Drinks News

A sommelier aims for wine-list equality

When Bridget Raffal stepped into the sommelier role at Sydney's Sixpenny, she noticed one problem - there were no women on the wine list.

By Lee Tran Lam
Bridget Raffal
Bridget Raffal

When Bridget Raffal became Sixpenny's sommelier in late 2017, she noticed something on the wine list: "there are no women here." So she's changing that. Female winemakers will, one day, make up half the slate. "But without doubling the size of the list, which is not feasible at a place like Sixpenny, a 35-seater restaurant, you've just got to be reasonable and take it slow," she says.

So she's ramping up the number of women on the matching and by-the-glass options: the pours that diners hear about most. At a recent guest lunch with Belon's Daniel Calvert, she created an all-female wine pairing, including Claire Naudin's Le Clou 34 aligoté and Veronica Ortega's Quite mencia. "Because every wine that you pour, you get to tell the customer who made this, what they did, why it works with the dish," she says. So as you notice the oyster-shell minerality of Naudin's white wine or the dark cherry notes of Ortega's medium-bodied red made from 80-year-old vines, you're also taking in a subliminal message: "women are making the wine and doing it well and you're enjoying it."

Raffal's project was partly inspired by diners who told her it was good to see a female sommelier on the floor. And while she knows many other women in this role, "there aren't heaps of them around". After a recent industry lunch, winemaker Dan Standish asked if achieving gender equality on her list was that necessary. Raffal pointed out they'd just come from a wine event where she was the only female sommelier in attendance. She was basically outnumbered 20:1 and she was right.

To elevate women on Sixpenny's list, Raffal has been conducting an informal wine Census, checking in with family-run wineries to see if women aren't getting the spotlight they deserve.

With Standish, she said: "I know that you're making these wines with your wife Nicole, but it's your name on the bottle, and people don't see Nicole, because you're up in Sydney." He was "horrified" that people thought he was doing it by himself and insisted that his wife was pivotal to their wines: "She's in the winery, her palate's better than mine. She can tell exactly what it needs and if it needs exactly more time in a barrel."

This was a pattern Raffal noticed: even though she'd been to vineyards where she witnessed couples producing the wine together, often the husband would be the one name-checked on a wine list or featured on a website."I emailed a couple of the winemakers and said 'hey, when I was there, you spoke as if it were a team effort. I'm putting names on the list. Should it be your name, should it be both?' And they've all said, it's definitely both. It was really great to hear."

So what is on her list currently? Well, she's pouring Chalmers vermentino, which is run by "two total boss sisters", Kim and Tennille. When Raffal saw Kim talk at an industry event, the wine-maker answered questions about terroir and soil times while handling her crying baby. "It's just great to see, a woman and a mother doing business as usual."

There's also Daniela Pinna, a "really cool" Sardinian producer, who sells back vintages of her In Vino Veritas vermentino, a wine that no one tends to age, because they're typically "young, smashable" drinks. Poured 10 years on, the wine has a golden tinge and resounds with candied citrus and hazelnut flavours.

Then there's Marinella Camerani, who started a second label, Adalia, for her daughter. As well as Josephine Perry and Kerry Thompson, to name just a few more.

Some regions – like Burgundy – have been tough for the sommelier to represent, though. "Burgundy is weird in the way that inheritance laws really affect the way the vineyards are run," says Raffal. "But there just seem to be a lot of dudes."

Whereas the south of France seems to have more small-scale, husband-and-wife producers. And there's Michèle Aubèry-Laurent, who took over Gramenon when her husband Phillippe died. "She was living on the winery, spending time in the vineyard, she wasn't an amateur. But it wasn't her game. So it's cool to see a woman step up and totally smash it."

When Raffal tells wine distributors about her project, some have been "awesome" and have helpfully given her extensive suggestions, while others have simply said: "oh, I think this guy has a … wife."

It doesn't faze her.

"Anything new that goes on the list has to be a female winemaker. That's the rule I've set myself. I don't have to get to 50 per cent tomorrow, but if I'm making an addition, it has to be a woman."