How does Ania Zawieja describe her job as a sommelier? “I drink a lot and try to remember.” Rather than attending sommelier school, Zaweija got her start at a Philadelphia wine bar that rotated its 120 glasses every week. She eventually went on to help open Café Gray, then the Modern, and finally — after the food-and-beverage director of Joël Robuchon’s then-soon-to-open New York outpost dined at the Modern and succeeded in luring her away — she ended up at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Since female sommeliers have lately been a subject of some controversy, we asked her to uncork the particulars of her job.
Have you faced the same prejudices that Jennifer Malone Seixas, the recently departed Fleur de Sel sommelier, says she experienced? For instance, customers demanding a male sommelier?
That does happen. We have two other female managers. When something comes up where someone needs a manager and any of us come up, guests do ask for men.
Are there advantages to being a female sommelier?
Technically we do have better palettes, right? The woman’s general awareness tends to be a little bit better. Women are more sensitive — we tend to pick up cork or anything that might be going on in the wine better than the men. It is a known fact that women have better tasting buds. Or taste buds.
How did you design the wine list at Robuchon?
I focused on lots of Burgundy and Pinot Noirs. Sideways has taken Merlot off the map. You always get one person who wants seafood and another who wants meat, and the perfect way to travel is Burgundy.
Give me a popular dish and your favorite wine with which to pair it.
The caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras is paired with Gevrey-Chambertin Frédéric Magnien, 2005. It was a great vintage in Burgundy. The quail tends to be quite delicate meat, and you have the richness of the foie gras. The wine is just like that — soft and delicate.
How much wine do you sample during the course of a week?
I sample everything I open for a guest. We probably open 30 bottles a day. I meet with wine distributors and go to tastings, which would account for another 70 wines a week.
What do you drink during your off time?
Lately a lot of beer. Sometimes when you’re around the wine as much as I am, it makes it a little difficult to relax afterwards — you find yourself breaking down where this wine is from, what kind of oak it was exposed to, what kind of vintage it was. At the end of the day, I like an ice-cold Stella.
What’s the worst faux pas you can make when dealing with a sommelier?
We get a lot of guests that are very adamant about vintages — “Oh, I don’t like this vintage. No, I won’t drink anything from there.” I always tell those guests, “There’s no pressure. If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it tonight.”
What do you do with the wine when a bottle is sent back?
If a guest really doesn’t like the wine, then the chef and I have a great glass to drink at end of evening. That only happened once, with a $120 1999 Bahans Haut-Brion.
What’s the most a customer has ever spent on wine?
A hotel guest who said he had a long flight and needed to relax came in and ordered a bottle of Cristal for $1,100, then a Richbourg Domain Romanee-Conti from 1999 for $4,000 and a Screaming Eagle for $2,200, followed by a half-bottle of Château d'Yquem 1997. He maybe drank a glass of each one of them. We actually get a lot of single diners that spend a lot of money on wine.
Will customers on dates try to cover up the fact that they’re ordering the cheapest thing on the menu?
That happens on Saturday nights, date nights. We sell a lot of Sancerre in the summer, which is $67. It’s one of the best summery whites. The skill of a sommelier really comes in when you recommend a great bottle of inexpensive wine.