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Vanessa Ruiz, sommelier and podcaster
On the realities of being an American in the Parisian hospitality business, starting a podcast, and building a spirits business.
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Vanessa Ruiz is a Paris-based sommelier and podcaster who I’ve known since 2018. We met when I was traveling in Paris alone and I grabbed dinner at Yard, where she was my server. Since then, she’s worked at a few Parisian temples of natural wine and cocktails, and more recently, she’s left the restaurant world to start her podcast, Good Acid. We chatted about the realities of working as an American in the Parisian hospitality industry, her new podcast, and her goals of getting into the distilling business.
Brianna Plaza: Can you walk me through your background?
Vanessa Ruiz: My story with alcohol is funny. Our family loves food because we're Latino, but I did not grow up in a family that dined out. I specifically remember for my family's special gatherings, the big thing was Benihana's. So, dining out was never a thing with my family. My parents were never wine drinkers. So I never really knew about that world or was very interested in that world.
I went to school in Ohio for fashion. I knew that I wanted to get into buying because I knew that my brain was much more analytical and process-driven than creative. But that is what introduced me to the world of luxury. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people with money in the sense that they knew about restaurants and about the finer things in life, and I was super interested and amazed by it all.
In college, best friend and my roommate was already 21, and she was the one who would buy us alcohol. I remember that I was never interested in drinking much of anything at all, especially not the cheap beer that you drink in college. We somehow came across Hendricks Gin — we thought it had cucumbers and roses in it because it’s marketed that way, but it doesn’t at all. I had her buy it even though it was expensive. We Googled how to drink it and we poured it with tonic water. At first we thought it was disgusting, but then we realized it was delicious. Long story short, that's what started with my obsession with spirits. Imagine an 18 and 19-year-old girl bringing Hendricks Gin to a college party.
I graduated college and moved to New York, but I still wasn't even able to legally drink. I remember when I turned 21, I started going to all of the cocktail bars in New York. I spent all of my money dining out instead of partying. That was never my thing.
I got into wine when the creative director at a job invited me to a party and she wanted me to bring some wine. I asked my roommate where the nearest wine shop was and she was like, “There's a wine shop down the street from us, but I don't recommend that you go because the wines are super weird." It was the only one open so I had to go there anyway. I picked up a few bottles at a certain price point, and went to the party, not knowing what I bought. Turns out, the shop was Natural Wine Company, an icon in the neighborhood. I discovered that it was natural wine, so I went down that rabbit hole to learn more. I went to all the natural wine bars in New York.
At the time, I had a really difficult job, and my husband, who was my France-based, long-distance boyfriend at the time, said to me, “You are really passionate about restaurants and all kinds of drinks. You should do something with that. Just move to Paris. Move to France."
Looking back now, I probably should have stayed in New York and I could have had a really great career, and I probably would've been doing some really cool things. But I figured it was a once in a lifetime thing, so I moved to Paris.
I did the WSET Sommelier certification and moved to Paris in 2018 and I quickly tried to scramble and get a job. I was super naive and assumed I could get a job anywhere. But I didn’t have any papers, nor did I know the language. If you show up at a restaurant in New York and are like, "Listen, I don't have any experience, but I can work whatever hours you want me to, and I can do whatever job you need me to, I just want to learn from someone." They'll be like, "Great, you can start tomorrow." But the French are not like that.
I got very lucky though. The first week that I arrived, my husband had a friend of a friend of a friend who knew a guy who worked at Yard. And he said, "Yeah, just come stop by and you can meet him and maybe you can start working there." It was exactly the place that I wanted to be because it had all the craziest natural wines. I showed up and the guy took one look at me and he was like, "You want to do what?" I said I just want to learn about wine and I'll do whatever you want me to.
He was very hesitant especially because I didn’t speak French, but he said yes. I showed up the next week and I remember my husband made me a list of 20 phrases to memorize that I could say during service. I memorized these phrases and I would only say them. The phrases were the most cliche service questions you would need to ask someone, but that was the only way that I spoke French. And if you had to ask me any question outside of my phrases, I would say, "I don't know what you're saying."
That was my first job in Paris and I was there for about three months. After that, I worked at Double Dragon, which is a really amazing Asian restaurant by two sisters. They do natural wines and really spicy Asian food. While working there, I did my first harvest with Hervé Villemade, in the Loire Valley. I chose him because he works with a very small appellation that I was obsessed with. I met their cellar master at a tasting, and he told me to show up in September if I wanted to work the harvest. I found out I was pregnant and I ended up doing the harvest in September 2019 when I was four months pregnant.
I worked until I couldn’t, and then quickly after, COVID hit. My career was quickly put to a halt because one, I had a baby. But also because COVID here was much more extreme than it was in the US. Things closed for a very long time. Hospitality here was getting hit very, very hard, so restaurants weren't open.
I started to do popups with some chefs. Then I got a job with Le Mary Celeste, an institution in Paris for wine and cocktails. They were the first place to have the idea of wine and cocktails and small plates with a raw seafood and oyster bar. They have a huge bar that takes up more space than the actual seating, which is a very normal American concept, but in Paris, that was non-existent. That was the first restaurant where I was able to manage a wine list myself, from beginning to end. It also fed my healthy obsession with cocktails because I could be surrounded by cocktails and never get bored.
The reality of having a kid was definitely not aligning with my career path, and it was really, really apparent a year into that job. I had to quit basically, because it was just really not aligning with my personal life anymore. I ended up actually taking another job that I thought it was going to be different because Le Mary Celeste is a very busy bar operation. I worked in that new role for seven months, and that brings me to about two months ago.
Brianna Plaza: What was it like as an American moving to Paris and jumping right into hospitality?
Vanessa Ruiz: Being American, there are parts of me that are very obviously American to the French, and there are parts of me that are not. And I feel very lucky that I can switch that on and off when I need to. I feel like I can relate really well with Anglophones and South Americans, which has helped me during service.
My family's Colombian, and for some reason — I didn't notice this until people told me — when I speak in French, I have a Latin accent.
I think because when I'm trying to speak French, it's the way that my mouth is moving and the way that I'm pronouncing things, it sounds much more Latin. So I don't sound American immediately when I'm speaking to people until I speak English. So, I was very lucky in that I didn’t sound overtly American.
I don't like generalizations, but for the sake of generalizing the situation, the French can be very closed off and typically they’re not the most open people. They’re not smiley the way we are. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. People would comment all the time during service that I'm so smiley, that I'm (jokingly) in a good mood, that I speak to them, that I look like I like my job. And for me, I was just doing the normal service job that I would do in the US. I don't actually believe the way the French are is a bad thing at all, over the years I've started to see a lot of the beauty in their ways but it's just been a tough adjustment for me personally to learn an entire new way of interacting with others that feels so different from the way I naturally am. In America, they would love someone who is assertive and enthusiastic, because that's just how I am, and the French are just not about that at all and I get it. I see the other side of it too.
If you can imagine, I'm young, American, and female, and I was trying to sell wine to older French men. It’s a recipe for disaster sometimes. Off the bat, they didn't understand that I was a female. There are obviously French female sommeliers, but they expect a man at first.
Second of all, I'm American. Because I could talk about a menu, I could talk about things that they had never heard of. And for some reason, for them that was like a red flag. They thought that because I'm American and they view American wine as completely horrible, they're like, "How can you sell me wine when your taste is horrible?"
I’m also young and I haven’t been here for that long. I feel like I was able to say, "Yeah, I've been here for six months,” and they would look at me like, "Oh, that's cool. Good for you." And now that I've been here four years and people can sense that I'm much more serious about it, they're almost more apprehensive of me. They’re like, "What is she doing? What does she want to do?" I just have to keep working with a lot of passion and grit to prove myself and show that I can keep up.
That’s the struggle that I'm finding now. I'm four years into it, I feel like I know so much, I've learned so much. But I feel like I'm still struggling to get my foot in the door sometimes.
And unfortunately, I know many expats and many other Americans who have had the same experience in their own careers. So, it's not one in a million by any means.
But with all that said there have been so many positives with my career here and I'll never stop being grateful for the opportunity to live and work in this incredible country. I've been able to meet people who have taken a chance on me when I needed it and guided me through the crazy french administration for my papers. Most of all I've been able to meet countless incredible winemakers who will forever remind me exactly why I chose to work in this field.
Brianna Plaza: Shifting back to the present. You left your restaurant job recently to pursue new projects. Tell me about those projects.
Vanessa Ruiz: Like I said before, the reality of me working at a very traditional sommelier job in a restaurant with a family and a child, and no family here to help, and also with a very low salary, is just not realistic.
I think if I would've stayed in New York, it would've been a completely different story — I don’t think I would have had a kid. I don't regret my decision at all, but I do recognize that things probably would've been very different. But that's okay, because I feel like now, I'm thinking about things a little bit differently.
So now, I can think about what can I do to be part of the wine and spirits industry without having to directly work in a restaurant and without having to work for an importer.
France is very much a country where if you don't have a degree in something, they don't want you. What you go to school for is very much what you end up doing, and you don't have a lot of leeway and changing your career, moving in a different direction. It's very linear.
Every single job I wanted, they've just been like, "No, but you didn't go to a hotel management or food and beverage management school." Even though my entire career before hospitality was working as a project manager for large companies and involved in multimillion dollar budgets. I am very analytical and I've always thought that my very analytical side and my process-driven experience mixed with my sheer love and passion for wine and spirits would somehow allow me to have hospitality jobs in France.
In the four years that I've lived here, I've been really lucky to meet lots of people, and I just felt like there are quite a few podcasts in French about food and beverage, and I listen to all of them. But there are many people who are obsessed with Paris and obsessed with natural wine and food in Paris, but don't speak French. My podcast, Good Acid, is me talking to people in the industry about their experiences, but also just chit-chatting. It’s for people who live in the city and are not fluent in French, or they don't listen to French podcasts, or they live in places like New York or LA, or they're people who love to regularly come to Paris and they love to stay up to date to what's going on here.
I was really needing a creative outlet and something to do, so I launched the podcast. Very quickly, people were very, very keen to listening to it, and they really, really loved it. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised. People were like, "Wow, this makes so much sense, an English podcast but all about Paris." I'm really happy with it so far.
The podcast though, is secretly what's going to tie into my distillation project. Working harvest, I realized how much I really love to be hands-on and that I really, really don't want to go back into working in an office for a long time. But I also don't want to be a winemaker. I am very passionate about spirits. I guess the idea came about because I would really love to learn how to distill alcohol and make things with ingredients that are only made in France and only sourced in France. It's all organic and biodynamic. I’ve worked with natural wine makers to distill wine, and so it plays along with that. It's also something that I personally love to drink. I don't like to drink so many heavy spirits anymore — cocktails are great and there’s a time and a place when I go to bars. But really at home and with friends, it's very much a style where it's low in alcohol and very botanical-forward. It's very easy. I can just put it in a glass with ice. This is what I am trying to create and I plan to only work with very French fruits and botanicals.
That's really want is going to absolutely feed my soul. Doing something that's hands-on, a new challenge, having something that I have to learn all over again is what I love. I really am passionate about France and French agriculture, and that's something that I want to explore more. I think the farming practices in France are just so beautiful. All of the small farmers that I've met that have nothing to do with wine are just so amazing.
Brianna Plaza: If you are saying that the distillation project is an extension of podcast, how do you see both evolving and growing?
Vanessa Ruiz: So, I'm quite certain that I don't want to sell my product in France. I think the French customer is a very particular customer, and it's one that I don't necessarily relate to. And I mean that in the sense that the French customer is much more conservative and traditionalist in terms of taste and how they spend their money.
In the US, you could go to a place like Erewhon and you have so many cool new brands. You go and it’s like, "Wow, I've never heard of this bottle of whatever this is, but it sounds really cool. I'm going to spend $36 on this bottle." The French are not like that. Literally, the French would never go to a store and pick out a bottle that they don't know what it is and then spend actual money on it.
I mean, they're very loyal to what they know and what they like. Even distribution is a much more difficult here. Here, you go to the major grocery store chains like Monoprix and that’s kind of how you get distributed. But in the US, the difference is you put your stuff in Erewhon or Whole Foods, and then you could also put it in a really cool, curated shop. That customer wouldn't care that they're in both. They wouldn't devalue it if it’s in Whole Foods, as long as it's carried in a wine shop that they know they and they trust. The French are very much the opposite, once you put them in a grocery store or a place with a lot of distribution, they automatically are like, "We don't want to deal with that." And there are so many wine shops here! Can you imagine me going to every single tiny wine shop and asking them to buy just 10 bottles? And then, for them to have to teach customers what my product is? And to try and sell a $36 bottle when it’s in a room full of much cheaper wine bottles they already know? I just don't envision it being very successful, to be honest.
I think that I understand the American customer much more because I am one. I think the little inventory I'll have, I just want to give it to the US and to other parts of Europe that I know would be much more interested in the product.
This all goes back to the podcast where the podcast is for everyone who's not French or at least speaks English. The podcast is really just a way for me to grow a community and an audience. And even though I'm speaking to people who live in Paris, most of my listeners are not in France at all.