Braithe Tidwell isn’t a traditional wine director. That may come as a surprise, considering she leads the wine program at one of the most traditional fine-dining destinations in New Orleans, Brennan's Restaurant. She oversees more than 3,000 selections on the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning list at the historic spot, which originally opened in 1946.
Tidwell was initially on the path toward a career in performing arts. Growing up in Hershey, Pa., she developed an intense love of theater in high school, fostered by humanities classes on topics like Shakespeare. That led Tidwell to pursue an acting degree, first at New York’s Ithaca College before she transferred to New York University in 2000. After graduating, she took a job at a Manhattan restaurant for reasons that were purely practical. The management didn’t offer server positions to those without New York restaurant experience, but told Tidwell, “We’ll let you be a bartender,” as she recalls, thus kick-starting her foray into the beverage world.
In 2005, she landed a backwaiter position at Union Square Cafe, while still pursuing theater on the side. She started with no knowledge of the restaurant’s iconic status, or even Meyer himself. But there, Tidwell fell down the rabbit hole of wine, and she wound up working at the restaurant for five years. “At the time, it was the servers who were selling wine [at Union Square Cafe],” she says. “That’s where I really developed some of my early sommelier skills.”
Following a subsequent stint as general manager of a Brooklyn wine shop, Tidwell and her husband eventually decided to move their growing family to the South. They considered Tennessee, her husband’s home state, but their love of New Orleans drew them to the city. Tidwell worked as a general manager at a local eatery before transitioning to Brennan’s, where she became the restaurant’s first full-time sommelier since it reopened in 2015 under new ownership. Two years in, Tidwell was promoted to wine director, a role she’s been in for nearly four years now.
Women are still underrepresented in the sommelier profession, particularly at the director level. But before Brennan’s was forced to downsize staff from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, Tidwell was also heading the city’s only wine program completely run by women. "Now, I’m a one-woman female somm team,” she says.
Associate editor Julie Harans spoke with Tidwell about leaping head-first into the world of wine, working in a male-dominated industry and the perfect wine pairings for two classic New Orleans dishes.
Wine Spectator: What made you pivot from your theater path and enter the restaurant industry?
Braithe Tidwell: It kind of sprung up from needing a job and being a starving actor, and really just falling into the right place at the right time at Union Square Cafe, and having an entire education there on hospitality and beverage. When I started working for Danny Meyer, I had no idea who he was. I was looking for a new restaurant job and a friend of mine was a chef there, so I was like, “Sure, I’ll go check it out.” I walked in having no idea of the history or how iconic it was. I got a job as a backwaiter, and within a year I was ready to move into a serving position.
WS: When did wine come into the picture?
BT: It was about two months into waiting tables there. We had a huge list which mostly focused on French, Italian and American wine, and I remember going up to the wine director and saying, “Hey, one of my tables wants to talk about wine.” He said, “OK, well, talk to them about wine then.” And I was like, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” And he said, “Well, I guess you better start learning, huh?”
So I went home and got a book about Italian wine, because it was an Italian wine that I didn’t know about. After I tackled the vastness of Italy, which I walked away from probably even more confused, I started drinking more Italian wine. A huge portion of our wine list was Italian wine, probably about 350 to 400 labels from the ’70s on, so it started there. And then I ended up all over the place.
WS: How did wine officially become your professional focus?
BT: I eventually became a manager there, and one day I said to the GM, “The staff doesn’t know a lot about dessert wines; I’d like to tackle our dessert-wine menu and do some education around it.” And he was like, “Yeah, go ahead.” After I did that, he asked if I would like to focus more on beverage, and I said that I would love it.
There were some classes that Union Square Hospitality Group was hosting on wine, and I was lucky enough to be taught by John Regan, who’s now a Master Sommelier, and had some really great classroom experience. So that was instrumental, too, in me deciding to go into the beverage aspect of things at Union Square Cafe. I took over the wine program there in 2011 and was their wine and beverage director for a year.
WS: Other than genuinely enjoying the wine-learning process, what is it that got you hooked?
BT: I really loved talking to people and selling wine. I loved reading about something and being able to come to work and talk about it with the people I was waiting on, and then that passion carried over to doing that with my staff and educating them on how to sell wine.
WS: As you were first getting into wine, did the male-dominated nature of the industry ever cross your mind or cause any hesitation?
BT: The wine director I was working with at Union Square Cafe was a man. When I started taking wine classes with the company, I remember a meeting with all the beverage directors, and out of five wine directors that were sitting at the table, three of us were women. I was really lucky—I think I was in a progressive group. And there was [beverage director] Juliette Pope at [USHG’s] Gramercy Tavern, who was such a strong force within the company. So as a young wine director, I actually felt not too aware that it was so dominated by men.
It wasn’t until I started testing with the Court of Master Sommeliers that I started to look around and be like, “Oh, wow, there’s only like five women in this room.” And as I got further along in testing, in my Certified Exam, there were even fewer women; I think there were three. So it starts to shrink the more you grow.
WS: That’s fortunate to be surrounded by female peers and mentors, and some supportive men too, it sounds like.
BT: The men who mentored me—which I’ve actually had many throughout my career, because that’s mostly who’s in the wine industry with you—they have pushed me, and they encouraged me to advance and move forward and to ask for promotions. I feel like I’ve been lucky that the people who have been around me are men who are supportive of women.
WS: Have you ever had a situation when someone else doubted you or discriminated against you?
BT: Absolutely, especially in my late 20s and 30s; I just turned 40. I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of employment, but I definitely felt like there were times with guests where there was an assumption that I didn’t know what I was talking about. And then you have to kick into prove-yourself mode, so you’re trying to show off and come up with the best, talk about some kind of rare vintage of something, just to prove that you should be in the room. And that’s been the hardest thing to overcome. There’s still sort of a [dismissive] “OK, honey,” or “Alright, sweetie,” kind of thing.
WS: What was your vision for the list when you first became wine director at Brennan’s, and how has that evolved since?
BT: We had always had a strong Champagne focus, so I continued to grow that. I love sparkling wine—it’s actually my favorite style of wine. And our Champagne happy hour is a huge focus for us. That’s a daily occurrence, so maintaining and cultivating the sparkling program has always been a huge driver.
I wanted to see more development of Italy, Spain and in France, Bordeaux. I’ve definitely been looking more at Greece, Portugal and some things that hadn't been on the list before, to expand the world of wine for the people that come in. Because everyone in the world comes to New Orleans, so we do have a huge audience. Also, our previous wine director had spent a lot of time developing some natural wines on the list, but they weren’t indicated, so I pulled them all out and made a special section, and I’m very proud of that as well.
WS: Do you have a favorite wine-and-food pairing at Brennan’s?
BT: The first one, which is just so Brenann’s, is bananas Foster. That’s our quintessential dish—bananas, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream—and I love serving that with a Pedro Ximénez Sherry. Right now we have Alvear Pedro Ximénez. The nuttiness that comes from it, and the toffee and walnut aspect to that wine, is perfect with Bananas Foster. For savory, I’d say seafood gumbo, which is also very New Orleans, and pairing that with any kind of spätlese or off-dry Riesling is perfect too.
WS: How has the wine industry changed since you first started?
BT: It’s really gotten a lot more accepting. Part of this, which is top of mind for everybody, is the Black Lives Matter movement. But I feel like in the last 10 years that I’ve been specifically running beverage programs, it’s become very inclusive. I’ve seen more and more people from other parts of the world.
I see more and more people who are younger who are interested in wine and want to learn about wine. When I first started in the industry, there were still a lot of people who just wanted California Cab or they wanted Bordeaux, and they weren’t willing to look at another region. I’ve found that there’s a big influence of people who are younger who are willing to go with you wherever you want to guide them on the list. That is really amazing to watch.
WS: Any thoughts on how the industry could become even more inclusive?
BT: I love mentoring people. I’ve mentored quite a few people within our beverage community here. There’s a gentleman I’m mentoring right now who’s Black, and he’s got so much skill and promise and he’s really dedicated to being a somm. … Like he’ll text me, "Have you ever had this wine?" and, "What do you think about winemakers who incorporate lees?" He’ll ask me random questions, and we’ll chat back and forth quite a bit. That’s the most important thing, to stay open and to try to connect. Check in and see if somebody who shows interest wants to talk more with you. Just being there for them is the biggest thing; listening and being present and helping in any way you can, and being a positive force for somebody.