Felicia Colbert is a woman on a mission and she’s not letting anyone stand in her way. She has worked her way through the food service industry for the past 17 years, and her determination is paying off. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Colbert returned home to Maryland where she got a bachelor’s degree in sociology from University of Maryland while helping raise her niece. Six transformative weeks in Spain made her pump the brakes on law school, put her life in storage and say, “I’m going to be a somm.” With help from some “amazing, powerful women in the industry,” Colbert set out to be not just a sommelier, but the sommelier. Now, as wine director at A Rake’s Progress in AdMo’s LINE Hotel – which is holding strong to the title of one of the city’s hottest restaurants – she is shaking up industry standards one Burgundy at a time.
On Tap: Were you always drawn by wine? What was it about the food service industry that attracted you?
Felicia Colbert: I feel like I was always in food. My first job was when I was 14 at Outback Steakhouse as a hostess, and I actually stayed at that job for almost five years because I worked at such a dynamic restaurant that really believed in ownership.
OT: You are a young black woman in a white male-dominated industry. What unique challenges have you faced in your burgeoning career?
FC: It’s no secret to anybody that there’s not a lot of ladies over here in somm land. It’s definitely a challenge. But I think everything is an intersection so it’s hard for me to talk about my life as a lady somm and say I’m not only a woman, but I’m a woman of color. People think I’m either the hostess or maybe the maître d’ or some other job, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m here to sell you wine.” It’s watching people rectify their cognitive dissonance in real time. But like, the reason that a company has decided that I get to be in charge of millions and millions of dollars of someone else’s money and wine is because I’m more qualified than anyone else who works here. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. There is no privilege that I get to sit back on. I’m here because I’m literally more qualified than any other person.
OT: How do these experiences inform the way you run your program and manage staff?
FC: You have to find a way to build productivity into every single thing that you do. I hold myself and people around me to the highest standard, and sometimes it makes them uncomfortable. There is literally nothing that I love more than perfect service. Service is everything. It’s the reason why we do this, because otherwise you would eat at home. It’s about someone being so skilled at their job they can anticipate things you didn’t even know you needed.
OT: What is exciting to you right now about being in DC and having this job?
FC: I think it’s exciting that DC is open to new things right now. Millennials, 30-somethings, have real jobs now. They have money – they want to come out and drink good wine and spend money on wine. On a deeper level, the fact that people are entertaining the idea that women of color can run programs, I think that’s great. I think there are a lot of challenges that still come with that from a consumer basis, but also from an organizational standpoint. You can’t have qualified people and then not have the systems in place to keep them. I do think that change is exciting, but it’s also like, who wants to be the person who has to do all of the emotional work for people who aren’t ready to put in the emotional work for the change that they want to see?
OT: Do you personally enjoy educating people about wine?
FC: Yes and no. How do I nicely tell someone you’re asking for something that you don’t want? Some people are open to it, but the reason that [many people] continue to get wines that they don’t like is because you’re going into a dealership and asking for a Ferrari but you’re describing a Honda, or vice versa. It’s hard to educate people. I try to use words that are descriptors as opposed to buzzwords – people words. I think that a way I try to educate my guests is by saying, “Hey, the next time you’re looking for a wine, you can mention that you really like wines that have X flavor.” Or not. Because you know what? I’m not here to do the emotional work for that either. If you don’t know how to ask for what you want, there’s not enough Burgundy for all of us to drink it, so you can keep on saying, “bone dry.”
OT: The DMV has received some notoriety in recent years for progress in growing and vinting. What about our region particularly excites you from the wine industry perspective?
FC: DC is getting a lot more fun, interesting wine shops. I always tell people first and foremost: retail, that is your place. In DC, there are no restrictions. The wine shop can be the importer, the distributor, the purchaser. Domestique is a great example of that. Weygandt Wines is amazing. Go prepared with at least $50 more than what you plan on spending because you’re going to find some stuff that’s just crazy and amazing.
OT: You have your exam to be a master sommelier this fall. What’s the next challenge? What’s on the vine for future Felicia?
FC: I have a dream jar. I am always thinking about what’s next. I am a planner. What’s next for me is I need to be in a place where what I have to give and offer is fully recognized and I don’t have to fight to do my job, and I think that’s only working for myself. I just dream up this utopian restaurant because you know what? Someone is going to come along and be like, “Hey Felicia.” They will. I believe that – truly. I bring value to our program by making sure that we get the wine that other people can’t get by building relationships because that’s what it is always: your people. Your people are what matter. My people have gotten me here. My people will continue to get me here.
Check out Colbert’s carefully curated wine menu at A Rake’s Progress, and learn more about the AdMo spot at www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues.
A Rake’s Progress at LINE Hotel: 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; 202-588-0525; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues