At thirty-three years old, Cassandra Felix, a globally recognized and honored advanced sommelier, believes the dream of diversifying the still overwhelmingly white world of wine is not only attainable, but one she is primed to help achieve. As a first-generation Haitian American, though, she had little to no exposure to the hospitality industry while growing up in Florida. “Like most immigrant families, home base is home base,” Felix says. “Your family cooks elaborate dinners in the house that relate to your culture. I loved being in the kitchen with my grandmother, who cooked meals with love.”
When it came to wine, the only bottles that ever made their way into the Felix house were of Manischewitz. When Felix began working in restaurants as a teenager, the learning curve was steep. She began as a server at a local Chili’s, and then moved to the prestigious restaurants inside the famed Palm Beach hotel the Breakers, starting off as a cocktail waitress, bartender, and server.
There, curiosity got the best of Felix. She remembers being tasked with cataloging the wine in the hotel’s cavernous cellar. But instead of simply filling the racks, she found herself reading the wine labels and studying the brands and profiles. Her curiosity caught the attention of the Breakers’ two master sommeliers, Virginia Philip, only the eleventh woman in the world to earn the accreditation, and Juan Gomez, the first Mexican native to achieve the title. Both wine veterans took Felix under their wings and cultivated her curiosity. By the time she departed the Breakers in 2020, Felix was head sommelier and beverage director.
Felix moved to Napa Valley after that to dive headfirst into the wine industry. There, she worked as the wine director at Brendel Wines before moving back to Florida to become the wine director of the Boca Raton, an iconic hotel with a nearly hundred-year history that includes hosting the Duke of Windsor and other dignitaries. While at the Boca Raton, Felix managed the wine program for the property’s fourteen restaurants and built a worldly wine and spirits list.
Over the years, she wondered how often the high-end clientele at places like the Boca Raton have received wine advice from someone who looks like her: young, Black, and female. “I recognize that in a space like a ritzy restaurant, I may have been the only person of color that some guests would have spoken to that day, that week, or even that year,” she says. “I know that they are curious about my background. When I lead with gratitude as my foundation, it allows me to be open-minded, and perhaps gives me an opportunity to shift someone’s preconceived and biased notions.”
That opportunity to be a new face in the traditional world of wine, though, only inspired her to bring others into the fold. Before she left the Boca Raton this fall, Felix started an intense sixteen-week Wine 101 course for her hospitality team—a chance to enhance her team’s knowledge and also expose staffers from marginalized backgrounds to the world of wine. At the end of the course, several members passed the Court of Master Sommeliers, America’s introductory exam, including a BIPOC woman and man from the LGBTQ community. “When you pass an intense exam like that, it’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Felix says. “But there’s only one greater feeling: seeing the people you mentored pass it.”
These days, Felix is herself studying for the exam to achieve the title of master sommelier; if she passes, she’ll be the fourth Black master sommelier in the world. In the meantime, though, she has a few recommendations for the holidays to pass along.
Felix’s Holiday Bottle Picks
“No holiday celebration is complete without a proper bottle of bubbly. One of my favorites is the exquisite Champagne Jeeper Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Grande Réserve. This Champagne is 100 percent Chardonnay, which gives it a great deal of elegance and finesse. Notes of yellow pear, lemon curd, hazelnut, and brioche are displayed on the nose. It’s lively and refreshing on the palate making it perfect for a holiday toast.”
“Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair is a highly regarded producer located in the Côte de Nuits subregion of Burgundy. The family has been involved with wine production for over a century. This wine is a stunner. Sumptuous on the nose and graceful on the palate. Notes of Golden Delicious apple, underripe pear, and hints of almond are balanced by a touch of minerality on the finish.”
“Jean Foillard gained control over his father’s domaine in 1980. One hundred percent Gamay, this wine is sourced from the highly acclaimed Côte du Py [hill], which some consider to be the pride of the Morgon [region] Beaujolais cru. This wine is a crowd pleaser and is certain to be enjoyed by diverse palates. Notes of fresh cranberry, strawberry, and rhubarb jam are present on the nose, complemented by hints of a mildly earthy texture on the palate. Well suited for a holiday feast!”