This SF Sommelier Turned Her Summer Jobs into a Wine Career
Whether you’ve just landed your dream job by browsing Pinterest, are in the middle of making a major career switch or are searching for a part-time job as a college student, getting an insider-y glimpse into another woman’s work life is fascinating, kinda like the career equivalent of sneaking a peek in their medicine cabinet. Learning how another #girlboss has made her dreams a reality is super inspiring and motivating (especially if you’re currently experiencing career burnout!).
That’s why we were so jazzed about chatting with Chaylee Priete — the wine director for Slanted Door, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco — about her own professional oenophile journey. She’s been in the restaurant industry since she was just 15 years old, growing up on Cape Cod where everyone took their turn in the hospitality industry as teenagers. But for Chaylee, those summer gigs turned into a lifelong passion for wine and food.
B+C: How did you turn your summer job into a full-fledged career?
CP: I got a scholarship to Emory University — it wasn’t enough to eat on, so I turned to waiting tables, of course! I ended up at the only wine bar in Atlanta at the time. Rob, the owner, took me under his wing after I proclaimed that a wine smelled like burnt broccoli (not a ringing endorsement for the wine).
That was the beginning, but the real hook was when I moved to Seattle and managed a wine bar/retail shop where I tasted wine all day long. It was a fantastic palate education and introduced me to the larger world of wine. It was also owned and operated by only women and was a very nurturing place to learn.
B+C: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of being a professional sommelier in a restaurant?
CP: I do a ton of staff education, and the most rewarding moment I had was about a year after taking on the Slanted Door wine list: One of the longtime servers told me I had reignited his interest in wine with the unusual wines I was choosing and the stories that I told to support those wines. It’s one thing to turn on a guest to wine. It’s another thing to feel you’ve turned a professional server back on to it.
B+C: And what’s been the biggest challenge, especially being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
CP: The biggest challenge is the family/work balance. There are very few women with young children working as a sommelier or wine director. In fact, just today I heard of one more quitting to do something else. It is extremely hard to raise a family and work full-time regardless of industry — I think that is a facet of being a woman at this time in the US and is certainly not restaurant-specific. However, restaurant-industry hours do not lend themselves easily to raising a family.
B+C: On that work/life tip, can you share any advice on how you try to keep it all together?
CP: I am constantly working on communicating and delegating. I am by nature a do-er, but I have finally figured out I don’t have to unpack every box of wine. I have a team of sommeliers who have worked with us for a long time, and I know I can trust them to have the best interest of the restaurant at heart.
B+C: So, what does your day-to-day look like?
CP: I usually get the kids off in the morning and then work on the computer ordering wine, doing invoices and following up on emails/setting tasting appointments. Then I go to Slanted Door (which is where I taste), check the wine room and check in with staff. I then go to one of our other restaurants and do the same. I do staff education, meet with potential employees and edit and change our wine lists. Because of the nature of our wine lists and the focus on very small producers and unusual wines, the lists change constantly and take a lot of upkeep.
B+C: It seems like working with wine all day would be a dream. What is the best thing about your job?
CP: The people I meet. I love meeting winemakers and vineyard growers from all over the world and hearing about their history and their passions. I love writing multiple lists and getting to explore wine in different ways for different sets of eyes. I love being connected to something that is interesting from the kind of soil it grew in to how it was handled in the cellar to how it now tastes in your glass. Wine has so many interesting sides. I love turning people on to fun new tastes and places too.
B+C: Can you share a quick tip for the home cook who is looking to pair a wine with the food they’re making?
CP: Drink some while you cook with it. And think about acid and fruit first, because having those things present and in balance will enhance the flavors of your dish.
B+C: What’s the advice you’d give a young woman who is thinking about becoming a sommelier?
CP: Taste and take notes. Trust your own palate. The best way to learn is to try as many wines as possible and find your own interpretation of them. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to think, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
B+C: What’s your absolute favorite choice for parties?
CP: Dry wines from Tokaji [Hungary]. I have been learning a lot about the “rebirth” of this incredibly old region. You can find such a range — from fruity to rich to savory/tertiary — and such interesting stories of collaboration happening, while being extremely food-oriented wines.
Would you ever try working in the wine industry? Tweet us @BritandCo and tell us your thoughts!
(Photos via Slanted Door)