Before the judges could finish announcing the winner of the Meilleur Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsperson of France) competition in the sommelier category last October, everyone knew it was going to be Pascaline Lepeltier. It wasn’t just that the Master Sommelier had placed as a finalist three times before. As food writer Sylvie Bigar noticed, Lepeltier was the only “madame” among the nine contenders. In winning Lepeltier became the first woman to earn the title, chipping a crack into the glass ceiling that has long loomed over the French vocation. One month later she shattered it, becoming the first woman to be crowned Best Sommelier of France by the Union de la Sommellerie, the second of metier’s top national honors.
Things could not have been more different at the gala for the Lauriers, Quebec’s culinary awards, in Montréal last month. Had presenters used the “madame” prefix to announce the Best Sommelier of the Year, the winner would not have been obvious. For the second year in a row, four out of five of the nominees were women. Accepting the award, Véronique Rivest, one of Canada’s most esteemed sommeliers, reflected on the honor of sharing the category with the other women, welcoming Toqué! sommelier Carl Villeneuve Lepage into the girl’s club with the quip, “Carl, you’re one of the girls.”
Rivest, owner of Soif Bar à Vin in Gatineau, Québec, adds the Laurier trophy to a crowded mantel that includes two Canada’s Best Sommelier titles, and a silver medal from the Best Sommelier of the World competition in Tokyo in 2013. The Outaouais-region native first fell in love with tasting and serving wine while waiting tables as a student job. It wasn’t until she first started working and competing abroad that she noticed significant gender imparity within the profession.
“We’ve always had a strong female presence in Québec,” Rivest explains. “I didn’t have any major obstacles, but when I started working at an international level, I realized it’s not the same everywhere.” As an example, she points to the Best Sommelier in the World competition, which typically counts a handful of women among its 50 to 60 international candidates. “But, and this is something I always insist on and am very proud of,” Rivest says, “as the competition moves along to the quarterfinals and semifinals, the proportion of women increases dramatically.” The most recent contest held in March in Antwerp had eight women among the 66 Best Sommelier hopefuls. Three placed in the top 10, including Denmark’s Nina Jensen, who finished second.
Among the 257 professionals who have passed the world-renowned Master Sommelier exam in its 50-year history, only 32 have been women. Montréal-based Élyse Lambert earned her red pin in 2015, a pinnacle achievement she adds to others, including being the first woman to win Best Sommelier of Québec, sharing the podium with two women in 2004. “We were strong believers that we had a place,” says Lambert, “and that if we wanted to make a difference, we had to be better and more dedicated than men to prove that we should be there.” After a tenure as head sommelier at Maison Boulud Ritz-Carlton, Lambert now works as a consultant sommelier and columnist for Radio-Canada et Le Journal de Montréal.
Seasoned sommeliers like Lambert and Rivest have paved the way for a younger generation that is shaping the wine lists of Montréal’s finest establishments. As Montreal Gazette wine writer Bill Zacharkiw observed, sommelier and wine buyer Vanya Filipovic “influences thousands of wine drinkers on a weekly basis” with the predominantly natural wine program she oversees at cult restaurant Joe Beef, its sister wine bar Vin Papillon, Mon Lapin, and, most recently, McKiernan Luncheonette.
“Building one of the most talked about wine programs over multiple restaurants in the same city is a very, very big achievement,” says Emily Campeau, wine director at Candide. Filipolic’s selection steers clear of processed wines, which she likens to Kraft singles, and will leave varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon completely off the menu in favor of rare finds, like the FCK TRMP Burgundy aligoté that quickly sold out last June. “She’s changing the way people are drinking, encouraging people to drink healthier and more consciously,” says Campeau.
Campeau, who cut her teeth in the kitchens of Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze in Paris and Racines in New York City before shifting to wine, credits Rivest with helping her cultivate confidence. “It’s okay to have personality and not erase yourself behind a wine list. It’s okay to have opinions,” Campeau says. Her penchant for Eastern European wines has translated to a broad selection of Riesling on the wine list at Candide, and a move to Balf, Hungary to work on a vineyard while still serving remotely as the restaurant’s wine director.
For Kaitlin Doucette, who oversees the wine program at Foxy, Olive et Gourmando, and Un Po’ Di Piu, and consults for Dandy, a good sommelier prioritizes inclusivity. “With the wine lists that I do, particularly as a woman and as a queer person, I do bring my politics to the table,” Doucette says, “And I’m interested in highlighting winemakers that have an outside perspective, whether they’re people of color, women, queer folks, people working in climatically challenging areas, people breaking ground in new territories, and people who are facing immense financial and economic pressures as well.” Crafted to appeal to all tastes, Doucette’s lists range from hybrid, biodynamic vintages from Vermont-based La Garagista to wineries in more traditional appellations like Sancerre and Barolo that use principles she endorses.
As a city that sits at the intersection between the New and Old World, Montréal’s wine culture is as reverential as it is rebellious. “We are in this really interesting place where we have one foot in France’s Old World sensibility, yet also a progressive eye on what’s going forward,” says Doucette.
While the sommelier profession is still male-dominated by many measures in Québec, the province’s geographical removal from the Old World may have removed a few gender barriers in turn. “Maybe it’s the weight of history that we don’t have,” muses Rivest. “I don’t know, I can only observe.”
Get to Know the Somms
Location: Balf, Hungary
Job: Wine director at Candide
Number of wine bottles in personal cellar: Around 150. “In my Montréal cellar, zero, because I moved away.”
Famous women with whom she’d like to share a bottle: “My first answer would definitely be Courtney Love.” Also: Dolly Parton, Jancis Robinson, Josephine Baker, and her grandmother would also be invited. “And in this fantasy, I am the one cooking,” she says.
Job: Formerly head sommelier at Le Local, Maison Boulud Ritz-Carlton
Number of wine bottles in personal cellar: 500. “I’m practically pushing the door to keep it closed.“
Famous women with whom she’d like to share a bottle: Lady Gaga and Michelle Obama.
Job: Owner of Soif Bar à Vin
Number of wine bottles in personal cellar: Somewhere between 500 and 800.
Famous woman she’d like to share a bottle with: “Obviously Jancis Robinson comes to mind.“ Michif (Métis) visual artist Christi Belcourt would be another.
Job: Sommelier at Foxy, Olive & Gourmando, Un Po’ Di Piu. Consults for Dandy.
Number of wine bottles in personal cellar: 80-100 bottles. “My partner is sober… so we’re a semi-dry home.”
Famous woman she’d like to share a bottle with: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “She definitely deserves Champagne… Whatever she wants, it’s on me.”
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