By Laurie Wachter
Rania Zayyat is in the center of a whirlwind. Some of it she has created herself by setting big goals to help others. And some are the aftershocks from joining 20 other female Master Sommelier candidates to share their experiences with sexual harassment by men in the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas in a recent New York Times (NYT) article.
Her bravery in publically sharing her story is typical of the way Rania steps forward and inspires others. It also reflects her commitment to changing the world of wine for the better. Speaking out has already generated change. Since the NYT published the article in late October, the Court suspended at least 12 male Master Sommeliers and replaced its Board of Directors, which promptly chose a woman as Chair.
Rania began her path to Sommelier as a restaurant server in her teens. A few years later, she moved to Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, which was, she says, “the first time I’d worked at a wine-centered restaurant.” It was also her introduction to wine because her devout Christian parents never drank alcohol. The restaurant had five people working the floor like waiters but selling wine instead of serving food. When she realized they were also making more money, she began to see a path that would let her learn and expand her skills while also growing her earnings.
“I fell in love with wine!” Rania says, “I started studying and taking exams. Eventually, I won a wine competition at work. When I started at 23, I was the youngest server working alongside 40, 50, 60-year-old people who were lifers in the restaurant industry. I felt I had to prove myself and started working harder than anyone else. I spent all my spare time coming in to count bottles, rearrange the cellar and stock wines – anything I could do to get my hands on bottles. The Pappas Brothers wine list was insane – it had 4,500 different bottles on it. It was the perfect place to cut my teeth and learn from Sommeliers.”
Becoming a Sommelier has combined all the things Rania loves: culture, travel, talking to people and “this beautiful beverage I enjoy drinking and watching how it brings people together. I still think it’s a wonderful industry to be part of despite my experience and what I know many other people experienced. That’s why I’m fighting for it. It can be a great thing for people to be a part of both professionally and as a consumer. I think we can have a better future.”
She’s been working for Steven Dilley for almost four years as the Wine Director at Bufalina, a Neapolitan pizza and natural wine destination in Austin, Texas. “The wine program has taken on a life of its own,” says Steven, “we have 400+ selections now. It’s pretty rare to find someone who has the drive and initiative to formulate lots of worthwhile projects plus the ability to make those ideas a reality, all while working for us. When we realized the pandemic meant it wouldn’t be business as usual, she took our whole wine collection online in a matter of days and set up a wine club that sold out in a couple of weeks. Every time I turn around, there’s more on her plate, and she still gets it all done. It’s an incredible thing!”
Rania appreciates Steven just as much. “I’ve worked with Steven for 3½ years,” she says, “and love the environment. It’s the first time as a Sommelier that I’ve felt supported by my boss.”
Rania’s path had begun shifting to advocacy even before the NYT article, and with its publication, she found herself leaning into it even more. Her grandfather was a missionary and, perhaps because of him, she’s an anthropologist and advocate at heart. Now that she’s refocused her energy, she realizes it’s what she’s always wanted to do. And it’s something she does well.
Her first project was founding the nonprofit Wonder Women of Wine in 2018, since rebranded Lift Collective, to bring attention to the gap between the many women working in the wine industry and the limited number leading it. Lift Collective cites statistics, including that 62% of 2016 graduates from UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program are women while they comprise only 10% of California winemakers. In addition to scholarship opportunities, Lift Collective advocates for gender equality by fostering networking and discussion in forums like its 2019 conference.
“I figured out the Wonder Women of Wine conference as I went along,” says Rania. “I had no experience doing something like this, especially on a national level. As a result, my network has grown exponentially, and I’ve had conversations with people throughout the industry who inspire me with their ideas.”
That network helped her solve the problem of putting on the conference via an introduction to Anna Kehl.
“I met Rania in early 2018, just after losing my healthcare education job,” says Anna. “She needed help putting on her first conference, and a mutual friend knew of my experience with project management and operations and introduced us. It was a moment when the stars aligned — Rania needed someone with my skills, and I had the availability to step up. The best thing about working with Rania, and the reason why it was easy for me to get on board with the mission, is that she’s willing to go the distance and do what’s necessary despite the fear of failure and self-doubt.”
The next big idea was the Be the Change virtual job fair, which Rania co-founded with three women she met through her network — Lia Jones, Cara Bertone and Philana Bouvier.
“I met Lia through someone who recommended her to speak at the Wonder Women of Wine conference,” says Rania, “and then met Philana through another recommendation. We wanted to do something and then had the wonderful idea of the job fair. We made it work in 8 weeks with a lot of 2 am phone calls and text messages. I’m so glad we did it. It needed to be done.”
They took the job fair virtual because of the pandemic. It ran December 1st and 2nd 2020 and succeeded at putting companies in the wine and spirits business together with potential candidates.
“History was made,” says Philana. “It was the first time the wine industry came together to particulate in a diverse equality-inclusion survey and job fair. What makes Rania inspiring is her courageous advancement from the NYT article. She stood up to a powerful organization and then moved on to become a resource, helping build confidence and mentor women in the wine business. That’s what makes her inspiring. She’s a fierce leader, but a quiet one – she exudes humility. She’s not the loudest person in the room, but she has a powerful voice people want to hear.”
Anna agrees, “Everybody could be running an organization like Lift Collective or something they’re passionate about, but they’re not. The reason is that it’s scary. You have to put yourself out there, and she’s willing to do that.”
Continue Reading: Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2021