Diners at the famed Midtown restaurant Le Bernardin will occasionally confess to the wine expert serving them that they keep kosher — except for the lobster they are about to order.
Lucky for them, the shrine to fish and seafood has someone on staff to pair the forbidden crustacean with the perfect kosher wine.
That person is Gili Koren Lockwood, 31, a Le Bernardin sommelier who is on her way to becoming the first Israeli to achieve the highest ranking in the world of wine: Master Sommelier. There are 129 Master Sommeliers in all of North America and 197 worldwide. Only 18 of those in the United States are women.
Wine professional was not something Lockwood, born in the Jewish section of Nazareth to a family that reveled in food but didn’t give much thought to wine, ever thought about doing as a child.
“I didn’t know I could be that,” said Lockwood. “It wasn’t an option.”
There are plenty of Jewish winemakers (making both kosher and non-kosher wines) and many Jews on the investor and sales side of the business, but Jewish sommeliers tend to be scarce, according to Alice Feiring, a New York-based wine writer and self-described “ex-yeshiva girl who made it in the wine world.”
Feiring mentioned Beth Lieberman, of chef David Chang’s foodie darling restaurant Momokufu Ko, as another Jewish woman sommelier in New York, and while she knows of a handful of men in the job, in general, one doesn’t find a lot of Jews working in restaurants.
“It’s hard to tell your parents ‘I’m not going to medical school or law school, I’m going to be a wine waiter,’” noted Feiring.
Nothing in Lockwood’s background hinted she would one day break glass ceilings in the rarefied world of wine. Both her parents came to Israel as children; her father from Romania and her mother from Ukraine (her mother’s father survived the Holocaust, and was a Zionist activist). Her father is a city engineer, and her mother is a high school literature teacher.
Her family was close-knit, and her grandparents and cousins all lived nearby.
They frequently gathered together for cozy family dinners, but the wine was “very uninteresting” she realizes now.
From a very young age, Lockwood would help with the cooking.
“The kitchen was always the most social place in my parents’ home, it’s where all the fun happened, where all the jokes were told and where all the gossip was shared,” she said. Eastern European staples like borscht and stuffed cabbage were the norm, as was her father’s “legendary” chopped liver: “I loved the stories that came with every recipe and the time spent between pots and pans with my loved ones.”
Still, Lockwood thought she would follow in her father and sister’s footsteps and study science when she returned from Australia, where she traveled after her army service. But in Australia, where she encountered many people who regretted not following their true passions, she retooled her plan, realizing that culinary school was where she wanted to go next. She called her parents from Thailand to break the news and, to her surprise, they supported her decision completely.
She was 22 when she arrived at the Culinary Institute of America, the most highly-regarded cooking school in the United States, where her active participation in a required class on wine prompted the instructor to ask whether she had considered specializing in wine. The idea took root.
After graduation, she moved to San Francisco to work and fell in love with a sous chef, Brian Lockwood, who was originally from Boulder, Colo.
When the relationship became serious, she brought him to Israel for a several-month stay.
“He fitted in in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” she said. “He was smothered with my family and friends and food. He made chopped liver with my dad and gefilte fish with my grandma. They fully embraced him and love him. He now knows so much about Israel and Jewish culture, and understands some Hebrew, I can’t even see him as not [Jewish].”
He took to Israel so much that the couple hopes, eventually, to move back and open a restaurant there together.
They married in Colorado and moved to Boulder, where she decided to spend some time studying wine.
It was in a Boulder wine class that Lockwood’s career path, food-focused until then, finally forked. She found a mentor in Wayne Belding, himself a Master Sommelier. His passion for wine inspired her, and she set her sights on his rank, given by the United Kingdom-based Court of Master Sommeliers, recognized as the premier international wine examining body.
She had to first pass the exams for Certified and Advanced Sommelier, and after she received the latter ranking she snagged a sommelier spot at Le Bernardin, whose head sommelier, Aldo Sohm, is widely recognized as one of the best in the world. Another Boulder mentor who is friends with Sohm referred Lockwood for the job.
“I feel so fortunate to be working at Le Bernardin and with Aldo,” she said. “They expect nothing but perfection here. You drip one speck of wine on the tablecloth and that’s not okay. Everybody expects that kind of professionalism from themselves and each other.”
The atmosphere also encourages Lockwood in her daily studies for the Master rank exam, which includes a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, in which she must discern the varietal, the country and village of origin and vintage. She will also answer questions about such topics as proper storage, regions, fortified wines, proper glassware and wine pairings.
Though Lockwood had little restaurant experience, she immediately won Sohm over in their first Skype interview, he said in an e-mail interview.
“She has this beautiful and natural smile, which is so important in our industry. On top of that, she’s super passionate about wine, and totally modest and humble; I always look for people like that,” he said.
Despite her elite ranking and unique status as a woman and an Israeli in a field historically dominated by white men, Lockwood eschews the flowery descriptions of the stereotypical, snooty sommelier:
“I’m afraid it will sound patronizing and will push the guest away, and I would like to leave room for the guest to have their own experience with the wine instead of putting words in their heads.”
She’s also bringing her background to bear on Le Bernardin’s legendary, 15,000-bottle wine cellar. Since she’s been there, they’ve increased their selection of Israeli wines.
“We get asked for kosher wine more often than you’d think,” she said.
Alix Wall is the food columnist for j. weekly, a freelance writer and personal chef (www.theorganicepicure.com) in Oakland, Calif.
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