Industry Insights: Sommelier Cassandra Brown
The wine expert tells Loop21 how she turned her passion into a career.
The culinary world is becoming more diverse each and every day, but women and minorities still remain largely underrepresented when it comes to the wine industry. Cassandra Brown is doing her best to change that.
A sommelier, respected culinary professional and founder of the wine education program The Chocolate Grape, Brown opened up to Loop21 about what it's like to be a woman of color in the oft-elusive wine world.
Loop21: Many people love wine, but you've made it a career! How did you get your start in the wine industry?
Cassandra Brown: My passion for wine was unleashed when I worked as the Business Manager for a New York celebrity chef's restaurant concept which found a home in Atlanta several years ago, just after 9/11. It was my first real and true exposure to high-end restaurant culture and fine dining. There sparked an insatiable curiosity that has now become a full-blown love affair with food and wine. From the moment I first heard the word "SOMMELIER," I knew I wanted to be one, but I didn't know what it was! At the time, all I knew is that it sounded astute, professional and glamorous, with an heir of intelligence and refinement, almost regal. I pictured the ideal of living "the good life" and having a good time while working with people in a classy and elegant setting!
Loop21: Did you have any mentors early on in your career?
CB: I have had the fortune of having many mentors in this industry. One person I consider a mentor is Master Sommelier David Glancy. DLynn Proctor is also a mentor of mine. He put a face of color in this industry for me and is someone that I aspire to be like. Master Sommelier Randall Bertao is another mentor of mine. He actually gave me my first job out of sommelier school at Los Altos Golf and Country Club. Randall was really instrumental in helping me get a foot in this industry. Lastly, my aunt Flonzie Brown-Wright, my idol. She is one of the strongest people I know and is the epitome of a dignified black woman who made it work through rough struggles.
Loop21: What is some of the best advice you have received during your career?
CB: Randall told me, “Cassandra, if you are going to make it in this industry, you have got to learn more than wine. You have to learn how to run a restaurant. You have to learn to manage and operations.” That’s what I did and now I am more marketable as a restaurant professional. I am not just a sommelier; I am a sommelier that can run the house.
Loop21: What is the hardest aspect of working in this field?
CB: The hardest aspect in this field is taking examines because sommeliers have to test in order to receive their credentials. Studying is hard because there is a lot of information and the information is always changing. So I would say the hardest part is trying to remember all the information and preparing for the tests.
Loop21: What are some of the perks of working in the culinary industry?
CB: Well one of the things about being a sommelier is that you will never, ever make a million dollars, but you will sometimes eat, drink and live like you do. Being in this industry, we get to drink some of the best wines in the entire world and some people will go their whole lives without being able to do this. You get to try some of the best foods at the best restaurants and sometimes you get invited to travel to really nice places. So you get to live the high life even though you don’t make that much money and you get exposed to some really cool stuff.
Loop21: What is something you feel inspires your creativity?
CB: People. Watching what people eat and drink, and how they talk about it. At the core of what a sommelier does, and what my job is, is to make sure that the guest has the most fabulous dining experience and that the wine goes good with the food. So the creativity comes with analyzing the demographic to help them select their wine.
Loop21: What is something you would like to see change in your industry?
CB: I would like to see the people that work the floor make more money because we get beat up every single night. There should really be more stability for people in this industry because this industry is a valid industry. The stuff we do requires a lot of talent. We have to be some of the most well-adjusted people in the industry to have to put up with everyone else’s personalities. So I would really like to see people in the service industry make more money.
Loop21: Do you feel that the culinary industry is welcoming to people of color?
CB: I think it is more so now. The culinary industry is full of people of every color. The thing is anybody can follow a recipe; it doesn’t matter what color you are. As far as being a sommelier is concerned, there aren’t many people of color who do it. It matters how talented, focused, and driven you are, not what color you are.
Loop21: What is some advice you would give to other people trying to become sommeliers?
CB: Grab hold to a mentor and potential colleagues because you can’t do it on your own. It’s easier if you have help. Really absorb yourself in the industry. Go to tastings, try as much wine as you possibly can. Be around people who are already sommeliers and make these people your focus group.
Loop21: What do you think is the secret to longevity is your field?
CB: I would say staying connected with the industry, working as long as your body can take it, and having a good mentor. I think to have longevity in this field you need to stay in the industry long enough to be able to teach someone else and pass on your legacy. You have to have the desire to want to stay in the industry for as long as you can.
Loop21: In the future what are some goals you hope to achieve?
CB: Well, my ultimate goal is to become a Master Sommelier. Also I want to reach out and touch people’s lives. I want to show my appreciation and have a positive impact on the industry. I want to let people know that they can be successful in this industry. My superficial goal is to become a Master Sommelier, but at the heart of it I really want to make a difference in people’s lives. Like my aunt used to say, “Each one, reach one, teach one.”