Somm Talent: Danya Degen
October 18, 2022 @ 12:00pm
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.
Growing up in a Jewish family in a small town on the New Hampshire border, as far as Danya Degen was concerned, Manischewitz was where wine began and ended. A self-proclaimed nerd, Degen always had big dreams of a career in STEM and in 2010, she moved to New York City to pursue a degree in economics. In New York, Degen quickly realized she needed a job to help cover her expenses and was determined to find a position where she could utilize her Arabic skills.
This led Degen to Naya, a Middle Eastern restaurant with a warm climate-focused wine list. Degen started off hosting and eventually began running the restaurant’s books as the Maitre D’, a role Degen describes as ideal for her considering it’s the “nerdiest job in a restaurant that you can get.” Degen remained at Naya throughout her college years with stints abroad in Oman and throughout the Middle East.
She shares, “nothing made me happier than getting as many people into a space enjoying the food, culture and wine that I was excited about.”
After graduation in 2014, Degen packed up and moved to D.C. with hopes of beginning a career that combined her degrees in economics and Middle Eastern studies. While waiting on a seemingly never-ending process to receive a security clearance for what Degen considered a dream position, she began looking for restaurant jobs to help pay her bills in a true return to form.
Armed with a stack of resumes, Degen roamed D.C.’s neighborhoods, hopping off at each metro stop to drop her credentials at various establishments around the city. Among Degen’s numerous stops was Beuchert’s Saloon, a “farm American” restaurant in Eastern Market. Degen recalls feeling immediately at ease when she entered for the first time —“it just felt right.”
Degen decided that restaurant was the industry where her career would take shape. Four months into her serving role, Beuchert’s lost their sommelier and, sensing her potential, Degen was tapped to assume the position. Degen loved and excelled in this new role, but the hours and stress of a full-time restaurant job put a serious strain on her body. After undergoing some serious health issues, Degen decided to put a pause on life in the industry.
In 2016, Degen landed a role at Capitol Hill wine shop, DCanter where she pitched to owners Michael and Michelle Warner that she was looking for mentorship and the opportunity to use her economics degree in practical application. Serendipitously, when the job Degen began, the person running their private shopping service left their position, and Degen was selected to assume the role. She learned the ropes of private shopping and writing tasting notes and eventually went on to receive her advanced certification from The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Degen was thriving at DCanter, but some personal hardships made it difficult for her to put in the extra hours often required to keep a small business afloat.
In 2017, Degen received a Linkedin notification that Aaron Silverman of Michelin-starred Rose’s Luxury was opening a wine-focused restaurant in Capitol Hill and Degen jumped at the chance to become a part of Little Pearl’s opening team. While at Little Pearl, Degen quickly understood that the restaurant was becoming a huge operation and noticed that much of the responsibilities fell onto Little Pearl’s sole sommelier.
“And that’s when I really realized that somms are miracle workers because they can’t just be somms. It’s not useful to have a singular sommelier or wine director, because that person is pulled in a million directions because they have to be. And then you get into a situation where, there’s no one left to go to a table to talk about wine, or to deal with the person crying in the office, and meanwhile there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom.”
Degen eventually began co-running the wine program and went on to manage it as well. By 2019, Degen really felt like she had found her voice and place in wine but also realized how much she equally enjoyed the business and HR aspects of hospitality.
As was the case across the food and wine industries, things were tenuous throughout the pandemic; Degen and the rest of the staff at Rose’s restaurant group were shuffled between the restaurants. This unpredictability, however, gave Degen the opportunity to work at Rose’s where she met Rachael Haas Stow, whom Degen considers a major mentor in her life.
Haas Stow eventually left Rose’s and in February of 2021, Degen received a text from Haas Stow asking her if she wanted to meet her new boss, Hollis Silverman, at Eastern Point Collective. Eastern Point Collective was looking for an HR and Operations person to replace Haas Stow and Degen was quickly brought on to assume the role.
The collective describes itself as a team of “community-driven hospitality innovators” who manage, design, and operate several establishments around D.C such as La Collina and The Duck & The Peach. The collective is also perhaps best known for their 22% business model that adds a 22% service charge to all dine-in and events.
“People essentially work on commission instead of tips which means that they keep a portion of what they’re selling, which gives them the empowerment to sell more but also to feel like they’re more of a part of the business,” she shares.
Degen’s ultimate goal is for her employees to feel encouraged to explore new interests. “From an HR perspective, I’m trying to really structure a program where people feel like they have growth patterns.”
In addition to operations, Degen also oversees the wine program at The Duck & The Peach, La Collina, and The Wells. She curates an entirely women-made and/or women-owned by the glass program at The Duck & The Peach, with a bottle list that features women producers and sustainable, equitable winemaking.
“It’s like this incredible bonding moment when we have women in wine dinners and tastings, and [the producers] come in. And there’s that moment of them being like, thank you. Because it feels really good to know that there are people dedicated to uplifting them.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.