Feature Story

The Best of the Barrel

By / Photography By Jennifer Olson | September 26, 2017
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“We’re the rule here, not the exception,” says Vanessa North, owner of Luis Wine Bar in San Luis Obispo, referring to the fact that the overwhelming majority of San Luis Obispo County sommeliers, wine and beverage directors are female.

Is this news worth celebrating or just a headline wrapped up in a sexist bow? By way of context, consider the fact that the world of wine is an archaic one, mired in outdated laws and inherent patriarchy. Consider also that, of the 149 Master Sommeliers certified through the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, only 25 are women. In fact, the word sommelier is, by its very nature, masculine, according to the gender divisions of the French language.

Here in San Luis Obispo County, theories abound as to why we so openly embrace women in the role of beverage director, but the simple truth remains: These sommeliers are the cream of the cru, the best of the barrel. Here, we profile the phenomenal rise of our local tastemakers.


Ali Rush Carscaden
Owner, 15 Degrees C, Templeton (15degreesc.com)

A former wine sales rep, Rush Carscaden opened her progressive wine shop 10 years ago—long before anything like it existed—and has since become a pillar of the local wine industry. “As much as I can, I’ve always tried to help, especially, females in the industry. My first day as a sales rep, I had a bad experience and said to myself, ‘I’m going to do as much as I can to support and elevate other females in this industry.’”

Deathbed Bottle: “Champagne. My all-time favorite bottle is J. Lassalle. It’s a mother-daughter grower-producer, very small production, and premier cru.”


Vanessa North
Owner, Luis Wine Bar, San Luis Obispo (luiswinebar.com)

North studied industrial engineering at Cal Poly and worked for Apple for seven years before returning to SLO to open Luis Wine Bar. Monthly educational flights that highlight global wine regions—and how they compare to local wines—are her jam. “I don’t necessarily need some geeky $300 or $500 wine that’s been aged, however. I just want wine that makes me happy.”

Deathbed Bottle: “I love the Loire Valley, especially Chinon. I love mineral, rocky reds.”


Kirsten George
Director of Food & Beverages, The Grill at The Cass House, Cayucos (casshousecayucos.com)

George’s career includes employment in restaurants, a small wine brokerage and a major distributor before she joined The Cass House in 2016. (This August, she also takes on another title: mother.) “I think you can be soft and gentle but still empowering and successful. You don’t have to be aggressive and assertive. You can still be feminine and good at what you do.”

Deathbed Bottle: “In Italy, my husband and I had a great bottle of Barbaresco from Cerreto, a really small producer just outside of Alba. It was structured and elegant and everything you could want in a wine. It was a great moment and a great memory.”


Robin Puricelli
Wine Director, Lido Restaurant at The Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, Shell Beach (the dolphinbay.com)

Originally from Massachusetts, Puricelli waited tables in Santa Monica and earned her sommelier certification before heading to the Central Coast to work in wineries. Today, she pulls corks overlooking the ocean in Shell Beach. “As women, we are modernizing the role of the sommelier. There’s a stigma about sommeliers: that they’re stuffy and pretentious. My goal is to make wine fun and approachable.”

Deathbed Bottle: “Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner or Chateau Yvonne Chenin Blanc. I love a crisp, zippy, textured white.”


Jenna Congdon
Wine Director, Granada Hotel & Bistro and The Station, SLO (granadahotelandbistro.com; thestationslo.com)

Congdon started in the Talley Vineyards tasting room, moving up to the sales office and eventually repping imports and even owning her own portfolio. Today, she oversees wine programs for a restaurant, a retailer/wine bar and, soon, a hotel. “Wine is an endless source of inspiration and discovery. At my first big trade tasting, I thought I was pretty savvy. Then I spoke to someone younger than me who grew up in New York and realized how sheltered I’d been. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve missed so much.’”

Deathbed Bottle: “Champagne. Aubry, Le Nombre.”



Samantha Payette
Director of Culture, Talent Development & Wine, Blue Mango Management (Novo, Luna Red, Cafe Fiero, Mint + Craft in SLO, Robin’s in Cambria)

Helping out with inventory in a restaurant cellar at 16 years old launched Payette’s career, which includes a hospitality degree from the University of Massachusetts, harvests in New Zealand and Australian and employment with hotels and restaurants across the country. She’s been Blue Mango Management’s wine director for two years. “In Boston, it was very unusual to be a female in this job. I didn’t get as much respect when I was in a buying position there and it was a little bit harder to get the attention I needed. It’s wonderful to be in an area where that’s not an issue.”

Deathbed Bottle: “Grand Cru Chablis or some delicious aged Champagne that has tons of yeasty, toasty notes so you get the best of both worlds: bread and wine in a bottle.”


Brooke Town
Owner and Beverage Director, The Spoon Trade, Grover Beach (thespoontrade.com)

As a kid, Town watched her dad tend bar in Durango, Colorado. Years later, she had an “aha moment” with wine while living in Napa, and later in San Francisco while working at Rubicon and managing Nopa. She and her husband, Chef Jacob Town, opened The Spoon Trade in 2015. “Whether it’s sherry or vermouth or Gamay or Counoise or carbonic Carignane, I get a kick out of it when people try something new and love it.”

Deathbed Bottle: “Sherry: Amontillado or Oloroso. If I can get just one person in SLO County to try sherry, then I’ve done something OK.”


Amanda Gill
Wine Director & Sommelier, Marisol at The Cliffs, Shell Beach (cliffsresort.com)

After graduating from St. Mary’s College, Gill discovered a love for wine back home in Edna Valley, working in tasting rooms. She enjoyed the work so much, she took the position as wine director at Marisol two years ago. “My curiosity is insatiable, but I wasn’t able to taste lots of bottles until I started at Marisol. That’s when I could really dive in with both feet.”

Deathbed Bottle: “I love the Loire. But a bottle I’d like to drink again was a 1990 Raveneau Chapelot from Chablis. The texture of it was gorgeous, and I think I got it just at that peak when everything was integrated perfectly. If I could time-travel back to the moment I drank that wine, I would.”


Carole MacDonal
Owner, Managing Partner, and Beverage Director, Il Cortile Ristorante and La Cosecha Bar + Restaurant, Paso Robles (ilcortileristorante.com; lacosechabr.com)

MacDonal grew up in the restaurant industry in upstate New York, landing in Los Angeles where she produced reality television. Along the way, she studied Italian wine and eventually opened Il Cortile with her husband, Chef Santos MacDonal, in 2009. “We had a special party in last night and someone said to me, ‘This place is always so inviting, so comfortable.’ I believe that’s what [women sommeliers] all do. It’s so important to maintain our femininity and the strength that comes with it, not to deny that.”

Deathbed Bottle: “Barbaresco. My favorite producers are Gaja, Vietti and Marchesi di Grésy.”

Article from Edible San Luis Obispo at http://ediblesanluisobispo.ediblecommunities.com/drink/best-barrel
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