Most people have never heard of her profession, but she’s one of the best on earth

There was a time when Lee Campbell did not know the meaning of the term that has become her passion.

By Robert Stitt

Today, she is a Sommelier, a trained and professional wine expert, in New York. As the director of Andrew Tarlow’s Brooklyn restaurant group, she is responsible for the wine lists of six restaurants, including the famed Reynard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Campbell grew up in the West Indies drinking rum and didn’t really understand wine. She told Black Enterprise that prior to her move into the food industry, she was contemplating a career in law and had only “done two stints as a waitress in college, and “was really, really bad at it.”

She stated, “Other than that, I had worked in a Dairy Queen growing up; that was the extent of my profession in the food industry.”

One night, the magic happened. Campbell had dinner at Restaurant Nora in the Dupont Circle area near Capitol Hill. As unlikely as it may sound, that night’s meal and wine caused her entire future to shift.

Campbell relates that she got up the next morning and went right back to the restaurant to ask for a job and learn about the food industry. One of the owners took her in and introduced her to the chef, Nora Poullion, who hired Campbell to be her personal assistant.

Campbell learned a lot about the restaurant business over the next several years, and through her love of food and the industry, she also learned to love wine. Eventually becoming a restaurant manager, she came to “understand wine, and how important it was to the restaurant experience.”

It was during her time in management that she noticed the person with the best job in the restaurant was the Sommelier.

Campbell now spends her days ordering and tasting wine, meeting with vendors, and training staff. Most importantly, though, she aims to create fabulous wine lists that reflect her personality. She may be a wine expert now, but she has not forgotten where she came from.

As a female minority in a male-dominated industry, she had plenty of people that helped her along her path, and she credits great mentors with providing excellent support.

She told Black Enterprise, “It’s important to me to act as a mentor to women and people of color who are also interested in wine. So, pretty much anybody who sends me an email, I try to write them back and give them advice.”

Part of Campbell’s desire as a Sommelier is to educate others about wine, and she has become somewhat of a celebrity in her field for her promotion of natural wines. She feels that because the wine industry does not have strict labeling requirements, many commercial wines end up with a lot of chemicals in them.

Campbell prefers wines that are more organic and natural with as little added to the grapes as possible.

She sums it up this way: “Alcohol in moderation is a great thing, but if that alcohol can also be something that’s really an expression of the land and an organic thing, that’s even better.”

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