Amy Zhou - Partner & general manager at Michelin- & co-founder of Wine Empowered.
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I’m currently the general manager and a partner at Cote in NYC, and a co-founder of Wine Empowered, a 501c3 non-profit that provides tuition free wine education for women and minorities in the industry. I have worked in restaurants for about a decade. My parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants to the United States and my father’s first job in this country was a wok cook. This inspired my first restaurant job in high school; I fell in love with it and never looked back. Because I grew up in Shanghai (read: no enforced drinking age!), a few early mentors took notice of my interest in wine and generously supported it. I devoured wine books like Raj Parr’s “Secrets of the Sommeliers” every day after school. I worked through just about every front of house position and a spent a summer as a glass polisher until I was hired to my first sommelier position in Shanghai at 19 years old. I then moved to New York to pursue a hospitality management degree at NYU. One thing has led to another, and thanks to the support of some amazing colleagues and bosses, I am where I am today.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Growing up in Shanghai, a lot of the wine that was available and affordable at the time came from Australia and New Zealand. Better diplomatic relations between these countries and China led to more exports and lower tariffs. I don’t know if it was as much of an “aha” moment as a “whoa” – the first time I tasted a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It was a total kick to the face. I had no idea wine could have that much crazy energy, aroma, and flavor. To this day, I am drawn most to super aromatic wines.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
As a restaurant GM, the most rewarding part of my job is watching our restaurant family come together to create love for each other and our guests. It is having the opportunity to witness daily, hourly acts of genuine kindness and be inspired by it. For Wine Empowered, it’s the chance to be able to contribute to someone’s growth, and we are so lucky to have such an incredible group of students.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Y-e-s. I’ll keep it light and just share one. I was 22 when I became a restaurant manager for the first time. I was very self conscious of being a young female in this position. My suits were cheap and terrible, and it really sucked every time a guest assumed I was a host (which was every time, lol). But that’s okay, because I got over it. We all make honest mistakes, and it is going to take us time as a society to recognize the possibilities in every position. I still get mistaken as a host or asked “if a manager is available” all the time, and it’s a great opportunity to proudly say “yes” – and ask how I can help ❤.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each and change that behavior?
I think any time we are inclined to make a negative judgement about anyone, we should walk a mile in their shoes. Empathy is a powerful tool. It gives perspective, and it helps you let go of any unproductive feelings. It takes you out of a negative space and puts you in a neutral one, and from there we learn to make it positive (or at minimum, respectful) with one another.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
When we started Wine Empowered, one of my partners Victoria decided to do some research on diversity in wine buyer/beverage director positions since none existed. In NYC, she found that women represented only 14% of beverage directors in Wine Spectator Award Winning restaurants and 18% of Michelin-starred restaurants. I won’t get into the details of minority representation, except to say that the stats were even more troubling. So, if the majority of buyers are of a single demographic, then I think it’s fair to say that only a narrow set of values will be reflected in those wine lists. If we support women and greater diversity in leadership positions, we will see so many community benefits – wine programs that reflect the tastes of a diverse community, more support of women and minority winemakers, more mentorship…
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope to see more executives and leaders recognize the sad state of diversity in our entire industry! And make the effort to build women up, invest in their growth, and treat them with dignity and respect. Nobody is asking for anything they don’t deserve. We just want an equal opportunity.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Don’t let anyone intimidate you into thinking you can’t do this. You have a friend in this!
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Leadership that looks like me and you – when the diversity of decision makers and dollar spenders reflect their greater constituents and community.
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
We are currently in our first inaugural class of Wine Empowered. Every student is so driven to kick ass and they 100% inspire me. I cannot wait to see everyone who finishes the program go off to pursue higher positions in hospitality. Class by class, we will equip a new generation of future leaders in wine and hospitality with education and, more importantly, a network of love & support.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Strong, smart and spirited.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I admire Victoria James and Cynthia Cheng – my co-founders of Wine Empowered (and colleagues at Cote!). Victoria is an all around bad ass who was the youngest certified sommelier in the US with the court of masters. She’s a super somm, beverage director, author, and also a partner at Cote. Her generosity of knowledge has supported the growth of many at Cote. She’s a goddess. Cynthia is not only an amazing sommelier but a restaurant jack-of-al- trades. This woman has owned her own businesses, run country clubs, and somm’d all through her first pregnancy. She’s a legend. I am deeply fortunate to work alongside these two. I admire Julia Coney, who I’ve had the fortune of meeting through Wine Empowered. She is relentlessly true, honest, and funny. Her writing has democratized wine for a huge community of readers. She calls out prejudice in the industry and shitty marketing, and holds people to account. She is seriously “strong,” “smart,” and “spirited.” I admire Cathy Corison. Do I really even need to go into why?! Bad-ASS!