.26.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I first started working in restaurants in college, but have officially been “in the business” working as a manager, then Sommelier since 2002 I think? My first true sommelier job was in 2006 at Cafe Atlantico (Part of Chef Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup). Ultimately I became the Beverage Director for that company. I spent several years in Aspen, Colorado as the Wine Director of the Hotel Jerome & then Casa Tua restaurant.
I relocated to Chicago in 2015 to be a Sommelier at Alinea and then the Wine Director for the Alinea Group. Since 2016, I’ve been working as a Champagne Specialist representing the Champagnes of the Moet Hennessy portfolio. I work with about 50 restaurants in Chicago - I do a lot of education, training and trade and consumer events.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
I’m not sure if I had just one moment, but in 2004 when I was working (as a manager) at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, DC I met Nadine Brown who was the wine director and the first sommelier I ever met. I realized that managing wine was a lot more fun than managing people and we became friends. With her, I took my first ever trip to wine country -- to Napa & Sonoma. I think that experience and my friendship with Nadine had a profound impact on my future in wine.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love the education aspect of it -- I really enjoy introducing folks to these amazing Champagnes I work with and sharing the stories with them. I never had the opportunity to work directly for/under another sommelier or Wine Director when I was in restaurants so I forged my own path -- with a lot of support from industry friends and some great bosses along the way -- but much of it was on my own & I love being able to pass along insights and information that I’ve accumulated to those just starting out on their journey.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
How long do you have? I worked as a manager at a restaurant (with years of experience) and the restaurant hired a male manager with zero years of experience and paid him significantly more than me.
I’ve worked in numerous places where the male staff had ‘code words’ to signify when a beautiful woman was in the restaurant so everyone could check her out. The ubiquitous situation where I have to reprimand someone for doing something wrong and I am somehow made out to be a bitch. (For doing my job & them not doing theirs).
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
I think we have to be as open-minded, empathetic, honest and straightforward as possible. To speak up when something is wrong and not be afraid to speak truth to power. And always have a witness whenever you have to have difficult conversations with people.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Women make up half our population and just because some/our industries have historically been male dominated, doesn’t mean that’s good for the industry or right in any way. When more women are involved in the wine industry it will be better -- more diverse, more intelligent, more dynamic.
When a group has been underrepresented through no fault of their own, we need to support those individuals to help forge equal opportunity and access. The playing field will not self-level as long as a bunch of old white men run the show.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope I never see another article pitched on the premise of someone being a “lady sommelier.” My female friends who are attorneys or doctors are not called lady lawyers or girl doctors.
I also hope that female sommeliers realize this and stop referring to themselves in cutesy or diminutive ways (girly/baby/lady/sexy somm). It isn’t doing anyone any favors. Please, no more #girlboss. #boss will do just fine. As a colleague once pointed out to me, “there’s no points on the grid (the Blind tasting grid) for ‘sexy.’”
I want to see pay equity. I hate reading salary reports (Guildsomm, SevenFifty) which show women in the industry making less than men across all markets and education levels. There is absolutely no reason for it, all other factors being equal.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
That if you work hard, you can achieve anything. That you should never expect anyone to give you anything -- you have to ask for it, and at times insist upon it. Learn from those who came before you and use every bit of information/opportunity to your advantage. Sit in the front row. Ask questions. Use your voice and don’t let anyone talk over you.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
When we evaluate wines, the best way to do it is blind. We don’t know who made the wine, where it comes from, how old it is, etc. We evaluate it on its merits. If we evaluated people a little more like we evaluate wine, it would be a lot more equal. That’s not always possible, but it would be a good thing to aspire to.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I am still here, working every day in this profession. I will help and work with anyone who asks me. I share my experiences and knowledge freely. I probably give too much unsolicited advice when I see someone struggling with a situation I’ve been in myself. Because I’m not in restaurants anymore I don’t have as much direct influence in shaping how other younger sommeliers (men and women) are honing their craft but try to be a positive role model and fountain of information whenever possible.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Strength, passion, intelligence, independence.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Nadine Brown - the first sommelier I ever met and a friend to this day. She is tremendously knowledgeable, but also incredibly warm and charming. And she doesn’t suffer any fools. I couldn’t imagine a better ‘first’ sommelier to meet to shape my idea of what the profession entailed.
Hollis Silverman - she was my boss at ThinkFoodGroup for a number of years and and at times I thought she was incredibly tough, but hindsight is 20/20 and now I’m able to look back and realize how smart, how professional and talented she was. She made me a better manager (of people and wine).
Jane Lopes - Jane and I have known each other casually for years but we passed the Master Sommelier Exam together in 2018 (and have since suffered together in a state of purgatory since some folks cheated on the exam). She is a gifted writer, incredibly intelligent and stronger than just about anyone I know. I admire her tremendously and she’s been invaluable in what has been the hardest year of my professional life.