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January 19, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Rachel Speckan

Kate Hart
One of the best things about the Badass Ladies series is learning about fields I know nothing of. Today, I'm happy to feature Rachel Speckan, a Chicago sommelier and a friend of mine since our high school literary magazine days. Rachel is one of a growing group of women wine experts in a field traditionally dominated by men,  a challenging career that she balances with the care of two small children and a fierce Ultimate Frisbee game.


rachel speckan holding a bottle of wine
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Rachel: Madness. But, I thrive in the energy of the frenzy and the busy.

Professionally, I am six months into a new position, which brings projections, reviews, and evaluation. Stepping into the role of National Beverage Director with City Winery has launched my career responsibilities to cover all current locations and be present in the planning and implementation of openings. I have been traveling often and keeping a finger on the vibrant pulse of each location, coordinating with local teams and national contacts and partners, alike.

Personally, I am literally expecting a new (second) baby any moment and we just relocated to a new home in a new town. [editor's note: new baby is here; she and Rachel are both doing well!]

Balancing work, home, fun and health is a constant battle. But, I am passionate about all of the endeavors.

I thoroughly believe that the nature of my childhood in the landscape of rural Arkansas and a deep connection to education has been a driving force throughout my life path. I relish in creating and savoring experiences that integrate culture, food, wine and people.

rachel hiking with son in back carrier
Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? 

Rachel: Playing competitive sports is my creative outlet. Although my participation in organized athletics and contact sports is fairly limited currently, I really love the connection to the team, game strategy and physical endurance.

Outdoor adventures, when I am able to partake, are also a refreshing and exciting outlet for myself and the family!

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Rachel: I struggle, hard, against taking a moment to breathe. Relaxing is honestly a real problem for me. This affects both work and home. I am always pushing harder, further, faster. Literally, I have to force myself to slow down and enjoy doing nothing, not making a plan, putting down the list and being unorganized. I am constantly filling the calendar with commitments in hopes of creating more opportunities, better experiences, and deeper connections. However, I am truly working on slowing down, focusing, and being comfortable relaxing. Relying upon the village of friends and family to nurture and support me!

Rachel's advanced sommelier certificateKate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Rachel: An important component of my career in wine has been my involvement in both educating and learning about wine. I have been immersed in the pursuit of the ‘pin,’ or, rather, higher education in sales and service through the Court of Master Sommeliers for the past several years. This program is an intensive evaluation in all aspects of the beverage and service industry. The standards are ever evolving and the margin for error is slim. Preparation is required and constant studying in theory, tasting and practical service dictate success. Style, grace, and personal composure are also key components.

I have dedicated years to learning, educating, mentoring, and challenging myself through the system. Each step is exponentially more difficult and demanding than the preceding. Each attempt at each level is an incredible experience bound up in confidence and anxiety, preparation and pleasure and pain, successes and subsequent failures.

Following a failed attempt at sitting the Advanced Exam in Portland in 2015, I threw myself full force into deeper study, more intense education, more tasting, Skype sessions, larger scope of mentoring and an expanded network of mentors. With the perspective of gaining experience and becoming a stronger beverage professional, learning from failure and really looking squarely at my particular areas of weakness and honing in on pursuing and probing the soft spots, I sat the exam again in Portland in early 2016. The process was exhausting and exhilarating and ultimately successful. I was trembling and terrified the entire way through, but projected confidence, cool, and savvy for the winepin win at the end of the process.

Through a brief bout of tears and angst sprung strength and fierceness. I became a better sommelier, wine educator and beverage director through the process and experience. This failure was part of the success.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Rachel: Unfortunately, I do not take compliments well. I often deflect or simply do not know how to truly accept a compliment. However, what has filled up my cup with happiness recently is sincere feedback that I have played a pivotal role in the direct professional success of other individuals...and that I am a valued mentor and friend.

rachel in a sunny vineyard Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Rachel: I am not certain that I made a conscious decision to be a feminist. The entire concept seems like a given to me, and, I have lived my life as such. I believe this is directly related to my upbringing and strong women leaders in my personal and professional life.

I realize, now, though, the consistent and steady dedication to feminism that is required in my everyday endeavors. Professionally, I have faced issues with being labeled as aggressive or coming on too strongly, experienced being talked over or interrupted, watched as promotions were rewarded or compensation unevenly distributed. This has certainly galvanized my understanding and commitment toward a balanced and fair approach toward others and strength in my behavior and altered (many times) the direction of my chosen path.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Rachel: I have thus created a supportive network for mentoring women specifically and fostering an environment that is uplifting, composed of men and women that are mutually respectful, lift each other up, challenge each other in healthy ways, and push forward together. I suppose that I have cultivated a reputation for hiring, developing and fostering women wine professionals and serious women’s ultimate athletes. My approach is to create a challenging environment that encourages women to develop skills, maximize assets while minimizing (and addressing) weaknesses, and reach for higher, further, more ambitious end goals.

Kate: Who are some badass ladies we need to know? 


Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Rachel: Celebrate the experience! Embrace madness. Let others help you, but, share your strength. Never stop learning. Never stop teaching. And, simply ROCK it.


badass ladies you should know logo
Rachel Speckan is the National Wine Director at City Winery. After many years immersed in the industry of all things boozy, Rachel is thoroughly dedicated to being the ultimate wine geek, with a good dose of sales savvy and super polished service and etiquette. She has traveled extensively, collecting vineyard rocks, eating local specialties, and drinking wine around the world in all the places.

With a special place in her heart for edgy California winemakers, dusty Italian reds, lush and stony Savennieres, and funky American microbrews, Rachel brings a dynamic, delicious, and well balanced professional approach. Rachel is incessantly drinking wine, talking about drinking, encouraging others to drink, teaching about drinking, writing about drinking and eating adventures, drinking, tasting, researching, and talking about drinking. Although she dabbles in a wide spectrum of captivating and experimental beverage, Rachel's true love is traditional, and, yet innovative wines with character. She is thrilled to work in a functional winery setting, rock out with musicians, but also teach courses and host wildly exciting wine events at City Winery!

She is deeply entrenched in research and training in the Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as holding an Advanced Certificate from the WSET, and is also involved with the Cicerone Certification Program.

To throw it way back, Rachel grew up on a farm in Arkansas, with serious roots to the land and sense of place. She continues to search out and align with winemakers, athletes, and all the folks that share a similar vision. Rachel holds a Master's degree from the University of Chicago, and, as a cultural anthropologist by educational training and curious by disposition, she is on a mission to research and taste all things fermented and, in turn, share the love and knowledge with fellow wine lovers, explore and approach challenges with relish and fervor!


other interviews with Rachel:
sommtalks  //  chicagoist  //  timeout  //  fooditor  //  chicago tribune

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