It’s not uncommon for people in the wine industry to have more than one speciality. Maryam Ahmed is one of those people. A relative newcomer to the SOMM TV screen, but a name that everyone in wine – from all facets – seems to know. Ahmed is a connector, bringing people, stories, and brands to life.
Read on to find out how she started in wine and where she hopes it will take her in the future.
Did you have a career before working in wine?
If you count being a pizza girl at a local shop in my hometown, then yes! Jokes aside, I’m one of the lucky ones. My first internship during college was at a winery in Ithaca, NY, called Six Mile Creek. I asked them if I could design the internship to include hospitality, events, and production. It made it easy for them to say yes since I basically offered to do anything if they’d give me a job. I wasn’t even twenty-one yet! I ended up working there throughout my undergraduate degree at Cornell. Looking back, it was an excellent foundation for my early career in wine.
What led you to your first job in the wine industry, and what was the job?
Having worked at the winery in Ithaca, I was recruited by a distributor in NYC. I started as a data analyst and account specialist for a fine wine division that served restaurants (on-premise) and retailers (off-premise). I also managed some market allocations from brands like Opus One. The job allowed me to see a lot of facets in the industry.
I loved my role because it constantly connected me to producers that I admired. So much so that I moved out west for a winemaking degree in Walla Walla, WA, after a pivotal trip to Oregon and Washington to visit some of our suppliers. As a beverage professional, having distribution experience is invaluable. I look back on that experience often and am thankful that it was the path I chose.
Was wine a part of your family culture growing up? If so, how did it impact your view of wine?
It wasn’t. My father is Muslim and doesn’t drink. My mom rarely drank when I was growing up, and when she did, it was usually sweet wine stored open in the fridge for far too long (though she has gotten much better since I started bringing home the good stuff!). It wasn’t until I was a teen that I learned that wine could be part of a lifestyle. I had a friend who had a big Italian family. It clicked when I saw them come together for celebrations and sharing a meal, always with wine at the table. I loved seeing how happy everyone was and how wine could start a conversation that led to much more. It was both about the wine and about the memories it could create. That discovery shifted something in me, especially when it came to understanding my own passion for connection and conversation.
How did you get involved with SOMM TV?
I met the SOMM TV crew when I was the director of public programs at the Culinary Institute of America in California. I wrote and launched a consumer thought leadership series called Conversations at Copia, moderated by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. The series discussed various food issues such as appropriation, equity, and waste. My goal was (and remains) to help lift the veil between what the industry knew and what the consumer was hungry to learn. SOMM TV was our production partner for the series (go check it out!). Right away, Jason (Wise) and the crew understood the vision and potential impact. When we wrapped at the end of 2019, Jason and I agreed that we wanted to work together again. So when I told him I was launching Maryam + Company, it was only a matter of time. And this time I’d be in front of the camera!
What is your primary job right now? Do you have a side-hustle in the industry?
I wear a few hats. I am the owner of Maryam + Company, a collaborative consulting firm that offers strategic community engagement and program development for food and wine brands. My work takes place at the intersection of chefs, sommeliers, activists, sustainability experts, creatives, global media, and organizations focused on diversity and equity within their communities. I am also a partner in PLAYTE Kitchen, a platform that offers in-person and virtual experiences for foodies to learn and play in the kitchen. Last, I am the co-founder and director of the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum (co-founded with fellow SOMM TV cast member Elaine Chukan Brown), which brings together leaders of organizations dedicated to diversity and equity in the wine industry. Maybe I’ll make a wine someday–add it to the list!
What do you do to keep yourself up to date within the world of wine?
It’s my job to know who is moving and shaking within the industry. I read many articles, attend webinars, have conversations with my peers, and listen to podcasts. As for the wine itself, so much of my business is people-focused. So, I have to work to maintain my wine knowledge and tasting skills in addition to my day to day job.
Where do you hope wine will take you in the future?
Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m grateful it’s already brought me here! I’ve had incredible experiences along the way. One of the things I love about wine is that it is constantly changing, so there is always an opportunity for growth and learning. I hope wine continues to lead me to inspiring change-makers and to places I’d only ever imagined.
Watch Maryam Ahmed in SPARKLERS, premiering November 23rd on SOMM TV. The 13-episode show is what happens when Top Chef collides with the SOMM world. It’s a cooking and wine competition unlike anything seen before. Challengers show off their cooking skills – inspired by dishes worldwide – and pair their creations with legendary sparkling wines, including Krug and Ruinart.