Wendy Tait is the Managing Director and Sommelier at the Park Avenue Club in Florham Park. The Park Avenue Club is New Jersey’s top private dining club providing essential support to 11 local charities through the Park Avenue Foundation. See www.parkavenueclub.com for more club information.
GSW: Wendy, how long have you worked at the Club and in what capacities?
Wendy: I came to Park Avenue Club in March of 2002 after having worked on Wall Street and experiencing the hell of 9/11. After being stuck in a city in what felt like the Apocalypse, I made a complete career change… leaving behind a large financial conglomerate and hair pulling commute and embracing Park Avenue Club where anyone would feel more like a part of a family comprised of members, their guests and our employees. I began as the Dining Director then became the Director of Food and Beverage and Sommelier and am now enjoying my current role as Managing Director.
GSW: What was your background prior to joining the Club? Where did you grow up? What is your educational background? Where did you work previously? Doing what?
Wendy: Before truly settling on a career I dabbled in a lot of varied professions…I was a Ford Model, Precision Motorcycle Rider for BMW, Professional Singer, Account Executive in Advertising and Marketing for print as well as TV and a restaurant owner. I grew up in Morris County and attended Newark Academy high school in Livingston. After graduation from high school, I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, a small Pennsylvania town, but after a year I was lamenting much like Billy Joel in his song “Allentown”, that there was a world out there begging for my participation and I had no choice but to listen. After my freshman year, I left Muhlenberg, moved to Montreal where I attended McGill University for a stint. After a while, I returned home went to the New School in Manhattan and then finally attended Rutgers. By the time I got to Rutgers, I had come to the realization that I needed to stay put in one place and at a school long enough, to get a degree. I planted my roots back in NJ and graduated from Rutgers with a degree in Mass Media and Journalism and a minor in Psychology. All of this time the hospitality business was my key to paying rent and saving money as I worked as a bartender and manager for many years as an extra source of income and loved the interaction with the patrons but, most importantly, their stories…because we all have a story.
GSW: Everybody associated with the Park Avenue Club either as an employee or member always seems so enthusiastic and passionate about the club. Why is that?
Wendy: The club is a wholly unique place where everything that makes the “real world” seemingly cold, untrusting and callous is completely transformed into warmth, kindness, familiarity and caring as soon as you walk through our doors. Our mission, which is The Spirit of Giving, says it all. The sole purpose of Park Avenue Club’s existence is to help support 11 New Jersey Charities through our endeavors. That same Spirit of Giving is what fuels our passion and desire to give back to one another in everything we do and in all the interactions we have here at the club.
GSW: Is it unusual for a woman to be the Sommelier at such an exceptional facility?
Wendy: Most private clubs in particular Country Clubs, do not always have the an in-house sommelier specializing in the wine and beverage needs of their members because they are focused on their main draw…golf. For foodies and wine enthusiasts, Park Avenue Club is great because as a City Club, our focus is highly tuned to the world of wine, food and service as it is our specialty. Female sommeliers are becoming far more prevalent in the business but statistically there are still more male Master Sommeliers in the US than there are women…74 men to 12 women respectively. Women’s rise to Sommelier status within the restaurant sector grows exponentially stronger than their presence within private clubs…think of it like Wall Street circa 1985.
GSW: How did you develop your interest in wines?
Wendy: I became deeply involved in wine when I worked for a major financial organization on Wall Street. After a few rounds of golf with clients I realized that I best find a skill set that better suited me and so I pursued the world of wine. I figured, if I couldn’t rub elbows on the links then I was certainly sure that I was going to rub elbows at the dinner table. My first foray into wine education began with Kevin Zraley Windows of the World Wine School in Manhattan. It was actually there that I tasted a wine that changed the world as I knew it… forever. A 1995 Ridge Zinfandel, it was as an “A HA” moment as strong as any, that awoke my palate from a deep slumber and transported me into a momentary fantasy land where all of my dreams would come true. It was a defining moment for me in the truest sense and from there, I never looked back…
GSW: How did you manage to become a sommelier? What educational process did you follow and where did you do this? How long did it take to earn this designation? Are there various stages of being a sommelier based on your knowledge development?
Wendy: As my career continued to change and develop I too needed to be sure that my skill set continued to grow and develop along with it. I began running wine dinners and realized that there was a whole world of wine that existed out there and the only way to try and tackle the immense amount of information available was to get educated. I went to the Sommelier Society of America and completed a 21 week program designed for both professionals and consumers passionate about wine. Master Sommelier is the highest distinction a wine professional can attain and it is quite rigorous to get there which is why there are only about 74 Master Sommeliers in the U.S 12 of whom are women. At some point in my life I may chose to pursue that lofty goal, but am currently so engaged in my day to day role here at Park Avenue Club that I prefer to spend my time amongst our members and immersed in the world of wine as it relates to my ever changing needs.
GSW: How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry? How do you stay current on all the wines available? Do you travel in your work?
Wendy: In any profession it is imperative that you read up on your specialty as well as immerse yourself in it fully. For me that means working closely with other wine professionals to make sure that I am constantly tasting new vintages, grape varietals, etc. of wines both well known and virtually unknown, consistently look for feedback from members on wines that we have recommended as well as wines that they have selected themselves, travel in a small part to wineries and vineyards to see, hear, touch, taste and smell what it means when someone for example says Napa Valley, visit the competition, go to wine tastings, read, read, read…taste, taste, taste…and finally to speak on topics and host special events and wine dinners constantly keeps me on my toes because you never know what someone might ask and you ALWAYS want to be prepared.
GSW: Are there wines from particular parts of the world that you enjoy and recommend highly? What are a few of your favorite U.S. wineries?
Wendy: I have such a great affinity for wine it is difficult for me to play favorites as my palate, along with the wines themselves, are forever evolving. I am always excited by a great bottle of wine and I try to tell people every day that value is value, at any price point. I get equally excited about a totally undervalued wine from Chile at $10.00 as I do about a ’97 Barolo at $175. Good wine is good wine plain and simple and like people, each one brings its own personality to the table and so you judge it based on that. My recommendation for people with an interest in wine is to ENJOY wines they know and love, but EXPERIMENT with wines they think they hate. I hear a lot of people telling me what they don’t like and I wonder if they have ever allowed themselves the opportunity to slow down just enough to smell the “viticulture flowers”. Sometimes one bad bottle of wine of an unfamiliar grape varietal will have someone saying for the rest of their life that they just… don’t… like it. By taking an all or nothing approach to wine is reminiscent of a kid with their vegetables. Maybe, the Brussels Sprouts you hated and tried to feed to the dog as a kid ends up being your favorite savory side dish as an adult. Experiment and revisit, that’s what I say!
GSW: Do you recommend other women becoming a sommelier and, if so, how do they get started? Is it a good career path and why?
Wendy: For myself I created the “4-P’s”…get yourself in a Position to Pursue your Passion Professionally and then…make it happen and never look back. Being a sommelier has provided me a platform to experience and embrace my passion for wine and people. The two are so strongly rooted in me that to do something involving neither would quite frankly be criminal. Being a sommelier is a wonderful career but it doesn’t come without its fair share of sacrifice. The world of wine operates on a different timeframe than typical corporate America and by default when the world socializes…you, work. That is why the love for people is almost as important as your love for wine because your clients, patrons and friends in turn, become a part of your extended family and in turn an integral part of your life.