Women Are Reshaping Argentina's Winemaking

Why you should care

Female sommeliers are making sure this country has way more than malbec going for it. 

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Sorry, drinkers of nostalgia. In Argentina, your l’instant Taittinger is over.

In the Boca, not far from where the Atlantic bashes the bulwarks in Buenos Aires’ port, 24-year-old Milagros Mendez glues her eyes to a screen hanging in the middle of a mammoth auditorium. On-screen is Stefania Paiva with her nose in a glass of wine. “Animal. Very French,” she meditates. Pursing her lips, Paiva struggles to pull the essence of a mystery wine out of the glass and package it into a winning description. Mendez, arms crossed, a wineglass tat at the base of her left thumb, leans over and tells me her aspiration: to be up there some day, competing for best sommelier in the country. “It’s all about setting yourself free,” she says.

Mendez is one of a growing number of women who are diving into wine schools and going on to run the wine programs at top restaurants around Argentina. Women and wine no longer mean sex and glamour in Argentina like those 20th-century champagne ads once suggested. Instead, women are helping inject the sommelier profession with smarts, competitiveness and an open-mindedness toward promoting new varieties and styles — out in the vineyards as well as in the cellar. Many young female sommeliers are already playing a part in guiding Argentina out of its malbec rut, says Argentine chef Soledad Nardelli. Varieties like criolla, petit verdot and torrontés are getting more and more attention from Argentine winemakers and sommeliers. Natural wines — cuvées usually made with zero intervention — are also popping up.

About 10 years ago, this profession didn’t even really exist for us in Argentina. Now, women are helping establish it.

Alvaro Baffico, sommelier

Sure, hardly anyone in the profession believes that a woman’s taste is more intuitive and perceptive than a man’s. Still, it’s clear that wine in Argentina is no longer the men’s club it once was. At the Argentine Association of Sommeliers in 2016, 70 percent of its graduates were women and about 30 percent were men. That is the inverse of the 37:63 mix 10 years before. AAS graduated 164 female professionals during the period 2006–16 compared with 134 men. Argentina is breaking out of a global trend that still shows more men in the profession. According to data shared by London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a certification program, women have steadily entered the profession since the 1970s, when just 11 percent of WSET grads (91 to be precise) were women and a whopping 89 percent were men. By the 2000s, women made up 39 percent of the game; since 2010, women have edged up to 43 percent of WSET’s 1,057 diploma earners. One big effect? They’re adding a competitive edge. According to WSET, nine out of the past 10 Vintner’s Cup award winners have been female.

“About 10 years ago, this profession didn’t even really exist for us in Argentina,” says Alvaro Baffico, a Buenos Aires–based sommelier. “Now, women are helping establish it.”

Sommeliers were essentially born out of a need for restaurants in Europe to manage their wine selections. The word’s etymology shows it originated from the 18th-century French for “butler.” But the job grew with the development of the modern restaurant. Then, in 1977, a group called the Court of Master Sommeliers set up an extremely difficult test to improve the standards of the profession. Men dominated.

In Argentina, a country known for clinging to its Old World prejudices, the traditional sommelier is still on display at some upscale haunts, suggesting there are those who still want it the way it’s always been. For example, go to La Brigada steakhouse in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighborhood and you’ll see dozens of men dressed up, white linen draped over their forearms, uncorking bottles with elegance and straight faces. Few words are spoken. Sophisticated. Humorless.

But Flavia Rizzuto, director of Cave, one of Buenos Aires’ top sommelier schools, says she’s watched the hypermasculinity that once marked gastronomy fade over her career, which started in the early 1990s. Rizzuto became a sommelier in 2000. A slow shift within Argentine society away from traditional masculine norms has helped, she says, as has a strong middle class. “We’ve had a few generations since then that are more open, more modern in terms of their thinking and philosophy,” she says. And there’s nothing like having a trailblazer: The profession’s heroine, Paz Levinson, the young Argentine sommelier who earned the title of No. 4 in the world in 2016. “Yeah, you can still find this thing where men hold knowledge and women are simply communicators … but Paz broke all of that apart,” Analia Assalone, a fellow sommelier at the competition, said at the time.

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Argentine Paz Levinson, head sommelier at Virtus in Paris.

Source Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty

For a country that relied on a monoculture international malbec brand to get it started, the growing range of offerings female sommeliers have brought, and the changes in taste they represent, are legion too. “There’s this new generation of winemakers 30 to 45 years old, and what are they doing? It’s not just malbec,” Nardelli tells OZY.

Look no further than self-described “total nerd” Andy Donadio, the sommelier for Oporto restaurant in northern Buenos Aires. “There’s way more than malbec on my list. Seriously, I have, like, just two malbecs,” she says, pulling a sip on some Hey Rose!, an easy, watermelon-hued drinker. “I mean, why drink malbec when there are so many other grape varieties?”

Like many in the 20th century, Champagne houses like Taittinger once sold an ocean of wine using women as sex symbols, as in the famous Grace Kelly poster. Thank Argentine women for promoting the marketing method of smarts, not sex.

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