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10 Questions With Lindsey Fern, Sole Female Wine Director of Three-Star Michelin Restaurant in US.

Photo for: 10 Questions With Lindsey Fern, Sole Female Wine Director of Three-Star Michelin Restaurant in US.

17/08/2022 Lindsey Fern, Director of Wine For The Inn At Little Washington, talks about her role as a wine director, the challenges she initially faced & shares tips on how restaurants can market wines to drive wine sales.

Lindsey Fern, Director of Wine For The Inn At Little Washington, contributes her global perspective to an impressive wine list and one of the best cellars in the area. Know about her journey in the interview below. 

Hello Lindsey, Can you tell us about yourself and your background? What prompted you to join the wine business?

I was born in South Florida and then raised in upstate New York. After High School, I went to Simmons University in Boston. I felt uncultured and mundane compared to people I met at university. I was itching to travel, and after I graduated, I bought an open-ended plane ticket and a Eurail pass and left for Europe. I was supposed to be gone for 3 ½ months, but I was gone for nearly three years. Europe brought me to Africa and back again. When I ran out of money, I would come home and work for a couple of months and then go back. Wine is inexpensive in Europe, so I would drink what was being served as “house” wine. I quickly learned that wine is part of a meal, and what is served with a meal is usually local. This piqued my interest and made me curious. Then, when I visited South Africa, I went to a winery/vineyard for the first time. It was there that I had my epiphany. I could learn about history, art, language, science, agriculture, and geography all while tasting wine.

As a wine director of The Inn at Little Washington, share more about your role and responsibilities and what you find most rewarding about your work.

I’m the buyer of the restaurant. I constantly try to find new and exciting wines that I think will resonate with our guests and compliment the cuisine, at the same time trying to procure allocations and hunting for unicorn wines. I am in charge of all beverage financials, training of staff, ordering, and continuing to elevate the integrity of the wine culture at The Inn.

As the only female Wine Director at a Three-Star Michelin Restaurant, what challenges did you have to overcome?

It’s interesting; I have, for the most part, always felt that I was treated well in jobs. People were kind, and I felt respected, but opportunities and promotions often went to men who were less qualified simply because they were men. As women, I believe we internalize this and turn it in on ourselves, or at least I did. It’s easier to beat oneself up and think about what is wrong with their work or how they work to justify being overlooked. If you speak up, then you’re the enemy. It always seemed easier to keep the peace and not rock the boat. But, if you swallow it and keep your head down, it eats you from the inside. I used that feeling to fuel my growth. 

When I got the opportunity to come to The Inn as a Sommelier, I was determined. I drove an hour and a half each way to work for the first year and a half that I worked here. I was up every day at 6:30 am to get my kids off to school, and then I would study for 2-3 hours before coming in to work. I would finish around 11 pm and get home close to 1 am, and crumble into bed, but I was so grateful to have the opportunity that I didn’t care. I just kept pushing. I had that fire because I never wanted anyone to think that I couldn’t do it. That I couldn’t juggle a career and a family. That is the challenge of all women, I think.

Your cellar has some of the world’s best wine regions. But you also work a lot with local producers. What is your strategy for curating a wine list?

The wines have to be special. Guests will pass a dozen or more wineries on their way to the Inn, so if we carry the wine here, I feel that we are offering our seal of approval. We are saying, “yes! This is the best there is to offer in this region”. So, for me to add them to the wine list, there has to be a story. The wine not only has to be great, but I want it to resonate with me or any of the sommeliers on our team. If we are excited about the wines, then we are adding to the guest’s experience. That is always the goal.

How do you train your staff?

It's fairly layered. We have a wine class weekly for all of the servers (though kitchen staff are welcome and do often attend) that covers information about varietals, terroir, producers, etc. They are able to taste the wines as they learn to help them understand. We have a source we’ve created online for staff that is constantly updated for pairing wines and wines by the glass. Staff then has access to the technical information, winery information, and how each wine complements a dish. We also have weekly meetings as a sommelier team. We cover producers, vineyard sites, and taste samples left by distributors. I think of it as a show and tell: what do you want to learn about? Go get all the information together and share it with the team. The goal is for us all to constantly grow and engage. 

Lindsey Fern

Image: Lindsey Fern 

Share some points you keep in mind when selling wine to your restaurant customers.

I feel that to be a good Sommelier, you must check your ego at the door. The experience has nothing to do with me; I am here solely to listen to what a guest wants and help to curate their experience. What do they like? Do they want to try something new or outside of what is familiar? Do they want to spend, or are they on a budget? It is my job to give them what they want and hopefully add something to the meal to make it even more memorable. 

Can you share some tips on how restaurants can market wines to drive wine sales?

“If you build it, they will come”. Build a program that you’re excited and passionate about. The options need to make sense with the food that’s being served. The price points of the wine must be relative to the price points on the menu. The wines offered should make sense with the cuisine. If you love the wines you’re selling, and there is a story behind why you’ve selected them, then that is the best sales strategy that I can think of. I legitimately get excited when I’m selling wines that I have had a personal experience with. Whether I have travelled to the vineyards or think the wine pairing is synergistic, or I fought for an allocation of a highly sought-after wine, or I have never heard of a producer before, I get excited. I think that comes through and resonates with guests. I don’t believe that, as a sommelier, we should “market” anything. Whenever we do what’s best for “us”, we have ceased to serve guests, and we are serving ourselves. To me, it muddies the waters, and the exchange becomes disingenuous. 

The Inn At Little Washington

Image Source: The Inn At Little Washington

The Inn was awarded the Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. Can you tell us more about this recognition?

It is the highest award offered by Wine Spectator. It is granted to those who offer “extraordinary commitment to wine service”. The lists that receive the honor must show breadth and depth in vintages and great producers from classic wine-producing regions around the world. The Inn has received the award every year since 1995. As of 2022, there are 97 Grand Award Winning lists in the world.

During your career, which women have inspired you the most? One piece of advice you would like to give to women entering the wine industry? 

I have never actually WORKED in a restaurant with another woman Sommelier. Always men, so I have to say I have been most inspired by the strong women that went out of their way to help me. The women that gave me opportunities that have formed my career path and changed my life trajectory.

Morgan Plant, my first female boss while I was in California, is a remarkable businesswoman. She was very passionate about wine and food. But she never lost sight of the business angle and was highly respected. Meeting her was a real turning point for me. She took me under her wing. She took me to Michelin Star restaurants and wineries and guided those experiences. She asked my opinion and shared hers. She made me feel valued and empowered. 

Elli Benchimol, a single mother and Sommelier, invited me to her home to blind taste and went out of her way to help me as I was preparing for my Advanced Sommelier exam. She was working full time, trying to open her own restaurant, raise two children AND was preparing to take the Master Sommelier exam, yet she made room in her life to help me. 

Sabrina Schatz introduced me to influential people in the wine world who brought me on wine trips. Because of those introductions, I was taken to Italy, Argentina, and Santa Barbara to deepen my knowledge. I think women entering the industry should be aware that they are helping create a culture and legacy. That they should go out of their way for one another to help other women ascend and create a work environment that allows women to be treated as equals. 

Finally, What is your favorite after-work drink? 

It depends on what kind of night it’s been! If it’s a rough one, it’s always the same- Bourbon, bath and bed! Honestly, I don’t usually drink after work because I get home late and get up early to get my kids off to school, but if I do, it’s usually white wine. White Burgundy if I have time to enjoy it, Gruner Veltliner or an Albariño if I’m just going to have a glass or 2. 

Header Image: Lindsey Fern

Interviewed by Aakriti Rawat, Beverage Trade Network 

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