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Spotlight On: Chicago’s Female Sommeliers and Beverage Directors

With Women’s Day coming up this weekend, there is no time better than now to honor the amazing women of the Chicago food world. From chefs and restaurateurs to bartenders and sommeliers, women are owning the food scene! They’re bringing a new expertise and perspective to classic techniques and putting their own spin on changing seasonal menus. That includes bar and wine menus across the city! From James Beard nominees to natural wine experts, these women will help you fall in love with wine at every sip…

Jillian Riley from NoMI Kitchen {800 Michigan Avenue, Chicago; 312.239.4030}

Though Riley grew up with parents who didn’t drink, she has certainly become an expert in alcohol herself. After studying abroad in France during college, she became enthralled with the world of wine. She continued to study wine while bartending, ultimately pursuing her sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. She was then part of the sommelier teams at RPM Steak and RPM Italian, before joining the NoMI team. She now runs the comprehensive wine program for NoMI Kitchen and the Park Hyatt, focusing on wines made in ethical ways, and those that are available at all price points. Wine is for everyone, and helping the wine world feel approachable and exciting is always the goal for Riley and her team.

Rebecca Schliff via Rich Beltzer

Rebecca Schliff from Bad Hunter {802 West Randolph Street, Chicago; 312.265.1745}

Schliff has been a part of a wide range of the wine world; from working in San Francisco restaurants like Locanda Osteria & Bar to taking classes in oenology at University of California, Davis to working the 2012 harvest in Napa Valley as a cellar hand, she has seen it all. Following that harvest, Schliff took a position as Wine Director and AGM of Hopscotch in Oakland before eventually moving to Chicago to take on the role of Wine Director and Assistant General Manager at Bad Hunter. One of the highlights of Bad Hunter is their comprehensive natural wine program, so ask the team there if you’re interested in learning more about this practice. Schliff is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) through the Society of Wine Educators so you can be sure she’ll have lots of tips and tricks for you.

Rachael Lowe via Matt Haas

Rachael Lowe from Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia {980 North Michigan Avenue #1, Chicago; 312.280.2750}

Recognized with back-to-back James Beard nominations for “Outstanding Wine Program” in 2019 and 2020, Lowe is earning well-deserved and wide-spread acclaim for her work as Beverage Director and Sommelier in Chicago. Lowe oversees the wine programs at Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Spiaggia and its sister concept, Cafe Spiaggia, along with several other Levy Restaurants concepts. To say she is a busy woman would be a serious understatement!

Lowe has also made headlines as a Food & Wine “Sommelier of the Year,” StarChefs “Rising Star Sommelier” and Jean Banchet winner for “Top Sommelier” in Chicago. Basically, if you’ve got a question about the wine world, or need a recommendation, you should go to her. She’s using her expertise to educate and inspire the Chicago food world, and even has some special tips for spring wine drinkers…

“Spring is a time when I get extremely excited for the ingredients to start coming into season, such as ramps, morels and asparagus,” Lowe explains. “I love pastas with all of the aforementioned ingredients, but a rich morel mushroom tagliatelle with butter, a bit of parmesan and lemon is a great combination of flavors. My husband and I enjoy hand-making pastas at home, which is an added bonus. A perfect pairing with this would be a Colterenzio ‘Lafoa,’ Chardonnay from Alto Adige. This wine is rich and rounded while still maintaining a bright acidity; aromas of golden apple, bosc pear, almond and a hint of vanilla work well with the richness of the dish, while the acid cuts through the fat and mirrors the lemon.”

Cheers to that Chicago!

Rebekah Mahru from City Winery Chicago {1200 West Randolph Street, Chicago; 312.733.9463}

A love of travel was the start of Mahru’s love affair with wine, but it certainly didn’t stop there. After living in Argentina, Germany, and Spain for extensive periods of time, and spending years of her early life either the back of house or front of house of restaurants, entering the wine world was a natural fit for Mahru. She moved back to the States from Spain in 2012 to be a part of the opening team for RM Champagne Salon in the West Loop. Later, Mahru joined the City Winery team as the wine intern for the former National Wine Director, Rachel Driver Speckan. With many hours of dedication, Rebekah rapidly moved up the ranks from intern to Head Sommelier, then to Assistant Beverage Director. Now, just two and a half years later, she is the Beverage Director of City Winery Chicago.

But Mahru isn’t going to stop there! She is also currently immersed in the training and studies with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and received the top score in her class for her certified sommelier exam this past year. Her passion for wine is described as a “nerd-filled love” by her team, and she’s excited to continue to share that love with all of Chicago, too. Come to City Winery for a tasting, or one of their ongoing events and live music nights, to learn more from Mahru.

Kat Hawkins from Shaw’s Crab House {21 East Hubbard Street, Chicago; 312.527.2722}

Though she is originally from Detroit, Hawkins is now part of a Chicago institution as the Assistant General Manager and Beverage Director at Shaw’s Crab House, a River North favorite since 1984. As Beverage Director, she is in charge of selecting wines for Shaw’s extensive list, choosing each bottle to complement the carefully-sourced seafood that Shaw’s is famous for.

She raves about Shaw’s selections, saying their “wine program is roughly 300 bottle selections and 30 by the glass selections. Although we offer wines from around the globe, it is focused on great producers and classic Old World regions that lend themselves to the delicate nature of the fresh seafood we bring in daily. […] You can come here and drink a $50 bottle or a $350 bottle and it was selected with the same amount of care.”

That care and planning has led to Hawkins being named one of America’s “Best New Sommeliers” by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2019. Though she personally loves the wines of Alsace, Northern Rhone, and Rioja, Hawkins has worked hard to make Shaw’s a spot where wine-lovers of all kinds can find a new glass or bottle they’ll love.

“Shaw’s is a special place for many people and if I can help to continue to make their experience a great one by providing a versatile and serious wine list then I am doing my job.”

By Kaleigh Glaza | Market Editor