Photo: Daniel Lempres
Photo: Daniel Lempres

Leading The Way With Glass In Hand

DC’s wine scene continues to expand and innovate, with new restaurants and bars pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. Gone are the days of stuffy wine lists. As consumers become more educated and adventurous, wine programs must evolve to keep up with hot trends, new regions and unique varietals.

The wine industry has long been male-dominated, but that too is rapidly changing. More women rise to the top and thrive within all areas of the wine industry – from winemakers to business owners to sommeliers at the hottest dining destinations. We sat down to chat with a few of the amazing women driving the District’s wine scene.

Photo: Marissa Bialecki

Photo: Durazo Photography

Stacey Khoury-Diaz
Owner, Dio Wine Bar

Originally from Sonoma County, Stacey Khoury-Diaz fell in love with the natural wines movement she’d experienced across the country and abroad. She opened Dio Wine Bar in the H Street Corridor in September 2017 to fill the natural wines gap she felt was missing in DC.

On Tap: Your menu indicates wines that are made by female winemakers. Do you find there are any notable differences between wines made by women and wines made by men?
Stacey Khoury-Diaz:
When I opened Dio, I wanted to highlight other women in the industry, so about 20 percent of our list is made up of wines that are from woman-owned wineries or wineries with a woman winemaker. I tend to see a lot more elevated wines made by women.

OT: What advice would you pass along to women beginning their career in the wine industry?
SKD:
Men can walk in and simply say, “This wine is awesome.” But a woman has to be more prepared with facts and statistics to prove her knowledge base. This applies on many levels in business. We have more obstacles and have to work harder to prove ourselves.

OT: What’s your go-to wine at the moment?
SKD:
I can’t stop drinking a winter rose by Daniel Ramos from Spain. It’s 100 percent garnacha and a very deep, fragrant rosé. It tastes like roses, vanilla and baking spices. It’s beautiful!

OT: What sets Dio apart from other local wine bars?
SKD:
We really highlight the fact that we’re a natural wine bar, meaning the wines are all organic or biodynamic with little added. I’m socially and environmentally driven, so natural wines fit how I live my life. We’re eclectic as far as countries represented and have a lot of fun bringing in wines that aren’t available elsewhere.

Dio Wine Bar: 904 H St. NE, DC; www.diowinebar.com

Photo: Marissa Bialecki

Photo: Marissa Bialecki

Niki Lang
Partner and Sommelier, Maxwell Park

Niki Lang has years of experience in the wine and hospitality industries, and most recently embarked on a venture with business partners Brent Kroll and Daniel Runnerstrom. Shaw’s Maxwell Park opened in June 2017 and continues to garner praise and accolades from locals.

On Tap: What wine can you not get enough of lately?
Niki Lang:
I’ve been nerding out over Northern Piedmont recently. My favorite is La Kiuva, a Picotendro [local name for the Nebbiolo grape] from Valle d’Aosta [in Italy]. It’s a lighter, more delicate style but still very interesting and complex.

OT: How did you find your way to the wine industry?
NL:
I grew up with my grandmother and wine was part of everyday life for her, so I was always exposed. When I took the first course from the Court of Master Sommeliers, it opened up a whole new world. I went into wine sales for a few years, worked at other fine dining restaurants in DC, and even worked at a distillery to learn mixology and the distillation process to broaden my knowledge of the beverage world.

OT: What’s the collaborative process like with your business partners?
NL:
Brent, Daniel and I have different backgrounds, so we bounce ideas off each other constantly. We have 50 wines by the glass that change monthly. March’s theme is “The Upside Down” – Southern Hemisphere wines. It’s collaborative and fun, and we try to keep it clever.

OT: How do you think the DC wine industry has evolved throughout your career?
NL:
DC feels like it’s been exploding with fine dining restaurants. I’ve seen a trend toward value-driven, approachable wine lists that focus on obscure varietals. At Maxwell Park, we work with almost 50 different distributors because we change our list so often and we want unique, experimental wines that are popular among consumers.

Maxwell Park:1336 9th St. NW, DC; www.maxwellparkdc.com

Photo: Daniel Lempres

Photo: Daniel Lempres

Vanessa Cominsky
Sommelier, St. Anselm

With its namesake location in Brooklyn, St. Anselm expanded to the District last fall and was an instant success in the up-and-coming Northeast area near Union Market. Vanessa Cominsky was part of the opening team and currently oversees a wine program of more than 700 options.

On Tap: What’s your top priority as a sommelier?
Vanessa Cominsky:
Our goal is to challenge perceptions and take people on an adventure. There’s truly something for everyone, from classics to more funky picks. This area is also so vibrant and people are excited to come in and explore, which helps me as a sommelier.

OT: What’s in your glass today?
VC:
My honest answer is a double shot of espresso. Blue Bottle saves my soul. I’m also into Sicilian and Southern Italian wines right now like Azienda Agricola COS, one of the original wines from Sicily that’s imported in the States.

OT: What challenges do you face as a female wine professional?
VC:
I’m almost numb to the “Oh, you’re the sommelier?” looks at this point. I hope eventually I won’t have to list my accomplishments to justify that I’m qualified to do my job. Until we don’t have to do that, we’ll have a lot of work to do within the industry.

OT: What makes St. Anselm relevant in DC’s ever-changing foodie scene?
VC:
We have Joe Carroll [the restauranteur behind St. Anselm] in New York, and he always gives input on what’s coming. I also eat out a lot and listen to people. Writing off trends seen on social media and Instagram would also be a big mistake. It’s a big part of how we connect with [customers] in regards to food and wine.

St. Anselm: 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com

Photo: M.K. Koszycki

Photo: M.K. Koszycki

Darlin Kulla
Beverage Director and Sommelier, KNEAD Hospitality + Design

After returning to DC for an internship in climate change, Darlin Kulla quickly realized office life wasn’t her path. She soon began working with various fine wine programs throughout the District, and now she’s gearing up to sit the advanced exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers this fall while leading the wine programs at Succotash and Mi Vida.

On Tap: What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to the beginning of your career?
Darlin Kulla:
I wish I’d know that it’s okay to ask for help, advice or mentorship. It’s easy to forget we’re not in this alone. There are so many people in DC that are driven and talented; it’s a great community and very supportive.

OT: Tell us a bit about the wine programs at Succotash and Mi Vida.
DK:
Succotash is Southern American food, so think bold, structured wines that can stand up to the food. Southern food is not shy! Mi Vida’s menu is more varied in terms of styles, even though it’s a smaller list. We went heavier in Spanish and Iberian wines. There are some fun Portuguese wines and also a Mexican Chardonnay by the glass.

OT: Wine perhaps isn’t the first pairing people think of with Mexican cuisine. How do you help guests select wines to pair with more complex dishes from the menu?
DK:
We have descriptors for all the wines printed on the list so the consumer is able to get a snapshot of the wine before they order, which is helpful with more eclectic wines. People are becoming more adventurous and what they’ll try continues to exceed expectations.

OT: What wine is currently on your short list?
DK:
I drink a lot of Beaujolais – that tends to be my go-to.

Learn more about KNEAD at www.kneadhd.com. Two new spots, Gatsby in Capitol Riverfront and The Grill at The Wharf, will join the restaurant group’s existing locations later this year.

Mi Vida: 98 District Sq. SW, DC; www.mividamexico.com
Succotash: 915 F St. NW, DC; www.succotashrestaurant.com

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Tess Ankeny

Tess has been writing wine-related features for On Tap since 2014. She is a Certified Sommelier (CS), Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and a Certified Wine Educator (CWE).