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.
Vanessa Phillips always knew she wanted to leave Kansas, and wine was her ticket out. Born and raised in Wichita, the extent of Phillips’s travels growing up were 9-hour road trips through Midwestern sprawl to visit family in Texas and Tennessee. When Phillips left home to pursue a degree at the University of Kansas, like any typical college student, she wound up working at a restaurant to help cover her living expenses.
Phillips quickly rose through the ranks at the restaurant, eventually becoming the general manager. An opportunity arose when the owner called upon Phillips, a complete wine novice at the time, to spruce up the restaurant’s wine list. Phillips was tasked to meet with wine distributors, and she recalls feeling entranced and transported by the storytelling aspect of their sales pitches. Inspired, she began her own research into the world of wine and started applying to any wine-related positions she could find.
“I knew I wanted to leave this small town,” Phillips says. “So, at that moment I decided that wine was going to be my thing.”
A beverage director in Nashville decided to take a chance on Phillips, so in the summer of 2016 she packed up and moved to Tennessee to start what would turn out to be an incredibly formative sommelier position at City Winery.
At City Winery, Phillips had the opportunity to learn the ropes of production in addition to what it takes to run the floor as a sommelier. The beverage director who hired Phillips eventually left City Winery and a sommelier named Janelle stepped into his role. Janelle immediately took Phillips under her wing.
“She called me baby bird and we became best friends,” Phillips recalls.
Under Janelle’s guidance, Phillips regularly attended wine tastings and continued formalizing her wine knowledge. Later that year, she passed the Introductory Court of Masters Sommelier course.
In 2018, City Winery was preparing to open its largest location in D.C. With the encouragement of her coworkers, Phillips applied and soon experienced a rush when seeing her name printed on the menu as the company’s youngest beverage director.
That summer, Phillips, who had never owned a passport, was offered the opportunity to travel to Spain and Portugal to meet with importers. Phillips recalls driving through a vineyard in Southern Spain where she passed a field of sunflowers, the Kansas state flower.
“It was a moment where I just felt like I had really made it,” she says.
However, the stress of opening a restaurant left Phillips burnt out, and that fall she left City Winery to further explore the wine industry.
During this two-year period of exploration, Phillips sought to gain as much experience as she could in the industry, from distribution to wholesale to curating private wine collections. While working in these back-end positions, Phillips realized how much she valued the client-facing aspect of her previous role.
“I like seeing people actually enjoy the wine. I like being a part of their lives.”
So, when Phillips saw a sommelier role at the Conrad Hotel pop-up in January 2020, she jumped back into restaurant life headfirst. While at the Conrad, Phillips won the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Competition, a highly sought-after prize for young sommeliers. On her way to getting her Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced certification, Phillips was looking forward to what she believed would be her best year yet. However, the pandemic reared its ugly head and Phillips was let go from her position at the Conrad.
She felt at a complete loss, noting, “It was just a very strange time.”
Nevertheless, Phillips found a silver lining in D.C.’s community of women in wine. These women, who were all busy with their day jobs pre-pandemic, took advantage of the increased time on their hands and began hosting educational Zoom calls and forming group chats.
“I really felt like I was finding my niche in this industry,” Phillips recalls.
While the pandemic trudged on through the summer of 2020, Phillips began her job search, and by August she came across a posting from wine shop Vitis Fine Wines. She immediately connected with the owner, Chris Desor, and accepted a job at the shop. Vitis operates out of Union Market, and its indoor setting didn’t exactly lend itself to becoming a hotspot during a pandemic, but Phillips found ways to keep the wheels turning throughout 2020 and 2021.
In March of 2022, her hard work paid off in a way she could never have imagined: Desor offered her partial ownership of Vitis. Desor now focuses on the financial side of the business while Phillips puts her creative spirit into the store’s operation.
“I’ll tell him, ‘Hey, I want to order this neon sign for the store.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, cool. It’s your store!’”
Creating a welcoming atmosphere at the store is key for Phillips, who has experienced her fair share of less-than-welcoming situations in the wine community as a brown and plus-sized woman.
“There are not a lot of people like me in this industry,” Phillips says. “I’m bubbly and loud. I love lipstick, and I present very feminine. These are things that aren’t the norm in a very male-dominated industry.”
Phillips’s enthusiasm and warmth has secured a loyal group of regulars at Vitis. Phillips recalls one couple stopping by the store to drop off a pumpkin pie last Thanksgiving, and another regular who brought her flowers on her birthday. For Phillips, it’s the fact that she plays a part in some of her regulars’ most important moments that brings her the most joy.
“One day someone will come in and say, ‘I just got engaged and I want to get something really special,’ or ‘My partner and I just signed the mortgage on a house and we want to celebrate’,” she shares. “Knowing that these big events happen in their lives and they come back to you just confirms that I’m doing what I’ve always wanted.”
This Thursday, September 8 at 6:30 p.m., Vitis is kicking off a celebration of women in the beverage industry in tandem with Union Market’s 10-year anniversary. The first event will be a cocktail class co-hosted by Vitis and women-owned distillery and cocktail bar, Republic Restoratives, where attendees will have the opportunity to shake and stir two cocktails and “learn all things boozy.” Tickets are available to purchase online.
On September 10, Vitis is hosting a women-focused wine tasting aptly titled “This One’s For the Girls” that will feature five bottles produced by women winemakers, which you can purchase tickets for here.
If you aren’t able to partake in these featured events, stop by Vitis, where Phillips will guide you through picking out the perfect bottle to accompany whatever life is throwing at you.
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