Lindsey Fern

« When I think of how I want to be thought of in my career, it’s to be as generous and to help create opportunities for women in wine »

Wine director at The Inn*** at Little Washington, Lindsey Fern brings her international perspective to an exceptional wine list and one of the finest cellars in the region. Interview with the first wine director of a three-star Michelin restaurant in the United States.

Where does your interest in wine come from?

I travelled through Europe after university. I knew nothing about wine at 21 years old, but in the 90’s in Europe a carafe of wine wasn’t much more than a bottle of water, so I ordered the wine! I was on a backpackers budget, and my curiosity was piqued! I spent 3 years overseas and when I went to South Africa, I had my first winery visit in Stellenbosch. My time in Europe, my past jobs in restaurants and my love for travel all culminated in that moment. Wine is agriculture, history, science, art, geography, language… I knew that having a career in wine would always allow me to continue learning about things I love and that it would always be a moving target. Wine is living and ever changing.

When I came back to the US I landed in Northern California, I worked in a San Francisco’s Bay area. Much of my free time was spent in Napa and Sonoma. The more I learned the more I realised I DIDN”T know. I had held different jobs within the industry: restaurants, pubs, nightclubs from London to Spain and Greece. Each experience was very different, and very rewarding, but wine became my passion.

Lindsey Fern in 9 key dates

  • 2000-2004: Manager at Avenir Restaurant Group (Redwood City, California, US)
  • 2004-2008: Wine manager at Smith and Wollensky Restaurant (NYC, US)
  • 2008-2009: Wine consultant and sommelier for the National Distributing Company
  • 2010-2012: Wine consultant and bartender at Atlantica Restaurant (Cohasset, Massachusetts, US)
  • 2012-2014: Bartender and sommelier at Bistro L’Hermitage (Woodbridge, Virginia, US)
  • 2014-2020: Cellar master and sommelier at The Inn*** at Little Washington (Washington, Virginia, US)
  • 2020: Sales manager at RdV Vineyards (Delaplane, Virginia, US)
  • 2020-2021: Assistant wine director at The Inn*** at Little Washington (Washington, Virginia, US)
  • Since 2021: Wine director at The Inn*** at Little Washington (Washington, Virginia, US)

You were cellar master at The Little Washington for five years until 2020. Why did you choose to return?

I started as a cellar master, and at the time, there was no opportunity to move up. I had been asked by a local winery to head their national distribution, but it didn’t work out because of the pandemic. After a few months, I realised that I terribly missed my work at The Inn at Little Washington and decided to return. Working in restaurants allow people to become like family. We often spend more time with each other than we do with our own families. I was offered a position as assistant wine director, and in such a strange time, with Covid wreaking havoc on our industry, it felt like coming home.

How does the Chef’s cuisine echo your own values?

Chef Patrick O’Connell creates absolutely spectacular dishes at The Inn***. He has a very refined style. Each element of the plate is carefully crafted to work with one another. It’s beautiful and often understated. His cuisine is whimsical and always tells a story without jumping up and down and hollering it at you. That’s where its majesty comes from. It’s refined, but never ostentatious. I like this combination of high standards and having fun. Doing serious work should not come at the expense of a great atmosphere. That’s why I like working here so much.

During your career, which women have inspired you the most?

I have never actually WORKED in a restaurant with another woman Sommelier. Always men, so I have to say I have been most inspired by the strong women that went out of their way, to help me. The women that gave me opportunities that have formed my career path and that changed the trajectory of my life. Morgan Plant, my first female boss while I was in California, is a remarkable businesswoman. She was very passionate about wine and food. But she never lost sight of the business angle, and she was highly respected. Meeting her was a real turning point for me. She took me under her wing. She took me to Michelin Star restaurants and to wineries and guided those experiences. She asked my opinion and shared hers. She made me feel valued and empowered. Elli Benchimol, who was also a single mother and Sommelier, invited me to her home to blind taste and she went out of her way to help me as I was preparing for my Advanced Sommelier exam. She was working full time, trying to open her own restaurant, raise 2 children AND was preparing to take the Master Sommelier exam, yet she made room in her life to help me. Sabrina Schatz introduced me to influential people in the wine world who brought me on wine trips. Because of those introductions I was taken to Italy, Argentina, and Santa Barbara to deepen my knowledge. When I think of how I want to be thought of in my career, it’s to be as generous and to help create opportunities for women in wine.

You are the only female wine director of a three-star restaurant in the US. What does that mean to you?

On the one hand, I am very happy because it gives visibility to women in this industry, and it might inspire some of them as well. It also gives me personal satisfaction because I have sacrificed a lot in terms of family time, especially with my two daughters, to succeed in my career. So it was all the more important for me to get this recognition.

On the other hand, I am aware that there are many women who work as hard as I do every day, and they are no less deserving. Besides, it goes to show that women can be successful in their careers and have a family at the same time.

The Inn was awarded the Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. Can you tell us more about this award?

The Wine Spectator’s Grand Award is the most prestigious honour for the world’s most elite wine programmes. The Inn*** received the award in 1995. Our wine list has over 14,000 different bottles, some of which you won’t find anywhere else in the US. It’s a huge cellar, and we work with 2,000 producers. The wine list has existed for 43 years. It’s been built up little by little, with each sommelier adding their own personal touch. And now it’s my turn to contribute to it. I am so happy to be able to share my experiences and my travels with our guests.

Your cellar consists of 14,000 bottles from the world’s best wine regions. But you also work a lot with local producers. How do you put together the wine list?

Guests visit The Inn*** to experience the chef’s gastronomy, and to pair with it, they expect rather traditional wines. So we of course have timeless wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy.
During my trips through Argentina, Chile and Italy, I was able to meet new producers and learn more about their philosophy and methods. Today, I can bring this international perspective to our wine list.

Virginia is also making great wines. The quality of local wine has really improved through exchanges and sharing of techniques. Virginia has seen a significant expansion of its wine culture and at The Inn*** restaurant, we want to showcase the very best of the region with local producers.
The Governor’s Cup is awarded to the best wines in Virginia. This year’s winner is producer Melanie Natoli from Cana Winery. This is the first time in 40 years that a woman has received the award. She is our cellar master’s partner, and he also loves highlighting local producers with our guests.

How do you construct the food and wine pairings with Chef Patrick O’Connell?

The chef gives us a lot of freedom because he is very focused on the plate. So we make suggestions, and we discuss the various aromatic profiles in his dishes… I’ve become quite familiar with his cuisine, so I like to play on contrasts between the flavours of the wine and the dish; but sometimes, I also try to underscore a dish’s flavours with herbaceous or fruity notes.
In many restaurants, different wines are suggested for a single dish. At The Inn, we have decided to offer only one. Because it is a pairing that has been very carefully worked out so that the flavours combine and play off each other. For us, this is a guarantee of quality. The pairing is a way to enhance both the wine and the dish.

If you had to take just one bottle to a desert island, what would it be?

Champagne or Burgundy… But I’d lean more towards Champagne I must say! And more specifically a 2002 Clos du Mesnil. The bubbles make me happy and as it ages, this Champagne acquires tertiary notes; caramel and hazelnut, balanced by fruit and acidity…perfection!

What are your plans in the near future?

We now have a second more bistro-oriented restaurant across the street. The concept is quite different, so it’s very interesting. The wine list must be smaller, with wines that are easy to drink but just as delicious. I can have some fun there with the selections. We are building a new wine cellar at The Inn. It will be a show cellar with a table for private dinners. We’re working on many projects. These are very dynamic times.