Laurie, the janitor.
Rania Zayyat is at the center of the wormhole. Some she has created herself, setting high goals to help others. And some of them are the replicas of 20 other candidates for the position of master sommelier who share their experiences of sexual harassment by men in the court of master sommeliers in America in a recent New York Times (NYT) article.
Her courage in sharing her story publicly is typical of the way Rania moves forward and inspires others. It also reflects their desire to make a difference in the world of wine. Changes have already been made to the speeches. When NYU revealed the case in late October, the court suspended at least 12 master sommeliers and replaced the board, which quickly elected a female president.
Rania began her journey of becoming a sommelier as a teenager as a waitress in a restaurant. A few years later, she moved to the Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, where she says it was her first time working in a wine restaurant. It was also his introduction to wine, for his parents, Christians and devotees never drank alcohol. Five people worked as waiters in the restaurant, but they sold wine instead of food. When she realized she was also making more money, she began to see a way to learn and expand her skills while increasing her income.
Bailey Toxo Photos
I’ve fallen in love with wine! Rania said: I started studying and taking exams. After all, I won a wine contest at work. When I started at the age of 23, I was the youngest waiter. I worked with young people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who had spent their entire lives in the restaurant business. I felt I had to prove myself and I started working harder than the others. I spent all my free time counting bottles, reorganizing the cellar, bottling wine – anything I could do to get bottles. The Pappas brothers’ wine list was crazy with 4,500 different bottles. It was the perfect place to get my teeth fixed and learn from the sommelier.
Becoming a sommelier is combining everything Rania loves: The culture, the travel, the connections with people and this wonderful drink that I love to drink and see bring people together. I still think it’s a great industry to get into, despite my experience and that of many others. That’s what I’m fighting for. It can be great when people are both part of the profession and part of the consumer. I think we can have a better future.
For nearly four years, she worked for Stephen Dilley as the wine manager at Bufalina, a Neapolitan pizza and natural wine destination in Austin, Texas. The wine program has taken on a life of its own, Stephen says: We now have over 400 samples. It’s pretty rare to find someone who has the drive and initiative to come up with a wide range of interesting projects, and the ability to bring these ideas to life while working for us. When we realized that a pandemic meant business wouldn’t continue as usual, she put our entire wine collection online in a matter of days and created a wine club that sold out in a few weeks. Every time I turn around, there’s more on her plate, and she always gets away with it. It’s an amazing thing!
Rania loves Stephen too. I’ve been working with Stephen for three and a half years, she says, and I love the environment. For the first time as a sommelier, I felt supported by my boss.
Rania’s path to advocacy began even before the publication of the NYT article, and with its publication she leaned toward it even more. Her grandfather was a missionary, and perhaps it is to him that she became an anthropologist and lawyer at heart. Now that she has her energy back in order, she realizes that it is what she always wanted to do. And she’s good at it.
Wonder Woman Wine
Her first project was founding the non-profit association Wonder Women of Wine in 2018, after changing its name to Lift Collective to draw attention to the gap between the many women working in the wine industry and the limited number of women running the business. Lift Collective cites statistics, including the fact that 62 percent of graduates of UC Davis’ viticulture and oenology program in 2016 were women, compared to just 10 percent of winemakers in California. In addition to offering scholarships, Collectif Lift advocates for gender equality by encouraging networking and discussion in forums such as the 2019 conference.
I noticed that Wonder Woman’s wine conference was going as well as I did, Rania said. I don’t have that experience, especially at the national level. As a result, my network has grown exponentially and I’ve connected with people from across the industry who have inspired me with their ideas.
This network helped her solve the conference problem with an introduction to Anna Kehl.
I met Rania in early 2018, just after I lost my job in medical education, Anna says. She needed help with her first conference, and a mutual friend knew of my experience in project management and working with them and introduced us. Then the stars lined up – Rania needed someone with my skills and I had the chance to step up. The best part of working with Rania, and the reason it was easy for me to get involved in the mission, is that she is willing to do whatever needs to be done, despite her fear of failure and her doubt.
The next big idea was a virtual job fair called Be the Change, which Rania co-founded with three women she met through her network – Leah Jones, Cara Bertone and Filana Bouvier.
I met Leah through someone who recommended her as a speaker at the Wonder Woman wine conference, says Rania, and then I met Philana through another recommendation. We wanted to do something and then we had a great idea for a job fair. We did it in 8 weeks with lots of phone calls and texts at 2am. I’m really glad we did this. It had to be done.
Because of the pandemic, they have practically hijacked the job market. It took place on 1 and 2 December 2020 and managed to connect companies in the wine and spirits sector with potential candidates.
The story is made, says Filana. It was the first time the wine industry had come together to participate in a diversity survey and job fair. What inspires Rania is her bold promotion of the NYT article. She stood up to a powerful organization and then became a resource for building trust and mentoring women in the wine business. That’s what makes it inspiring. She is a fierce but calm leader – she exudes humility. She’s not the loudest person in the room, but she has a loud voice that people want to hear.
Anna agrees: Anyone can run an organization like the Elevator Collective or something they’re passionate about, but they don’t. The reason is that it’s scary. You have to do your best, and she’s ready to do it.
More information can be found here: The most inspiring wine people of 2021.
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