This story mentions sexual assault.
As the first person in her family to go to college, Kristin Olszewski had a one-track mind in her early adulthood: She was going to be a doctor. But while studying at Harvard Medical School, she realized she was dreading her hospital internship and enjoying the service jobs she worked to afford this education. “I was so laser-focused on being successful and being perceived as smart that I wasn’t listening to myself and what I wanted to do,” she remembers.
A particularly supportive mentor pushed Olszewski to leave medical school and pursue a career in wine, which led to sommelier and wine director jobs around the country, including at Straight Wharf in Nantucket, Husk in Nashville, and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. In these roles, she made a key observation that would once again change her career trajectory: Young people were flocking to cocktails because the wine industry was out of touch with her millennial generation.
Olszewski founded Nomadica, a collection of canned wines, as a response to this issue and to offer an alternative to the unsustainable packaging of traditional wine. “Only 30 percent of glass bottles are recycled in the U.S., they’re highly energy-intensive to produce, and the shipping emissions are crazy,” she explains. “And if it’s not a wine that needs to be aged, it doesn’t need to be in a glass bottle.”
The company currently offers five sustainably farmed, low-intervention wines that Olszewski has chosen to be widely pleasing. She keeps her palate sharp by consulting on restaurant wine lists, but funnels most of her time and energy into Nomadica, which is expanding its selection and working on innovating beyond the can. Here, Olszewski shares her journey from medicine to restaurants to entrepreneurship and how her business is changing the world of wine.
Eater: What was your first job? What did it involve?
Kristin Olszewski: I was a cashier at a grocery store in high school. I’ve always been bossy and somehow ended up as a supervisor before I even turned 18. I loved it.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I grew up working-class and was the first person in my family to go to college. I got a full-ride scholarship to UMass Amherst, where I majored in sustainable agriculture and gender studies and minored in English literature. Then I did a premed post-baccalaureate program and began medical school at Harvard University. I lived in a shed and waitressed on Nantucket in the summers to pay for Harvard out of pocket.
I was really only able to pay for that because I worked service-industry jobs throughout the school year, too. I was one of the only people in my program who had a job. I have been super lucky to not have any debt and there is no way I would have my own company if I did. I hire people based on their work experience and personality and I don’t care where they went to college.
How did you get into the food and wine industry?
My first entrance into the industry was through farming. UMass has an incredible sustainable agriculture program and an amazing community garden that feeds into a co-op vegan restaurant. I was very active in Food Not Bombs, an activist organization that sources and prepares food that would otherwise be thrown away and offers it to the community for free. It was an incredible experience to be a part of and shaped so much of how I operate my own business.
Straight out of college, I moved to San Francisco and cooked. I worked back of house at Boulettes Larder and Michael Mina, then went to front of house at Saison. During my tenure there, we got our second Michelin star, and that was where I first really started to learn about wine. I would also sometimes work on the floor at Sons & Daughters, so then I became the GM of their fast-casual spot, which is how I met Carlin Karr, who’s now the wine director for the Frasca group, who really is a big reason why I work in wine.
Then, I moved back to the East Coast to do my post-bacc and med school at Harvard. During the school year, I worked at Spoke Wine Bar. The owner, Felisha Foster, was the most amazing woman. She was the first person to really show me what natural wine was. She really mentored me a lot. And then she got diagnosed with ALS. It was so shocking to see someone so young and full of joie de vivre find out that she had a very short amount of time to live. She really pushed me to drop out of medical school and pursue a career in wine.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
I was my own biggest enemy. There is so much to know in wine and, for years, I felt like an imposter. I wish I realized that everyone feels like that and one of the most beautiful things about wine is that there is so much to learn and discover, so you can spend a lifetime studying it.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
I was sexually assaulted by a managing partner early on in my wine career. He had harassed me for months and it led to a very bad situation. At the time, I was so scared to speak up about it and I thought if I said anything, it would ruin my career. I felt ashamed and I blamed myself. I would handle this situation 100 percent differently today and I wish I could go back in time and give younger Kristin better advice.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
As a sommelier, I noticed that women and people my age almost never wanted to engage with me — they would drink cocktails all night. But the second that I’d go over and start talking to somebody about wine in a way that was approachable and kind and nonjudgmental, people were always so excited. My favorite thing to do as a sommelier is get people into a bottle of wine that’s cheaper than they expect, and just show them that they don’t have to spend a million dollars to drink great wine.
Young people have this perception that sommeliers are going to judge them or upsell them. And the wine industry is just not talking to younger consumers and they’re not engaging with people in an inclusive way. So much of the wine industry has historically been geared toward a very select group of people. So we need to change the wine industry and how we’re talking to people. That’s why I started Nomadica.
How are you making change in your industry?
Nomadica is changing the discussion about alternative sustainable packaging in the wine industry. I was really shocked when I found out how bad glass bottles are for the environment — but glass bottles are unnecessary for most types of wine. Looking at the canned wine space, most of what was around was utility wine, not necessarily something you’d want to pour into a glass and actually enjoy. We were the first brand to put premium wine in cans.
Great wine is made in the vineyard. My favorite producers are leaving the land better than when they found it. We work with winemakers who practice sustainable farming, so no synthetic pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers, no chemical manipulation, no Mega Purple.
But we still have to overcome the consumer perception that canned wine is inherently bad, so I gave our creative director the task, how do we make the can as beautiful as the bottle? How do we put the sommelier on the retail shelf? Art and wine are two extensions of the same thing — all in pursuit of pleasure — so it just felt so clear that we should partner with artists so that the art is a tasting note for the wine that’s inside. It tells our story visually.
I also firmly believe that positive change will come when more women, BIPOC, and queer folks are in the C-suite and in leadership positions. Nomadica is a sponsor of LIFT Collective, a group advocating for equity and inclusion in the wine industry, and I’m one of their entrepreneurs. Our VP of sales, Cara Bertone, is their vice president and she inspires me to put my money where my mouth is daily.
Raising money and starting a company are things that have too long been relegated to a small elite group. I mentor people who come from nontraditional backgrounds (aka not rich) on the fundraising process. Many people don’t have a network that they can use to raise a friends-and-family round; we need to work five times as hard and look under rocks.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
Being the founder of a startup involves doing all the little jobs no one else is doing and also making sure everyone on the team has the tools and support to do their jobs well. My favorite part of my job is my team. I am so lucky to work with an amazing group of people who are just really good at what they do. I’m also creating the wine list at the Georgian Hotel in LA. I like to say “use it or lose it,” so I think I’ll always have a foot in restaurants because it’s so important to me to make sure my palate is razor-sharp.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
I have had so many — mentorship is everything! Sarah Clarke, my former boss and the current wine director at Manzke Restaurants, has taught me so much about wine and running a profitable program. She also took me on my first big wine trip and was just an all-around wonderful leader.
Kern Schireson, the CEO at Known, has been guiding me on my journey as CEO since 2018. There was a big learning curve when it came to running a company, managing people well, fundraising, and addressing the million problems we’ve faced along the way. Without his guidance, we wouldn’t be where we are today. When he’s asked about how he built such a gigantic and successful company, he always says, “just barely.” It’s a great reminder during scary times.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I would have trusted my own intuition a lot more. Imposter syndrome is such a real thing, especially for founders who aren’t white men. I would have done the personal work a lot sooner to push through that.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Don’t take advice from people whose lives you don’t want. Everyone has a fucking opinion; make sure to filter the ones you listen to.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Don’t be afraid to take a nontraditional career path. Pursue the things that interest you with vigor. Reach out to people you admire and work for them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.