Female sommeliers are a rarity in SA, but these women are changing that
Restaurant patrons are often surprised when the sommelier is a woman, especially when she's black
Eyebrows almost always rise when the sommelier at Majeka House's Makaron Restaurant presents the wine list. That, says Brenda Karamba (the sommelier in question), is because guests aren't expecting a woman; let alone an African one who barely tops 1.6m.
"People often ask me if they can see the sommelier, and then do a double take when I tell them they're looking at her. I used to find it tedious, especially when they were asking questions to test my knowledge, but now I'm almost disappointed if someone doesn't look shocked."
Karamba's patrons can't be blamed for looking twice - female sommeliers are still a rarity in SA. According to Wayve Kolevsohn, a board member of the SA Sommeliers Association (SASA), only 47 of the association's 154 members (excluding corporate members) are female. This hints at the general representation in the industry.
It's an industry that demands long hours and ignores public holidays - hardly ideal if you're a mother. It also involves a great deal of physicality, which may deter some women.
That said, Gosia Zielinska of The Pot Luck Club believes once a woman has her foot in the door, she'll find it easier to get ahead in SA than elsewhere. This is largely thanks to the relatively immature nature of our industry. "A smaller industry means fewer people to compete with, so if you're good, you can make it," she says.
Then again, there's still the hurdle of perception to overcome.
This is something Karamba and Penelope Setti, manager and sommelier at The Chef's Warehouse, have had experience with. "In African culture, there's the notion that women shouldn't have anything to do with alcohol - not even drinking it," says Karamba.
Setti agrees. "I dated a man whose friends asked if it was even possible for me to be a sommelier, since I'm female."
This may be why both women feel that education is such an important part of their job. For Karamba, it's not just about drinking wine; it's making sure people understand the story behind each bottle. That's what makes SA's wine industry so exciting in her opinion. Blocked from international trends because of apartheid sanctions, local winemakers became more experimental.
Setti is also galvanised by overturning the misconception that being a sommelier is a free pass to all-day drinking. "People think I do nothing but sit around and get drunk, which is obviously not the case."
One of the reasons such beliefs persist is because we drink surprisingly little wine. Zielinska reveals SA has the lowest wine consumption of any wine-producing country. If your family drinks wine only because it's your uncle's birthday - and inevitably overdoes it - curating a collection of vintages isn't something you'd necessarily consider as a career.
SASA is embarking on a recruitment drive this year to change this, says Kolevsohn. "Our wine culture is strongest in the Western Cape, so we're focusing on educating youth in Durban, Gauteng and Port Elizabeth to encourage more people to join the industry."
There are also a number of initiatives aiming at promoting women of colour. Setti was the beneficiary of Women In Wine, while the Black Cellar Club has been established as a network for African sommeliers. She says it also helps to belong to one of the burgeoning informal wine-tasting groups.
Though Setti feels women's opinions about wine are undervalued by restaurant managers who think they know better (an irony, she says, since the people selling the wine have the best understanding of the market's changing tastes), Zielinska paints a far more optimistic picture.
"There's so much accent on diversity in SA, so if you've had the right training, a woman's opportunities are just as good as anyone else's."