Talking about breaking barriers, the “deliciousness factor,” and how to be a great host with our featured collaborators, Chef Stacey Poon-Kinney and Master Sommelier Jill Zimorski.
At Teneral Cellars, we think women should feel empowered to lives of their dreams. We create wines alongside women who are leading experts in their field because we want the best for our customers and partners.
For our holiday collection - Peace, Love & Joy, we are proud to collaborate with—Chef Stacey Poon-Kinney and Master Sommelier Jill Zimorski. Stacey is the Chef and Owner of The Trails in San Diego, California. Her life’s work is to support people’s passions and build community whether that’s around a dining table, in a dance circle, or in a boardroom. Jill is one of 269 professionals in the world (and one of 26 women in North America) to earn the prestigious Master Sommelier title. She is a regular contributor to SommTV, a specialist of the Champagnes of the Moët Hennessy portfolio, and an educator at the American Wine School in Chicago.
This interview highlights the values and careers of these amazing women, who we’re grateful to count as collaborators.
Stacey, the restaurant industry is historically very male dominated, and Jill, you are one of only 26 Master Sommeliers that are women. Could you speak a bit more about that experience?
Stacey: It's interesting when the question is asked about what my experience is as a woman, because I don't know anything else. I don't have any other perception. What I do know is that I've always played well in boys clubs because I don't think I allow for that differentiation. My personality is such that I always have gone so hard, and been so aggressive, and been very masculine in my approach.
The only time where I will say that I was stopped in my tracks and really felt the difference in terms of my gender was when I was pregnant. There was nothing I could do about it. My body had been robbed by a baby. It was no longer mine. I didn't have that sense of agency to move through a space effortlessly, I was burning my belly on a griddle. I got kicked out of my own kitchen as a chef. It was not the right space for me anymore. That was one of the most frustrating moments in my life, to be honest.
Jill: I'm very proud of that fact. Pursuing the Master Sommelier path is really consuming. There's fewer women in the industry, but that's been changing. Also, the Court of Master Sommeliers has only been around for a little over 40 years. It’s a pretty small field; there’s not that many people who want to pursue this path. When you take the possible group of people who want to pursue it, that pool of folks has long been male dominated. That said, the first sommelier I ever met was a woman. From the very beginning in the industry it was very normal for me to be seeing women sommeliers and to be working with women… but I also recognize that my experience is not typical.
Stacey, what do you find most fulfilling about owning a restaurant?
Stacey: The most fulfilling thing is connections, creating connections both with our guests and inside of what I call our “Trails family.” Something different happens around food. A lot of people break up over a meal, or they get engaged over a meal, or they come out over a meal. Big stuff happens around the table, and there's magic in that. It's such a profound honor to be part of that. To be part of people connecting between that space, but also connecting with those people and to see our staff connecting with each other. I call it “the magic.” There's the magic that happens inside of a restaurant and also inside of the staff. Whenever I get a chance to step back, look around, and just take it all in—the coolest thing ever. It's also an honor to just be able to be part of somebody's growth and development professionally and personally. It's this space, it's this magic. It's the thing that food and restaurants do—be at the helm of that and be able to make sure that that space exists and that the tone is right. We have a space where we are always dealing with each other with kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and an openness and willingness to change and to see. It's the best thing ever.
Jill, what’s the biggest misconception people have about your profession?
Jill: There's an old stereotype that I'm really looking forward to retiring, which is this idea that a sommelier is arrogant or snooty. Oftentimes, there's an association with an old white man. Everyone has a different palette, budget, and expectation. What we're really trying to do is make people happy. Happy guests create return guests, and happy guests have memories. That's huge in the world of wine. If you find a wine you like and it was a good experience for you, you might actually continue to buy it. Even if it's not the fanciest wine in the whole world or the most expensive, if you become a loyal fan of that wine, that's a win. I think there's a perception that we're trying to upsell and hustle people to get them to spend more money and that we're somehow intimidating. All we really want to do is talk about wine!
Jill and Stacey, is there anyone who you'd like to shout out and thank as part of your career? Someone who is integral to your journey?
Stacey: It feels a little cliche, but my mom is the one who taught me about food and taught me how to cook. She's a pro. She has done everything from being a cook in every kind of place you can imagine from institutional cooking in a hospital, to fine dining in Italian places, to working front of the house. She grew up with her grandparents, who are both chefs. It just came down the line. My mom taught me not just about food, but about life and about living and about these things that I talk about, about connecting through food.
I also had a really great mentor. His name is Matt Okita. He never embodied those machismo stereotypes. He always required respect across gender roles and never wanted the women in his space to feel objectified or uncomfortable. That was really rare in the business. He was always careful to make sure people felt cared for no matter what. I carry that with me all the time. I'm infinitely grateful to him.
Jill: The very first person I ever met who is a sommelier is my friend Nadine Brown. She is the one who kind of introduced me to the idea of the court of Master Sommeliers. We worked together. I was a manager at a restaurant and she was a sommelier. The restaurant was part of a company that had a master sommelier as their corporate wine director. So she was instrumental in being the first person I ever met who had this job.
There was also Kathy Morgan in Washington, DC where I used to live. She passed in 2010, but she led a tasting group and was kind of the first master sommelier I ever worked with on a regular basis. Also, Emily Wines, who works with Teneral Cellars. In order to pass my final exam, I needed to change my approach to tasting. I knew Emily through the industry, but I didn't have a close relationship with her. I decided to message Emily Wines and said “It looks like you come to Chicago for work frequently, can you help me?” I needed somebody to mentor me, because just working with peers was not enough—I needed somebody who knew more. The beginning of my journey was Nadine and Kathy, and the person who helped me get my head on and get me over the finish line was Emily Wines.
Stacey, part of The Trails’ slogan is “vintage hospitality.” Do you have any advice when it comes to hosting big dinners or planning menus? What does hospitality look like to you?
Stacey: I tell the host at the front door that hospitality is about being the person that makes sure that everyone is enjoying themselves at the party. Anticipating needs, but also making sure that people are making those connections with each other. It's not about you. It's about what they're doing together. Vintage hospitality is a big deal to me. It’s really about genuine care, asking people questions and knowing who they are.
It's important to know who your audience is. To curate the event to that group of people, because the party that you're going to have for your family may be very different from the party you're going to have for your family of friends. Music is important. Lighting is important. It's really easy to forget all that stuff. But keep it simple. Do as much as you can in advance, serve as much cold food as you can, focus on those hot entrees that you can pull out of the oven at the last minute—but you really prepped them the night before.
Jill, what's the first thing you look for when you try a new wine? Could you give some tips? What senses are you using?
Jill: I think the thing that's important for me is—which is very subjective—is deliciousness. Wine has to be consumed to fulfill its destiny. If you don't want to have another glass, no matter how good someone says it is or how exalted the producer or how fancy the bottle, if you don't like it, then it's not going to resonate deeply with you. So I look for a term we use in the beer industry—there's a style of beer we call session beers or session ales, where you consume a couple over a session. I think “sessionability” and a deliciousness factor are the most important aspects when choosing wine.
See Stacey and Jill’s contributions to the Peace, Love & Joy Collection here.