05/23/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women in Wine: The Three Graces

2012-05-22-threegraces.jpgJoy Sterling, Laura Maniec, and Keiko Niccolini: The Three Graces

Recently I decided to conquer a great fear in my very storied and bizarre life -- the dreaded Wine List. As a fashion designer, writer, and man about town I'm very fortunate to be invited to fancy and swanky restaurants, soirees and events. Therefore to put it plainly, I spend a fair amount of time inhaling great food and swigging fine wine. I know - don't cry for me Argentina. However, not until recently did I truly realize I wasn't fully appreciating the art, process and tradition of fine dining and particularly, the crafstmanship of great wine. But all of this about to change -- and when Mister GoLightly decides to make a change, he brings everyone along for the ride.

The first thing I knew I would need to begin my transformation from vino novice to wine connoisseur was a team of experts. Yes experts, as I plan on taking my wine consumption very seriously from this point forward. Therefore I will require a trio of professionals to guide me in the right direction. So I decided to seek assistance from the people closest to me. I telephoned, emailed, and met with almost every person I knew that had anything to do with the wine business. However, what I found a little strange was that most of the people I knew in the wine biz were all men. While most of the men I spoke with were all very passionate and educated about wine, there was just something about their approach that didn't quite fit with what I was trying to get at in my quest. I really wanted to know more about the sense of reverence that seems to surround the art of wine tasting and making. In essence, I really wanted to be educated on the beauty, charm and creativity of fine wine. Somehow, this got me to wondering, "Are there many women in the wine business?" I didn't have very long to ponder the question as it was magically answered one fateful afternoon while having lunch at the Four Seasons in New York City. I started yammering on and on about my need to connect to people in the wine business when a dear friend said to me, "You should meet one of the owner's daughter, Keiko. She knows all about wine."

2012-05-22-keikofourseasons.jpg Keiko Niccolini / Four Seasons Restaurant

BEAUTY: The strikingly gorgeous and modelesque Keiko Niccolini was born into the charmed world of restaurants and fine dining -- the venerable Four Seasons Restaurant to be exact. Legend has it that Keiko could filet a Dover sole and saber a bottle of champagne before she could ride a bike. As a young girl she could be found on any given day running through the hallowed halls of the family business. However, as an adult she now travels the world in search of new dishes and wines to bring to the tables of the Four Season as well as her wine consulting firm AMEDEO. Keiko as you can imagine, was destined for a life in food and wine.

And now, Keiko Niccolini has agreed to be my guru, my personal guide as I embark on a mysterious journey into and beyond Wine Tasting 101.

Under Ms. Niccolini's tutelage and through the course of our adventures, I am hoping to come out on the other end a lot more knowledgeable and a little less afraid of sampling and experiencing new wines and spirits. It is also my desire to finally retire my catch phrase when it comes to choosing or drinking wine, "It doesn't matter what I drink -- I only drink to get drunk." Which is only partly true. Who cares if every time I repeat it Keiko reacts as if someone has taken their well manicured fingernails and scratched them down a freshly wiped chalkboard. Well I care -- and hopefully somewhere along the way, this juvenile retort will be retired and replaced with language that describes delicious wine with the respect and grace it rightfully deserves.

Needless to say, Keiko and I have become fast friends. Recently after attending a not-so-fabulous and actually quite boring soiree, she thought that it would be the perfect time for a surprise crash course in wine tasting -- total emergence in wine culture. So she decided to introduce me to a real-life Master Sommelier, Ms. Laura Maniec.

2012-05-22-lauracorkbuzz.jpgLaura Maniec -- Master Sommelier, CorkBuzz Wine Studio

CHARM: Laura Maniec is a Native New Yorker and the charismatic owner of Corkbuzz Wine Studio. During the course of our evening I learned that Laura actually discovered her true enthusiasm for wine through an 18-week sommelier certification class at Windows of the World. It was through this experience that she was inspired, motivated and excited to pursue a career in wine.

A girl after my own heart, just as Laura was legally able to drink she became a sommelier at Blue Fin in New York City. Progressing quickly, she was made a partner as well as wine and spirits director for the entire B.R. Guest Restaurant Group of 20 restaurants across the country. At only 25 years old, she was managing the wine list as well as educating the entire front-of-house team on wine.

It turns out the charming and personable Ms. Maniec earned her Master Sommelier designation in 2009 and is currently the youngest in the world. Not to mention she is one of only 18 women to have achieved this highest accreditation given to wine professionals. And on this night she too agreed to join the team and proceeded to give me a VIP guided tour through their intense and intimidating wine list. But for the first time in being presented a normally daunting wine list, I wasn't afraid. I was almost downright giddy. What did I have to fear? I was now armed with not only a wine guru but also a master sommelier. Take that 33- or 72-page wine list! Okay, in all honesty, I may be exaggerating the personal attention given just to me by our master sommelier. You see Laura seems to possess the uncanny ability to give everyone that enters the doors of CorkBuzz the same level of attention and graciousness -- an ability rarely found in New York City eateries these days.

To attempt description of the champagnes, reds, whites and rosés that danced and dazzled in my mouth on this evening would do CorkBuzz and Ms. Maniec a grave injustice. I don't possess the eloquence to characterize the pas de deux that took place between the exquisite wine list and the culinary masterpieces prepared by their Executive Chef, Hayan Yi. I don't dare attempt to formulate adequate prose to depict the near religious experience that visitors share in this tastefully decorated restaurant and wine bar. To try and fail would be borderline blasphemy. However after almost closing down the joint accompanied by a magnificent high that had no resemblance at all to being drunk, I felt as if I had to rush home and immediately repent, "Our Mother, Full of Grace..."

Which brings me to the most recent introduction to form my dream team, my trilogy, my Three Graces...

For several weeks during our tastings and outings, Keiko kept saying to me, "You have to meet my mentor in all things wine. You will love her." I will admit, in my experience whenever someone says to me "You will love him or her," this has rarely ever been the case. But this was coming from my guru -- my liege, and she hadn't steered me wrong thus far. So off I went the other afternoon, in the pouring New York City rain, to The Modern restaurant located at the Museum of Modern Art to meet Ms. Joy Sterling.

2012-05-22-joyironhorse.jpgJoy "Bubbles" Sterling, Iron Horse Vineyards

CREATIVITY: The inventive and visionary Joy Sterling represents the second generation of wine making at Iron Horse Vineyards. She is the CEO of the winery and the author of four books on the art of wine. Although she was born in America, Joy grew up in Paris, attended a French school, and speaks fluent French. Living in Europe and traveling extensively, Ms. Sterling received an extraordinary education in the appreciation of food and wine as well as a love of quality wherever it is found in the world.

Joy returned to the United States to attend Yale University where she studied history and economics. After her studies she went into journalism, first for United Press International, followed by local television, and ultimately, network TV news. At the age of 29, Joy was Deputy Bureau Chief for ABC Network News in Los Angeles. She was given numerous special assignments including coverage of the first Space Shuttle landings in California, coordinating producer for several Presidential trips, and the high point of her career, Assignment Editor for ABC's 1984 Olympic coverage.

In 1985, Joy left ABC's hierarchy to join her family's business. Thus, a new sort of woman was recruited into California's wine industry. Significantly, she made news headlines for the winery with her first achievement at Iron Horse. In November, 1985, the White House selected Iron Horse Sparkling Wine for the President's toast to peace at the first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva.

Joy quietly took up the reins at Iron Horse at the start of 2006, having spent 20 years traveling on behalf of the winery, personally introducing the wines to an impressive list of customers from Spago in Beverly Hills to the Four Seasons in New York.

She is an adventurer, having climbed Kilimanjaro, run white water rapids on the Bio-Bio River in Chile and the upper reaches of the Yank Sing River in China, trekked in Tibet and Bhutan, and completed a road trip to Timbuktu.

Joy joined the prestigious Board of Trustees of The Leakey Foundation in 2007. One of her major initiatives is hosting an annual fundraising and awareness raising event in partnership with National Geographic celebrating Earth Day held at Iron Horse.

Now I ask you -- What is there not to love about Joy a.k.a. @JoyBubbles? From the moment we made eye contact as I shuffled in from the pouring rain, looking more disheveled like Ms. GoLightly's wet cat than the intended flawlessness of Holly off to visit Sally Tomato at Sing-Sing, I innately knew that I would be captivated and bewitched by the accomplished Joy Sterling.

Joy is earth-mother, rainmaker and wine whisperer wrapped into one stylish, hot-mama of a package. Did I mention she was also wearing a navy vintage Dior dress? I almost died and went to heaven at the sight of this magnificent being. The one thing you quickly learn about Joy within five minutes of being in her presence is that she is filled with love, life and passion. As we shared a bottle of her world famous Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee I found out that she is also a hugger, a great thinker, a visionary, a powerhouse, and just an awesome down-to-earth gal.

During the entire afternoon my eyes kept darting from Keiko to Joy, my mind was racing, but my mouth couldn't keep up with all the thoughts bursting through my brain. I must have come across as a complete crazy person but what I couldn't explain to either of these incredible women was how I was finally beginning to understand it all. How I understood there was more than just wine they had in common. How I could see the ancestral sisterhood, the kinship, an indigo hued spiritual camaraderie void of competition or pettiness. But mostly, I was in complete and utter awe. I found myself in an absolute state of humbled gratitude. Grateful that I had been allowed to bare witness to their sublime and noble grace.

As I finally sat down to write this piece, I couldn't believe that in only a few short weeks I had already begun to develop a true appreciation for wines produced in Napa Valley as well as grapes grown in the Vittoria region of Sicily. I discovered that my preference for all things "pink and bubbly" had very little to do with my flamboyance and sexual orientation and much more to do with the various techniques and processes utilized to achieve just the right shade, smell and taste of Rosé. And while I am still at the very beginning stages of my wine adventures, I doubt very seriously if I will be drinking with the goal of getting drunk in mind (wink-wink). Instead, I envision buckling up and bracing myself for the long and meandering roads of wine country under the watchful gaze, generosity and guidance of my divine Three Graces.

Keiko Niccolin photos courtesy of Four Seasons Restaurant
Laura Maniec photos courtesy of CorkBuzz Wine Studio
Joy Sterling photos of Iron Horse Vineyards