Get excited for Part 3 of my Women of Wine series! This issue features Carla Rzeszewski Betts, an acclaimed sommelier that has held prestigious positions in the wine industry and at establishments such as The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and The John Dory Oyster Bar.
Carla now runs the website An Approach To Relaxation with her husband, Richard. In between breaks from non stop travel and dining adventures, we can find the couple making their own wines such as Sucette, an elegant, sumptuous Grenache that comes from old vines grown in the sandy soils of the Barossa, South Australia.
Sit back, grab a glass of Grenache (or whatever your have in arms reach) and get ready to be inspired.
1. How did you get started in wine?
I attended NYU for acting, and like most actors, worked in restaurants afterward to pay off the hefty student loans. At first I considered waiting tables and bar tending a temporary thing, but upon closer reflection, I realized that I really did love the industry world: the food, the wine, the service, the late nights and the hectic pace. At some point after deciding I no longer wanted to act, it took me a year or so to realize I could actually create a career in the restaurant world.
At first I simply tasted as many wines and read as many books as I could, and when I knew that I needed to move to the next step, I cold-called one of my bar regulars, who at that time was the editor for Forbes Life Magazine. He would sit at my bar and tell me stories about his travel, his fine dining with wine and spirits, his adventures. I knew that’s what I wanted, but didn’t know how to get there. So I found his number, called him and asked him for a meeting. I told him I wanted to work in travel, food and wine. He told me, ‘School yourself in one of those things. You have enough moxy, energy, guts and looks to be successful doing anything you want. Get a job doing one of those things, and make yourself indispensable to your employer.”
I sat at home and studied, I signed up for a wine class at WSET, and I got a job bar tending at The Breslin when it first opened. I had never heard of April Bloomfield. After working one shift as a bartender, Ken Friedman pulled me aside, said, “I hear you’re studying wine… Would you like to become our Wine Director?”
I knew the moment had come when the universe literally hands you what you’ve been waiting for… I was shaking, I had no idea how to perform the job of Wine Director, but I knew I had to say yes. I left the meeting, walked outside and literally Googled ‘How To Buy Wine.’
After The Breslin, I opened the John Dory Oyster Bar in the ACE Hotel with them, and later I also took over The Spotted Pig.
2. What inspired you as a Wine Director?
Learning, first and foremost! It began with me immersing myself in as much information as I could take, attending as many tastings as I could, and asking questions of my reps, my colleagues, even my guests. It then grew to sharing what I’d learned with guests and with my staff. I loved offering all three restaurants weekly wine classes. It became a place of wild exploration and super-fun discovery for all of us. Nothing was off limits in terms of questions; we would simply all dive in together.
3. What is it like being a woman in wine?
Honestly, I don’t think about myself as being a Woman in Wine… I am a woman, and I work in wine, the same as any man in wine. I think if I were to consider myself separate from my male colleagues, I would suffer a smaller mindset than if I simply included myself as a Human in Wine.
Did other people consider me as a Woman working in Wine? Did tables ask me to speak with the Sommelier when I had come to speak with them about the list? Sure. But you push past that old, dusty idea and happily answer, ‘That’d be me!’ And get back to the actual work of helping them find the wine that’s going to make them happy for the evening.
With regards to the positive aspects of being a woman in (at that time) a fairly male-populated New York wine community, there was always enormous support from other women, this rich fabric of female energy and ferocity that empowered us rather than intimidated us.
4. With the wine industry being male dominated, what do you see in the future for women in wine?
I see women working as hard as anyone else, gaining professional traction the same as their male counterparts. While there may be other industries that struggle to employ women at the top levels, I feel that the wine world has been better at including women more readily. You hear about more and more female winemakers, retail shop owners, buyers, sommeliers. As long as women are willing to do the work, I believe that the chances of advancement are available, and that is thrilling.
I also see women supporting other women, lifting them up, providing answers and leadership; The Women In Wine Symposium that Winebow hosts each year is a great example of that. An open dialogue amongst women with the goal of all of us advancing is the way forward, not competing against women in similar circumstances with the belief that there is scarcity in our opportunities.
5. What advice would you give a woman who wants to pursue a career in wine?
I suppose it’d be similar to the advice given me: do the work! School yourself, ask questions, do not be afraid to not know. Continue to push, be curious, help others when they need it, and do not be afraid to say YES when an opportunity arises that you feel unqualified for.
6. What’s your go-to wine at the moment?
Northern Rhône whites!!! I can’t get enough of Gonon Saint Joseph Blanc, Chave Hermitage Blanc, and old Betts & Scholl Hermitage Blanc. That nutty, waxy, floral nose, the lush richness on the palate, and that extreme spine of stony structure has my number.