It turns out certified female sommeliers are hard to come by in these parts. We caught up with one talented trailblazer singlehandedly flying the flag for Brum in a male-dominated world
At the time of writing, Abigail Connolly is the only certified female sommelier in Birmingham which is shocking given the city’s vibrant food and wine scene and its clutch of Michelin stars. Having vowed never to go into the family firm – the 100-year-old Birmingham institution Connolly’s Wine – that number was nearly nought.
In an industry filled with men in moleskin trousers and bright socks, Abigail’s star is shining bright, but how did she get there? Abigail tells us: “It’s a weird one! I always said I would never go into the family business and went to UCB to study for a Culinary Arts degree. Six months in, I realised it wasn’t for me.”
Abigail loved the service side of the industry, so she started working in restaurants, generally high end such as a particularly successful stint at Carter’s of Moseley where tasting menus with wine pairings are the thing. It whet her appetite for the drinks side of the business and Abigail trained hard to become a sommelier.
She qualified as a certified sommelier last year which ordinarily takes three years to accomplish, but with her background in wine she did it in 18 months, culminating in an intense three-part exam. Now firmly in the family fold, she’s happy she ‘gave in’. She says: “It’s great actually! I love it.”
The opening of bar Arch13 attached to Connolly’s Wine shop is keeping Abigail on her toes. She says: “Arch13 is my baby. It’s what I do. It’s early days but it’s been really busy so far. It’s a far cry from my grandad’s business with just a barrel of white and a barrel of red!” Serving charcuterie from the top drawer along with an impressive selection of cheeses and naturally a huge variety of wine, we reckon her grandad would be gobsmacked.
It’s a tough industry with unsociable hours, but one that Abigail thrives on. “I’m used to hospitality. The weekends can be crazy, but I just love talking to people and recommending something that makes their eyes light up,” she explained.
Of the lack of females at the top of the wine game in the Midlands, Abigail’s a bit confused too although admits that at industry events there is a distinct lack of women, perhaps a good thwack of snobbery and plenty of the afore-mentioned moleskin trousers. She explains: “It’s still a man’s world. You get a lot of old fellas wearing red trousers and I can understand why it seems a bit stuffy.
“When I did my exam there were only three women in a room of 30 people.” Women’s palates are just as good as men’s – some would say superior — so it seems crackers. Abigail also says there are times when people have looked through her in search of the male sommelier to recommend a bottle of wine or asked if her dad’s around to give them some advice! She says: “Thankfully it’s happening less and less and things are getting better.”
In terms of ambition, Abigail is focusing on making Arch13 the best it can be and collaborating with her family visiting vineyards to source new wines to bring to the city. They’re looking to update the shop too which Abigail will be heavily involved in.
“I’d also like to see Birmingham and the West Midlands having an increasingly strong wine representation. It’s definitely improving and events like Birmingham Wine Weekend help, but we’ve some way to go yet.”