Simi Grewal, 9.13.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I started in the food and beverage industry when I was in undergrad at NYU. I had an interest in transferring to culinary school, but that was definitely something my parents were not supportive of. So, to get more familiar with the industry, I took an internship with an east coast chain called Bertucci’s during the summer after my freshman year. They put me to work in their flagship restaurant outside Boston, working the line, doing prep work, making dough. After four weeks of that, they put me to work in their corporate offices, working on menu rollouts and standardization across their 90 locations. It was a really eye-opening experience into the corporate food world, and how vast the restaurant industry really is. I realized I didn’t need to be working in a kitchen everyday to interact with this industry.
When I got back to NYU in the fall, I immediately applied to a program within the university that would allow me to study our entire food system from a more holistic standpoint, encompassing food studies, supply chain management, marketing, economics, hospitality and nutrition.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
There wasn’t a single moment that propelled me towards wine, necessarily, but rather a larger slow-motion event. When I graduated from college, I was hired as a manager at a small restaurant in the West Village. Although I didn’t have any experience managing an actual staff, the owner threw me into the fire. Eventually, without any real reasoning, he put me in charge of wine buying. I was twenty-one and admittedly clueless about wine, but the more I met with the ever-so-patient sales reps, the more I noticed myself becoming entranced by the stories they would tell about the wines and their origins.
Eventually, when I left that job and started looking for further opportunities in the industry, I realized that I wanted to grow my beverage knowledge significantly. It was around that time that the CIA at Greystone had launched their Accelerated Wine & Beverage Program in Napa. I applied, was accepted, moved to California, and the rest was history. The moment we started diving into the history of the vine, I was totally hooked.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I definitely get the most joy out of turning non wine people into believers, and making wine seem relatable to people at almost any level.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
I started working as a sommelier at a Michelin restaurant when I was 24. It doesn’t seem that young, but when you’re dealing with a much older, mostly caucasian clientele, a young Indian woman walking around with a 120 page wine list is a little out of that typical guest’s comfort zone. So naturally I would get a lot of initial responses along the lines of “Sweetie, send me the sommelier.” It took some getting used to, but after I would win the regular clientele over, it dissipated more and more.
Another common issue I faced was being put in a management role at a younger-than-average age. My first management job came at 21 years old, and I’ve more or less continued in that capacity while working sommelier positions. Youth was one issue, but the larger one would also be holding staff members accountable and being firm in my tone. Very often I would get feedback from HR that I was being “too stern” or “too direct” in my delivery. But when I would actually speak to HR about the issue, it was more so that the employee being held accountable wasn’t used to being held accountable for missteps by a younger female manager, and so no matter what or how I would deliver my message, it would always be perceived as being more harsh than it actually was. My response to HR was always, “I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you if I was wearing a suit and tie while working on the floor,” and oddly enough, they never disagreed when I made this point.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
Self-awareness to lift one another up is very important. I think the major shift that’s happened in the last few years is recognizing that yes, we do need to speak up for ourselves, but also, very importantly, we need to speak up for one another. The more we focus on uplifting each other in our own endeavors, the stronger our collective voice becomes.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
The stronger the presence we have, the stronger our voice becomes. As more women enter the wine workforce, our compensation will go up, as well as the number of women we see in leadership positions throughout the industry, particularly in the larger corporate realm. I think especially in the realm of restaurants, we will also see a culture shift in the amount of unwanted attention and harassment that often occurs. If more women are in sommelier positions, which can often be in the realm of management, we might see a lower incidence of these events occurring,
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope to see more accountability by women of those perpetrating bad behavior. As of yet, the shift for us to call out bad actors in the wine and beverage world has been slow. Understandably so, women are reluctant to call out those who might be able to give them future career opportunities in our rather small industry; but as we grow into more positions of responsibility, those who have power and agency should use it to speak up against instances of harassment and abuse of power.
More importantly, though, I hope to see more women uplifting and mentoring younger women who are hoping to break into our line of work. Too often we are competing against one another, rather than finding ways to support each other, especially early on in our careers.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Be patient. Professional growth takes time and nurturing, and while it’s easy to become frustrated with your own shortcomings, it will all become easier with time. Find good mentorship and keep yourself in a supportive environment.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equal acceleration through the ranks, and equal capital investment in women-owned projects.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
My co-founder Cara Patrica and I opened DECANTsf in May of this year. While we are not trying to alienate men, we are focusing on creating a comfortable environment for women to learn about, shop for and indulge in wine. There was a real lack in the San Francisco market of places that women could go and shop and feel like their questions and curiosities were being heard and respected. We know because experienced it ourselves. So we opened DECANTsf as a reprieve from the male-dominated wine scene here. We offer lots of classes, have a mostly female staff, and are very open about telling our guests to ask any question, no matter how stupid they feel it is. Hopefully this is empowering women (and men) to take what they learn and go tackle wine consumerism with more confidence.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
THE defining aspect to me is the willingness and desire to uplift other women who are trying to find their way in this industry. We are only stronger if we can help one another to be our best.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I am an admirer of Debbie Zachareas, the co-owner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa. She has created a mini-empire here in the Bay Area, and keeps growing. She has set a standard in the wine industry for female owners in the Bay, and the rest of us can only hope to keep up!