Pascaline Lepeltier first studied philosophy before deciding to train as a sommelier. After working in New York for almost ten years, she has recently become the first woman to receive the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France title in the sommellerie category.
Pascaline Lepeltier has made her way to the top. On October 2, she was the only woman among nine candidates in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition in the sommellerie category at Château de Fonscolombe (Provence). She kept her cool when one of the judges ordered a glass of red wine with ice cubes, and again when another asked for a brandy with the cheese course. “I suggested he order a clear liquor such as Calvados instead of a brown liquor. And I recommended a classic camembert pairing,” says the sommelier. “It’s an art, suggesting a different idea to ensure customers enjoy their meals to the full.”
When she started her career in a gourmet restaurant in the Morbihan département, customers would often ask for “le sommelier [the masculine form in French],” remembers Pascaline Lepeltier. “Certain businessmen would look scornful when they saw me.” But today she is a name in the industry. The wine list she designed for the Rouge Tomate restaurant in Chelsea was named the “Best Long Wine List in the World,” and since early 2018, she is managing the wine cellar at the Racines restaurant in Tribeca.
This French bistro offers more than 2,500 different bottles. The majority of its wines are not even sold in the United States, and instead are imported from France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, and Lebanon. “New York is such as magical city for wine. You have access to every bottle in the world,” says the sommelier. “I tend to prefer lesser-known designations and producers, wines from the Loire Valley [her native region] and Eastern France, with a focus on biodynamic wines that are as natural as possible.”
Wine Waiting à la Française
Pascaline Lepeltier moved to the United States almost ten years ago and has since adapted to the local culture. However, she still misses the French culinary arts. “I entered the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition to reconnect with the culture and dishes that defined my childhood,” she says. “The institution upholds a traditional vision of elegance and table service, but these customs have all but disappeared today. People in the United States tend to eat quickly without necessarily respecting the succession of courses. No one here will judge you if you drink wine in a water glass.”
When she is not giving recommendations to diners at Racines, Pascaline Lepeltier teaches sommellerie and wine waiting to the restaurant staff and students from the International Culinary Center, a prestigious cooking school in Manhattan. Her key advice includes “dive into the theory and the physics of wine,” “taste each wine several times at different moments,” and while in the dining room, “read the customer, analyze their personality and tastes, ask the right questions, and learn how to listen to their answers.”
A Persistent Lack of Women Sommeliers
Pascaline Lepeltier will be taking the Meilleur Sommelier de France competition on November 15. And this time she will not be the only female candidate. “There will be two women!” she says. The sommelier hopes the event will contribute to bringing more women into a male-dominated sector. In the United States, 182 wine professionals hold the Master Sommelier title, of which 153 are men and 29 are women (including Pascaline Lepeltier). The seven gourmet restaurants set to open next spring in the Hudson Yards development in Manhattan will all be headed up by men.
“Too few investors trust women who want to open a restaurant,” says Pascaline Lepeltier, who is part of the organizing team for the annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium in New York. “Of course, there are French women such as Laura Maniec, who opened the Corkbuzz wine bars in New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, or Isabelle Longeron, who launched the Raw Wine natural wine fair in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, London, and Berlin. But it would be good to see even more women in the wine world!”