A woman with bottle


The world of wine has always been an exclusively male domain, but the diminutive Lia Poveda, Sommelier at the Milestone Hotel, has more than enough passion to change all that – as this interview reveals.


01st November 2010

Red Carnation Hotels
Lia Poveda

Lia Poveda

“In France it is very hard to become a female sommelier. The customers in France, and other wine growing countries like Italy and Spain, are very difficult if you are a woman. In these countries learning about wine is very much a part of your education, so if you have someone older than you recommending a wine, that is acceptable. But if you have a little French girl saying I am going to show you… you are challenging their knowledge, and questioning their education!

So, in France a sommelier is expected to be a minimum of fifty years old, and a man. I am neither! In France, you don’t see a lot of sommeliers who are women for the simple reason that people are not given the chance to do it.

So why did I choose this career? I grew up in Metz, in north eastern France. My family are in the wine and hospitality business… my uncle was voted the best sommelier in France, my mum had a wine shop, my grandparents had a hotel, my brother had a restaurant, so every weekend I was working in a different family restaurant. And then I went to veterinary school!

I missed working in the restaurants at the weekend and thought “maybe it is for me”. Through my family, and the people they knew in the wine business, I was discovering more and more, then I went to hospitality school and got a degree. Next I managed to get on a sommelier course in Dijon. It was very tough to get accepted, there were only 8 places and 200 candidates.

I studied for two years with Catherine Dore, she is the secretary of the organisation of wine for France, and she is organising the competitions worldwide, so she is very well respected throughout the wine industry.

But the study of wine is a lifelong journey, so this was just the beginning for me… every day you need to read about it, and then of course meet the right people, who actually show you different things. Then I worked in a couple of well respected restaurants in France before moving to the Hotel du Vin in England, followed by the Vineyard at Stockcross, and then I joined the team at Summer Lodge, working with Eric Zwiebel.

ms chenestons

Chenestons Restaurant at The Milestone

Then I moved to the Rubens, which was a big learning experience for me. It is a big operation, because I was also overseeing 41 and Bbar, which meant I had to do a lot of training for their staff. When the opportunity came up at the Milestone Hotel I was very happy to take that, because it meant I would be working with Executive Head Chef Ryan O’Flynn, who is also my fiancée.

The world of wine is still male dominated. My teacher, Catherine Dore, she struggled all her life to get the respect she deserved in France. And when I go into a competition people think I am just there to welcome them, the receptionist! But women are now breaking through, especially in Britain. Here everybody understands that if you are in a position you must have the knowledge that goes with it. They won’t really test you in the same way, they are much more easy going, they say “she is there, and there must be a good reason she is there, and let’s listen to what she has to say”…that’s why I am in England, for me it is easier. Also, British people in general have more knowledge about the rest of the world… it makes it more fun from a professional point of view because you are not just talking about French wines, but about wines from all around the world.

I am putting some women wine makers on my wine list. Christie Brown from New Zealand, Elena Walch from Italy, Lyne Marchive at Domaine Des Malandes in Chablis, and Heidi Barrett who has recently become the winemaker at Screaming Eagle.

Also, I think wine and food, you can’t separate them… it is important for the sommelier to work closely with the chef, both must believe in what the other is doing to complement each other… and being in a personal relationship with the chef that means your understanding is that much closer!

Food and wine, they are both things you should share with people, they are things that bring you closer, so it is always about being all together, and sharing a good moment, and having fun.

What do I love about being a sommelier? It is a science without ending, constantly it is exciting because you never know how it is going to be from a year to another year. All the time it is a bit of a gamble. Wine has always been surrounding us, there is great history behind each bottle, and then there is the challenge of transmitting what you know about that wine, and its history, to people, and to capture their interest. I love meeting new people and what better to speak about than your passion?”

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