Rania Zayyat was drawn to wine.
“I’ve always liked the taste probably before I was really legally allowed to like it,” she says. When she was around 14 years old, she remembers her older cousin talking about how she loved relaxing with a glass. “I remember just wanting to taste it one day.” Her cousin gave her a glass (with her mother’s permission, of course). “My face got all flushed and warm after, and I felt this little buzz. I was like, ‘Oh, it feels great.’” But it was more than just the initial jolt that intrigued her.
Zayyat initially entered the wine world to become a better, more knowledgeable server. Now, she is a sommelier, wine director for popular Austin pizza restaurant Bufalina, founder of wine-focused nonprofit Lift Collective, and, more generally, a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives across the industry, all while striving to make wine more approachable and fun for everyone. And recently, she curated the March wines for Eater Wine Club, the site’s monthly subscription service. Her box focuses on island wines, sourced from the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
Around 10 years later from that first sip, Zayyat decided that wine was her true path while working as a server at Houston restaurant Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. She wanted to know as much as she could about every aspect of the restaurant in order to ensure the best service for her customers. But there was always one facet that felt like she couldn’t initially comprehend. “Wine was always that missing piece,” she says. “I was so intimidated. I didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine.” So, she studied on her own and worked the restaurant’s wine inventory as often as she could. Eventually, she joined the wine department as a sommelier assistant. “That was always something I never thought that I would do long term,” she says, “but then I just really fell in love with it.”
But the more she branched out, the more claustrophobic that Houston chain restaurant became. “I felt like, after a year, I had been somewhat strung along,” she says. “Other people had been hired before I was given the opportunity to move up,” so she decided to leave.
Luckily, in 2013, Zayyat was presented with the opportunity to join the opening wine team of the then-forthcoming French restaurant LaV — under wine director and partner Vilma Mazaite — by then-owner Ralph Eads, who was a frequent customer at Pappas. Working in Austin was a breath of fresh air for her. She could access the same high-quality wines as she had in Houston, but introduce them to a clientele that wasn’t as ostentatious (as the energy capital of the world, the Houston restaurant tended to draw in “the top one percent of businessmen,” she explains).
“It was just a great way to make people feel comfortable with a wine list like that,” Zayyat says, who earned her advanced sommelier certification during this time. “It’s really when I discovered that I’d love teaching people about wine, taking away that pretentious feeling that I think a lot of people get when they’re trying to engage with a sommelier.”
For a long time, wine was a world unto itself in restaurants. Many saw the certifications, complex titles, and unfamiliar language used to talk about certain vintages as markers of a stuffy environment they didn’t fit into socially or financially. And many of the depictions in films and television didn’t help, such as the wine documentary Somm or television series Sweetbitter. “People were really infatuated with the idea of like, ‘Wow, somms are so geeky, and they have so much knowledge,’ but how does this relate to the everyday wine drinker?” It was a question that Zayyat would use to guide how she navigated the role. Customers’ anxieties and uncertainties about what really makes a wine natural or what the differences in different vintages terroir actually mean became talking points for lively, casual conversations.
Less than two years later, LaV closed at the end of 2015. In the ensuing years, Zayyat worked at Four Seasons hotel restaurant Trio before moving on to South Congress wine restaurant June’s, where she relished the chance to work under female master sommelier June Rodil. Eventually, her workload as both a sommelier and manager wore on her to the point where she was “starting to feel somewhat burnt out.”
In the years leading up to and during these jobs, Zayyat had watched the role of a floor sommelier — her role — change entirely. “What a lot of people don’t talk about being a somm is that the traditional role of just being a floor somm doesn’t really exist anymore,” she says. “It’s been disappearing for a few years. You’re often put into these managerial positions,” something she didn’t have as much experience with as she felt that she should. “I was still figuring out what type of manager I wanted to be. It was very stressful trying to lead a group of servers, run a restaurant, and also trying to fulfill my passion for working with a wine program.”
To combat the mounting exhaustion, Zayyat took a server position at Bufalina, the pizzeria renowned for its thoughtful wine list. She had talked to owner Steven Dilley beforehand, expressing her desire to find a role that would allow her to catch her breath and define her ideal role.
Still, Zayyat couldn’t wholly keep herself out of the inner workings of Bufalina’s wine program. She started consulting on the wine program six months in, then helped develop the new wine program at the restaurant’s expansion, Bufalina Due. Eventually, she became the new restaurant’s wine director.
How to Make Wine Accessible
Zayyat is a firm believer that everyone should be able to and can enjoy wine. It’s a matter of how it’s presented, which is why she takes the role of a sommelier so seriously. “It’s all about how you talk about wine,” she says. “Understanding what the average consumer really knows about wine, and playing off of that level of knowledge has been really successful for me.”
Her approach involves asking people what wine they’ve enjoyed recently, from types to bottles to regions to producers. She uses that information and her wine knowledge to inform her recommendations, often suggesting bottles she hopes will be new and exhilarating for them. “People get so excited; they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I never would have thought to order this wine, I don’t even know how to pronounce it.’ All of a sudden, they’re really enthusiastic and excited about trying something off their beaten path,” she says.
Zayyat steers away from being bogged down by the denser technicalities of wine. It’s not just about bricks or pH levels; rather, “I’m talking to them about what those things might feel like in your mouth. That’s something that everyone can relate to.”
With Bufalina’s wine list, she intentionally highlights women-made wines. “Bufalina is such a unique community, space, and an institution in a lot of ways. We just always tried to keep it fun and light and [to] create new experiences and opportunities for people to enjoy wine.”
By now, her tastes have become recognizable: She “loves to think about wines that are fresh and bright that really work with Texas heat,” and her love of natural wine is well known. “Once you drink natural wine, it’s really hard to drink anything else.”
But aside from the experiential and service components, there are other aspects of the natural wine industry that appeal to her. “There’s a lot more conversation in natural wine about sustainability and lessening your carbon footprint and supporting smaller businesses in general. I think it’s a really cool part of working with these wines.”
Dilley and Zayyat launched Buffalina’s wine club in April 2020 as a way to help support their importers and suppliers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. With a focus on natural wine, the club grew to the point where there are about 120 to 130 customers per month.
What Comes Next
Another one of Zayyat’s major goals is to make the wine industry more diverse and accessible for everyone, an endeavor many have treated like a talking point rather than a commitment. That’s why she founded Lift Collective. The organization, originally known as Wonder Women of Wine when it began in 2018, rebranded this past January to widen the scope of who could and should be able to find a place in the wine world.
“We pay attention to a lot of those social movements that were happening last year,” says Zayyat of the name change. “We felt compelled to expand our programming and mission statement to be more inclusive of all marginalized communities in wine.”
The group works with other individuals and organizations — i.e., industry resource Black Wine Professionals, educational nonprofit Wine Empowered, and the women-focused wine forum Bâtonnage — to help support others. “We really feel like this work can only be accomplished through more people coming to the table,” Zayyat says, “and starting initiatives and organizations like ours. The more we can work together, the faster we’ll see change.”
“I certainly can’t speak to being a person of color in the wine industry,” Zayyat says, “but I’ve heard and listened to so many friends and people, and it’s traumatic. You’re constantly reminded every single day that there are people that don’t want you there.”
In that vein, the organization aims to shift existing conversations around the ways the hospitality industry has excluded and violated historically marginalized communities. “Stop asking people, ‘Can you tell us about an experience where you were discriminated against?’ and l start talking to them about what they’re passionate about, and what they’re good at. If you’re a champagne expert, let’s talk about champagne. What are you excited about? What are future trends? Just being able to celebrate their knowledge.”
Lift shares brands, companies, organizations, and events through its community platform, such as its Friday interviews. By connecting people to others as examples of what can be done, it helps embolden others to grow themselves and their careers. “It’s such an important component of feeling like you belong somewhere when you can see somebody that looks like you,” she says. “I don’t feel like I had that when I got started in wine, so it was really important for me to help foster that for other people.”
The group partnered with nonprofit Diversity in Wine and Spirits to co-host the Be the Change virtual job fair in December 2020, highlighting companies emphasizing tangible equity and diversity initiatives. Zayyat recounts that there were more than 400 candidates, 20 exhibitors, and more than 1,300 conversations between the two. They have plans for a second virtual job fair on April 22.
Right now, the nonprofit is hosting a two-day virtual conference, with panels, keynotes, and wine tastings, covering equity for marginalized groups, women in the industry, abuse in the workplace, among other topics. “It’s going to be a really profound and impactful event with messaging that will definitely transcend beyond the wine industry,” she says. “These are topics that anyone can relate to or anyone that has been marginalized in their respective industry can.”