Cecily Upton at her restaurant Friends & Family in downtown Portland, where she is wine director. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When sommelier and Wine Wise owner Erica Archer was preparing to launch the first Portland Wine Week in 2018, she had an epiphany.

“When I was writing everyone’s names down – for who I was going to send an email to about starting a wine festival – I think I was just looking at the whiteboard and going, ‘Wait a minute, these are all women,’ ” Archer said.

For the second year of what has become an annual event, Archer resolved to spotlight and celebrate the strong showing from women among Portland wine professionals. “I decided to do a grand opening Women in Wine dinner, because I recognized most of the people running the wine lists in the restaurants were women, and no one was covering them.

“We had such a unique presence of females in the industry. Someone said to me, ‘I’m so surprised you got 10 women (sommeliers)’ to do the dinner. I’m like, ‘I couldn’t have gotten 10 men. Doesn’t that surprise you?’ ”

As the seventh annual Portland Wine Week prepares to kick off with another grand opening Women in Wine dinner at Falmouth Country Club on June 10, women remain as strong a presence as ever in the Portland wine scene. While no hard data is available, Archer and other wine professionals in the city and around Maine attest that women far outnumber men as sommeliers and wine directors in Portland restaurants, and their numbers among local wine distributors and retailers are robust as well.

“I could name for you a dozen women in wine in this city and state much easier almost than a dozen men,” said Damian Sansonetti, chef and co-owner of Chaval, where he runs the wine program. “When you go to other cities known for food – LA, Chicago, New York City – you feel like maybe this is an anomaly, and maybe that’s because they’re more old-school, and Portland is new school in a sense. There are a lot of great women wine professionals here who really know what they’re doing.”


The Portland gender dynamic does seem to be an anomaly in the wine world, which traditionally has been highly male-dominated. The online job site Zippia reports that in 2024, just 31.7% of sommeliers in the United States are women, and as of 2021, just 17.8% of the country’s winemakers were women.

“We are definitely disproportionate here, in a good way,” said Catherine Oster, owner of the wholesale distributor SoPo Wines. “I’m part of a collective of independent wholesalers from across the country, and I’m one of only a few women in 35 states who own wholesalers. It’s rare to find a woman-owned wholesale distribution company anywhere, and you have two of them in Maine (SoPo Wine Co. and Crush Distributors).”

“I think this is unique to Portland,” said Victoria Barthelmes, a certified sommelier and wine director at Tipo and Central Provisions. “It is exciting that there are a lot of women wine reps, a lot of women somms (sommeliers), and a lot of women who are not somms and don’t have (formal) qualifications but work really hard and still curate lists and put a lot of effort into their jobs as front-of-house managers.”


The Portland wine world hasn’t always been so female-forward.

“When I started 15 years ago in the Portland area, it was primarily men within wine distributors and in buying positions,” said Laura Zimmerman, lead sales representative at Crush Distributors, which services Maine and New Hampshire.


Zimmerman and others noted that in the early 2010s, people like Stella Hernandez at the former Lolita and Michelle Corry at the former Petite Jacqueline were among the few women running wine programs in Portland restaurants.

In 2010, Archer started her wine education and events company, Wine Wise, while she was still working at Idexx as a marketing manager. By 2012, Wine Wise became her full-time work. She said she launched Wine Wise in part because she had a hard time finding a wine-based job in Portland – didn’t even get an interview – though she had earned her level three award in wines and spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a global certification group.

“There’s been a dynamic shift in food and wine in this town in the 20 years I’ve owned my business, and women came right along with it,” Oster said.

Sommelier and wine educator Erica Archer. Photo by Meredith Perdue

“It’s not something brand new. You have some roots,” Sansonetti said. “It’s just maybe blossomed in the past 10 years or so.”

The town’s restaurant scene has certainly exploded in the last 10 years. And as Archer and others noted, many of the independent, higher-quality restaurants in Portland are owned by husbands and wives. In many cases, the women have taken charge of the front of the house and the wine lists.

“Take Suzie and Isaul Perez from Isa,” Archer said. “She runs the front of the house and is general manager of the restaurant. Suzie is a certified sommelier. It’s the career path they’ve chosen for themselves.”


“In our little slice of the city, we’re right on the block with places like Regards and Wayside Tavern, where partners are working together in these small restaurants, and it has been the women leading the wine programs,” said Cecily Upton, co-owner of Friends & Family on Congress Street.

Upton said before launching Friends & Family with her partner, Michael Malyniwsky, in 2021, “I was much more of a wine appreciator than a wine professional. But there never felt like there were any barriers to my participation in the industry. It didn’t matter that I was a woman. I never felt intimidated, even as someone who isn’t certified and didn’t come from a long wine background. I work hard and put in the energy and time, and people respect that.

“I’ve really grown and been honestly really lucky to have developed a lot of great mentorships and relationships with other women (wine professionals) in Portland,” Upton continued. “The people I connect with and talk to as colleagues across the city and even the state are women, whether that is people who own restaurants and wine shops, or even the majority of reps at our distributor companies who are women.”

Now, nearly 15 years after she was unable to land an interview for a wine job, Archer says she’s become a resource for young women looking to break into the field: “I get a lot of phone calls from dads who are like, ‘My daughter wants to get into wine. What do you recommend?’ ” she said.


Portland wine pros who’ve worked in other major food cities say Portland’s inclusive and more laid-back atmosphere compares favorably.


“In New York City, it’s mostly male-driven,” Barthelmes said. “And they want you to know enough to do your job, but not enough to take their job. Where here, people want everyone to know everything. For me, the best-case scenario is that anyone working for me knows more than I do, and I think that’s the general consensus here.”

“Having worked in New York City for many years, the vibe was more oppressive and cutthroat, and not as fundamentally about the food and beverage as perhaps it should be,” said Jesse Bania, co-owner of Solo Italiano, where he heads up the wine program. “For one reason or another, the food and beverage scene in Portland is just more pleasing to be a part of than it ever was in New York City, and I’ll chalk that up to my fabulous female compadres.”

Bania also suggested that women may be uniquely suited for work in wine.

“When it comes to wine, which is so much about our senses, women are natural supertasters,” Bania said. “They have something like 10,000 more sensory receptors than men do. Women are fabulous when it comes to wine. Scientifically, they have superior senses to men.”

Indeed, a growing body of scientific research shows that women have significant sensory advantages. Studies have found, for instance, that women average about 43% more cells and nearly 50% more neurons than men in their olfactory centers, which govern smell.

Other studies have shown that women – particularly those of childbearing age – have more acute senses of taste and smell than men, and are more than twice as likely to be supertasters. The research also indicated that women of reproductive age can, with training, identify odors at concentrations up to 11 orders of magnitude lower than similarly trained men.

But Portland’s female wine professionals aren’t arguing that they’re superior to their male counterparts. And while they appreciate that being a woman in the wine field is celebrated here, they have a higher end goal in mind.

“In 2019, it was sort of trendy to elevate being a woman in wine (nationally), but it’s kind of fallen off a bit,” Archer said. “But it’s been so easy to sustain here in Portland. Of course, it is special. But you don’t want to be overly recognized as a woman in the wine industry, because you just want to be a person in the wine industry. We want to be seen as highly skilled people able to do the job.”

Erica Archer pours a sample during a “Wine Sail,” a wine tasting event during Portland Wine Week. Photo by Morgan Brockington

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