D.C. has a strong and growing community of women sommeliers. We’ll be highlighting these wine stewards each month in our series Somm Talent.
Nadine Brown is a DMV wine legend, considering the breadth and the innovative turns that continue to shape her career. In an industry still very much tied to an exclusive and stuffy stereotype, Brown’s fierce work ethic and charming demeanor sets her apart from her contemporaries and has made her wildly successful throughout her many wine ventures.
Brown spent her early years in the tropical backdrops of Jamaica and Puerto Rico, where her mother worked at the Jamaican embassy. When Brown, who had always dreamed of working with children, moved to Boston to pursue a degree in social work, wine was not on her radar.
While Brown was at college, Brown’s mother transferred to the Jamaican embassy in D.C. Following an intense heartbreak, Brown packed up and moved to her new home to job search. She came across an ad for a new French restaurant on Capitol Hill looking for a host with no experience necessary.
Brown became a part of the Bistro Bis opening team and planned to stay only until she found a job in the social work field, but quickly fell in love with the fast-paced nature of restaurant life. “It was the hot new place on the Hill. I was seating Ted Kennedy and Hillary, it was just exciting and chaotic, I don’t know how to explain it. There’s this energy that’s just infectious.”
Brown eventually became the office manager, tasked with typing up the daily specials. “I bought a food lover’s companion to look up the French terms because it was, you know, bouillabaisse and all these French words that I didn’t know. So I started looking them up because I was curious. I think I came to both food and wine by just reading and being fascinated by history.”
Brown had very little exposure to wine growing up. When she took on a managing role at Bistro Bis, she understood that wine was her weakest spot: “I had a lot of catching up to do.” Determined to strengthen her knowledge, Brown enrolled in a wine course and quickly developed a deep passion for the subject. “If I had studied in school the way I studied wine, who knows what I would have become!” she laughs. She credits her fascination to the fact that wine is an ultimately boundless and cross-disciplinary subject. “For example, I recently learned that American oak barrels can give wine a vanilla taste so I bought a whole book on vanilla. If you’re reading about chemistry and you get tired of it you can just switch over to another rabbit hole,” she shares.
When one of Bistro Bis’s investors mentioned to Brown that she was raising funds for a new restaurant coming to town, Brown was intrigued. The owner of this new establishment turned out to be Charlie Palmer, widely considered to be the godfather of American food. Brown did her own research on Palmer and learned of his deep appreciation for wine that extended beyond its profitability. Armed with her resume, a determined Brown made her way to the restaurant’s construction site but wound up passing it along to a construction worker. Brown visited the site a second time; this visit proved to be more fortuitous as she bumped into Mr. Palmer himself. “I must have looked crazy walking all over like tiles and stuff with my resume to hand to this man. I don’t really know why, but I just knew this had to be the place.”
Brown was eventually brought onto Charlie Palmer Steak’s opening team not as a sommelier but as a captain, a type of lead server position found at fine dining restaurants. This position was technically a step backwards for Brown, who was already making strides into her sommelier career, but her tenacity and work ethic drove her to make the best of her situation. Brown took the initiative to train with the restaurant’s wine team, making herself an asset by helping them put together their program. Coworkers who watched her building wine racks and typing out wine menus were baffled as to why she did this work for free, but to Brown, the skills she was gaining were invaluable: “I was learning for free.” Brown’s efforts eventually paid off; she began picking up weekly somm shifts and in 2005 she became the head of the program, where she remained for the next 14 years as a familiar and warm wine presence for some of D.C.’s biggest power players.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Brown, who was only a few months into working as a distributor, was left with a lot more downtime than she was used to. An older customer from her Charlie Palmer days asked Brown to help out with the wine selection for a virtual dinner party. The party proved to be a huge success. One of the guests asked Brown to help out with another virtual event, and pretty soon Brown was working events for Johns Hopkins and other high profile clients around the city. These events helped shape At Your Service, Brown’s first solo business venture where she offers clients a range of virtual and in person wine experiences. During 2020, Brown also strengthened her presence on Instagram, where she is known for her live tastings and her approachable and informative captions. Brown amassed over 5,000 followers and with the blue verification check next to her name, her social media portfolio has expanded into brand partnerships as well.
In the nearly 20 years since Brown began her wine journey, it’s the sheer number of women that now surround her that has changed the most. Without the presence of many women mentors to provide guidance, Brown remembers googling “pregnant sommelier” when she first found out she was pregnant.
“I mean, it’s just huge!” Brown exclaims, referring to the Women Of Wine list, a dynamic google document that lists all of the women who compose the backbone of the DMV’s wine industry, from certified sommeliers to writers and sales representatives. The list has grown to 11 pages and features over 150 women. “It’s just mind boggling to me because even in 2014, it would have probably been like 15 women total,” says Brown.
Brown is firmly dedicated to paying it forward; she sits on the board of The Veraison Project, a non-profit dedicated to bringing people from marginalized communities into the wine industry. The project accomplishes this through scholarships and mentorship opportunities as well as general exposure efforts because, as Brown shares, “sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know.”
These days, Brown continues to add more hyphens to her career. She is building up At Your Service while also judging at wine competitions across the country and venturing into freelance writing. When Brown first moved to DC as a post-grad, she had a very different idea of how her life and career would take shape. “Now, I think there are people at 18 who know that they want to be master somms and they get a mentor and stuff like that, which is great. But I was just kind of putting one foot in front of the other just pretty organically and I think especially with restaurants, right? It’s just the next shift. And then all of a sudden, it’s been 15 years.”
Follow Brown’s work at @nadinewinebrown.
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