Women of Wine

Men may dominate the wine industry globally, but in Miami women have the nose for what the city wants to sip on.

17 min read
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There was a time, not long ago, when wine was something of an afterthought in Miami restaurants, the pleasures of sipping an esoteric grape varietal overshadowed by a dining culture that emphasized bottle service, tropical cocktails, and beachside beers. Flashforward to today, when the city’s restaurants boast increasingly sophisticated wine selections and residents are as well-versed in the joys of unfiltered orange blends as they are mai tais, and one wonders: What changed?

While women remain underrepresented in all aspects of the wine industry, in Miami they have found fertile soil to make a lasting impression. Here we highlight four female pioneers who have each created businesses built around their love of fermented grapes—and who, collectively, have worked to reshape the way the city thinks about, and consumes, wine. 

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Jacqueline Pirolo, Macchialina

You can’t have a conversation about Miami’s wine scene without talking about South Beach’s Macchialina and its beverage director, wine wizard Jacqueline Pirolo. Born in Italy and raised in Long Island, she began her career in visual effects production. But with older brothers who both ran restaurants, it wasn’t long before she entered the family business, and in 2016 Pirolo made her way to Miami to help her brother Mike open a second restaurant. 

Though the enterprise closed within a year, Pirolo knew that she had found a new home and passion. “I fell in love with the camaraderie that exists within the industry here,” says Pirolo.

“It really is about building each other up and supporting one another in a very genuine way. It didn’t matter that, at that time, Miami wasn’t being offered the same allocations and options we are today—we were still excited about what one another were doing with what we could find.”

Working at Macchialina since 2016, Pirolo curates a wine list exclusively composed of Italian wines, including lesser-known varietals like Ansonica and Monica. With a mission to educate and expand the palates of her guests, Pirolo chats through the wine list, guiding diners to wines that may not be on their radar, and has created a half bottle menu to further encourage low-commitment exploration. In order to ensure the staff is continuously learning, she also started internal Wine of the Week meetings, where each staff member picks a wine off the list to share with the group, allowing for the chance to ask questions and get to know the various bottles. 

“I noticed that certain servers had their go-to wines they would sell, almost becoming a bit of an inside joke,” explains Pirolo. “Truthfully, the idea of a server only selling the same three to four wines terrified me, since I wanted an ever-changing list that offered items most people have never heard of.”

During the pandemic, the cozy indoor restaurant transformed itself into a bottle shop as a way to work through inventory and keep the lights on. An instant hit that evolved into a wine club—with Pirolo often delivering bottles to subscribers on South Beach via her scooter—today Macchialina’s Wine Collective is an oenological cornerstone of the city and a revenue stream for the restaurant. In addition to giving subscribers the option of two, four, or six bottles per month, they get a snack from the chef and first dibs on restaurant reservations.

“Miami’s beverage scene has evolved so much,” says Pirolo, though she recognizes that not deviating too much from the core is still a key to doing business. “This is a party city and it will never not be all about bottle service. But at Macchialina we call them magnums and always make sure to have a few on hand.” 

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Karina Iglesias, Niu Wine and Niu Kitchen 

Back in 2014, when Karina Iglesias and her partner, Deme Lomas, opened Niu Kitchen in the heart of Downtown Miami, there were few places in the city serving the sort of off-piste natural wines she specializes in. “I’ve been in Miami for over 20 years, but I’ve never been to a pool party where people are drinking mojitos,” says Inglesias, explaining that she was motivated in part to create a space that ran counter to the city’s global reputation. “In the beginning I wasn’t intentionally focusing on natural wines. I just wanted to work with small producers and people that were like me—small businesses that struggled a bit. I wanted to highlight not only the people producing the wine, but also the importers and the distributors.”

Originally from Argentina, Iglesias also wanted to foster a wine-centric environment that was free of the less savory pretentions long associated with wine: the snobbery, the mansplaining, the unspoken belief that you need a PhD to appreciate, say, a biodynamic Vinho Verde or the carbonic maceration that softens the tannins in a  low-sulphite Gamay. “As a woman in this industry, I know what it is to be talked down to,” explains Iglesias. “Once I was in France on a tasting trip with two women, a wine buyer and a winemaker, when this Italian man starts talking to us like we’ve never had a glass of wine in our lives, asking if we knew what tannins were. Um, yeah, that’s what we do for a living.” 

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Dispiriting as such moments are, they inform the ethos at Niu and its newer sister property, Niu Wines, where small-batch wines are made accessible through an attitude of inclusiveness; by forgoing a formal wine menu at Niu Wines, for instance, the intimidation factor is replaced by an intimate chat with the staff. “We’re not just here for the wine nerds,” says Inglesias, describing herself as “wine pusher” who aims to make broadening palates fun. “What I love most is when someone comes in, asks for something super mass market, and I can steer them to something else,” she says. “Now some of those customers come to my house for BBQs and we drink the most ridiculous wines!”  

Like many other restaurateurs, Iglesias weathered the pandemic by converting part of her restaurant into a wine shop. Under the name Medium Wine—a winking reference to her self-identification as a “wine medium”—she turned a dialogue with customers into a game of figuring out what wine would please their sensibilities. Guests would give an example of what they are used to drinking and she would lead them to something similar—a bit of pandemic improv that she now operates as a pop-up at various events and spots like Little River’s new Understory, an outdoor venue with an ever-changing rotation of food, drinks, and music. 

“These days it’s the highlight of my week,” beams Iglesias. “The other night we were there and a punk rock band was playing, with a mosh pit and everything. But we had 300 people drinking wine!”

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Allegra Angelo, Vinya and Vinya Table

Allegra Angelo, co-owner of the wine bistros Vinya and Vinya Table, started working at restaurants as a teenager and originally envisioned herself in the kitchen. But after attending the Culinary Institute of America and landing a job as a pastry chef at Jean-Georges, the legendary New York restaurant, she found the highlight of her days was making small talk with the sommelier and switched gears.  

Moving to Miami in 2006, Angelo dove headfirst into the world of wines while working with Michelle Bernstein and her business partner husband, David Martinez, who were then opening Michy’s, the restaurant that made them icons of Miami’s restaurant community. “As a young woman and totally green beverage professional, I was so lucky to be there then,” says Angelo, who worked her way from a server position to management as wine director. “Michelle gave me a wonderful balance of creative freedom and structure, and she was all about pouring really, really cool wines that were ahead of their time in Miami.” 

Angelo later became the beverage director for 50 Eggs Hospitality Group, the Miami-based restaurant group that now boasts a portfolio of diverse properties. “50 Eggs was a new experience for me, as I tackled spirit-forward beverage programs for the first time,” she says. “They were new as a brand, constantly evolving, and were phenomenal mentors. The lesson I learned there: Stick to your plan if you believe in it and give it time.”

 Following a stint in San Francisco, Angelo returned to Miami and made this lesson a reality in opening Vinya and Vinya Table, places built to both celebrate and demystify some of the stodgier notions associated with wine drinking. Thanks to a large by-the-glass selection, visitors can try different varieties without committing to an entire bottle, and with an ever-changing “40 Wines Under $40” category, she’s made scanning a wine list a friendlier, less overwhelming experience. “With wine there’s this idea that it has to either be really stupid, like ‘Here I am on a boat drinking rose!,’ or really serious, like ‘Here I am in a cellar with a vintage Barolo.’ We’re all about that place in the middle,” explains Angelo.

“Behind the scenes we’re intense dorks who break down the wines into a million pieces, but that’s so we're able to be more relaxed with customers in making things more simple: dry, sweet, earthy—the vocabulary that embodies the spirit of the wine without too much heavy jargon.” 

Bianca Sanon, paradis books & bread

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Originally from South Florida, Bianca Sanon, who oversees the wine program at paradis books & bread, left the Sunshine State when she was 18 to attend college in New York City. Initially intent on a career in fashion, she soon found herself smitten with travel and dining, and changed course. “That really gave me the chance to see that people really fall in love with other cultures by experiencing how they dine,” she says. “Everything from what they are eating and drinking to the ambiance surrounding it—I wanted to be part of that for people.” 

Her first hospitality job was in New York, with Major Food Group, where she rose up the ranks and found herself in management by the ripe age of 24. A self-described beer obsessive, she increasingly found herself drawn to wine—both the geekier aspects, like soil nuances and maceration periods, and the laidback drinking culture that, in New York, was especially fervent in the world of natural wines. “Natural wine is all about accessibility rather than wine being an event,” she says. “It’s casual, less pretentious, and in that lent itself well as something that would be embraced in Miami.”   

Returning to Miami in 2018, Sanon created the wine program for the launch of Boia De, now a Michelin-starred darling, where the menu exclusively featured natural wines. “Being on the floor there, that was my first real heavy lifting in terms of communicating a different vision for wine in Miami,” she says. In addition to the challenge of getting people to think outside their comfort zone, there were instances where she confronted larger misconceptions and barriers. “I am not only a woman, but a black woman, and that comes with its own set of challenges in a white male world,” she says.

“At Boia De people would be like, ‘I want to talk to the wine guy,’ and I’d be like, ‘That’s me.’ But with Miami’s wine world being predominantly female-led, there’s a very real feeling of community. We all know each other and support each other.”

In 2021, Sanon opted to create a world of her own, opening paradis books & bread with four friends. The space is a singular hybrid that operates as a bakery, bookstore, wine bar, and community hang. “It’s really an amalgamation of everything we’re interested in,” she says of the model. “What’s really cool is seeing the different ways people activate the space. Someone might want to come and sit in the corner and drink a limeade, while another person might want to geek out on wine.” 

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At paradis, Sanon focuses on the natural wines she's most passionate about, working to define—and, in some cases, redefine—how wine is perceived among customers. “It has its challenges. There’s an idea that natural wine is all funky and weird—that’s not the narrative I want to take here,” she says. “Sometimes people come in asking for something classic, like a Napa Cabernet, and I’ll use that as a chance to introduce them to a Hungarian Furmint. Those interactions lend themselves to a beautiful aha moment between myself and the customer where we help each other.” 

While Sanon prioritizes creating a casual environment for idle sipping, she also uses regular tastings and her monthly wine club as foundations to push the barriers and invoke conversations about climate change and how that affects the soils where grapes are grown, ultimately changing the landscape of wines all over the world. “When it comes to wine, it’s not just about what grapes are used and what region they are grown in,” she says. “There’s so much more to talk about and I like to carry wines that help get that conversation going.” 

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant’s story can help or inspire another. We’re proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.

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