Sitting at a cypress table in the carefully chilled wine cellar at Brennan’s Restaurant, sommelier Sarah Arceneaux shared the story of Gaia Gaja, who’s taking the helm of Gaja, her family’s Italian winery, which dates to 1859.

Esteemed winemaker Angelo Gaja and his wife named their daughter “Gaia,”  which has the same pronunciation as “Gaja,” because he knew that she — their firstborn — would one day inherit the winery.

They wanted to make sure that if Gaia married and changed her last name, she would maintain a variation of her family’s surname.

Angelo is still the president of the sprawling business, and his daughter Rossana and son Giovanni play significant roles. But Gaia is gradually becoming the brand’s best-known ambassador.

For Arceneaux, this story of a woman operating an established, old-world winery is one illustration of how women have risen through the ranks of the traditionally male-dominated industry.

“I think the wine world is changing,” Arceneaux said. “Women are being taken more seriously in high positions — whether they be wine critics, winemakers for prestigious brands or owners of prestigious brands.”

Brennan’s on Royal Street is an example of how that change is happening in New Orleans. Three women, who’ve accumulated a wealth of experience and wisdom in the wine industry, run the restaurant’s high-profile wine program: sommelier and director Braithe Tidwell, and sommeliers Arceneaux and Jessica Sturman.

Although each joined the Brennan’s team at various times, they’ve been working together since late 2016. They’re already leaving their imprint on a legendary wine list, and they're feeling the warmth from fellow female sommeliers.

“Everywhere I go, I seem to meet women ‘somms,' ” said Arceneaux. “Here in New Orleans specifically, I know a lot of women in the wine industry. And what's cool is that the community's really tight, and we support one another.”

“We deserve to be there”

Almost any wine steward can claim the title of “sommelier,” but the professionals working in renowned restaurants have earned sommelier certifications, like the ones issued by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), Americas.

The organization, established in 1977, offers certifications for four courses, ranging from an introductory sommelier course to a set of exams required for a Master Sommelier diploma.

Out of the 158 professionals who carry the coveted title of Master Sommelier in the CMS Americas chapter, only 25 are women.

According to GuildSomm, an international club for wine professionals, about 30 percent of female sommeliers have earned a CMS certification, while nearly 80 percent of male sommeliers have (the three Brennan’s sommeliers have the certification).

“I think it’s just overcoming the feeling that we deserve to be there, because we do,” said Tidwell, noting that the number of female certified sommeliers is growing. “We’re getting to a point where we're trusting ourselves a bit more to push for a higher certification and push for more knowledge.” 

Honoring Brennan’s traditions

The sommeliers have helped rebuild the historic restaurant’s wine cellars by expanding the depth of their vintage wines and focusing on their vast Burgundy collection, but also by adding fresh and bold finds, based on their individual preferences.

“Brennan's is a classic restaurant, and appreciating the classics is definitely something we drive home, but we branch out on our own,” said Arceneaux, adding that she’s “always been old-world focused,” but lately, she enjoys domestic wines. Coincidentally, Ella Brennan, the late matriarch of the Brennan’s family, was a pioneering advocate for American wines, said Arceneaux.

“She was one of the first people to push our United States wines in a very French-oriented city,” said Arceneaux. “It's a great legacy to follow.”

But the women’s efforts extend beyond the wine list.

Tidwell said her sommelier group, and the Brennan’s crew in general, strive for a service style and culture that’s free of pretension. The restaurant’s general manager, she adds, frequently reminds the staff to simply “be nice.”

“We see people coming into the restaurant who know very little about wine, are intimidated by the list, and really need our help to pick something,” said Tidwell. “They want to experience New Orleans, and what it feels like to have a bottle of wine at a nice restaurant, and it's our goal to make that happen.”