The end of the sommelier?

Roger Morris looks at the plight of American sommeliers in a Covid-19 world.

Arvid Rosengren, Evan Goldstein MS, Doug Frost MS, Beki Miller
Arvid Rosengren, Evan Goldstein MS, Doug Frost MS, Beki Miller

Last spring, Arvid Rosengren, a Swedish-born sommelier who won the 2016 ASI Best Sommelier of the World competition, was hard at work heading the beverage team at Legacy Records, a trendy New York restaurant which had just opened in Manhattan’s newest landmark real estate – Hudson Yards. When the Covid-19 shutdown hit in early March, Legacy tried to survive on takeout, then closed completely for the duration, By August, the restaurant had still not reopened.

For Rosengren, the handwriting was on the wine list — it was not a good time to continue a career as restaurant sommelier. “I’ve personally decided to step away from Legacy Records and the restaurant business for a while,” he says. “The crisis really highlighted what a fragile industry it is, especially in a place like New York where margins are tiny. It was scary to see how even some restaurant ‘institutions’ that seemed invulnerable have already, or likely will, close.”

Sommelier Beki Miller thought she had arrived at her dream job at Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa city. “The last day I worked was March 15, and on March 20 I was called into the restaurant and told I was losing my job,” she says. “Though I would love to stay in Napa, I have applied for jobs from Seattle to Miami to New York and everywhere in between. I have applied for jobs outside of the restaurant world – retail, distribution, winery hospitality, harvest jobs. I’ve applied for jobs at the grocery store and at Starbucks.” So far, nothing.

Chappy Cottrell has a job – but it’s not as a restaurant sommelier, as he had been earlier this spring at Barndiva at Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Instead of building a wine list with bottles from many wineries, Cottrell now heads sales and marketing for a small Russian River Valley winery, Joseph Jewell, and feels fortunate about his change in careers.

Less than a year ago restaurant sommeliers in America were riding high — as a group the main influencers in determining which exotic varietal wine would become the next trendy item as a by-the-glass pour and which new regions would be on hot wine lists. In recent years, sommeliers had even single-handedly made natural wines respectable, as retailers continued to ignore them. Importers and distributors underwrote somms’ visits to wineries around the world. Beverage conferences sought them out for paid speaking jobs. PR firms hired somms to do wine seminars as unofficial brand ambassadors for their clients.

Then in March, with the appearance of Covid-19, the bottom fell out. 

The collapse

Within a few days of the first reported virus cases, restaurants were shut nationwide, and owners had no idea when, or even if, they would start up again or whether they could afford a full-time sommelier to work the floor when they did. In the months since, the somms’ worse fears – no paycheck, no job market, dark future – have played out, and many question whether the profession will ever again reach the glory days it experienced during the first 20 years of this century. 

“At least 20,000 restaurants have permanently closed, and we expect that number to rise significantly before this runs its course,” reported Mollie O’Dell of the National Restaurant Association in late summer — a number that has since reached 100,000. “So far, the industry has sustained $165 billion in losses through July, and $240 billion in losses are expected by the end of 2020.”

Gianfranco Sorrentino is a New York restaurateur (the Il Gattopardo Group) as well as head of the culinary organization, Gruppo Italiano, which sponsored online seminars throughout the Covid summer on restaurant survival. He gives a frank appraisal of the future of on-the-floor sommeliers: 

“Until the coronavirus is over and the economy is really recovering, restaurants will try to save [by eliminating] the sommelier salary, which is from $75,000 to $100,000 per year, plus bonus and benefits. I also have to say that all the restaurants will try to use their wine inventory” and do minimal restocking. He adds that well-known sommeliers travel a lot, “visiting the wineries and all the major wine events such as Vinitaly and ProWein — and sometimes not at their own expense.” It’s another perk that will probably disappear.

San Francisco-based Evan Goldstein is a Master Sommelier and co-owner of Full Circle Wine Solutions, a consulting and events group, who has longstanding close contacts with fellow sommeliers. The current dilemma, he believes, will provide an opportunity for restaurants to act on something that long concerned them. “For years, restaurants have been pushing back on having someone who only sells wines,” he says, “and certainly now the role of the sommelier will be evolving as restaurants will look to ways to shave costs.” The sommelier’s plum role as chief wine buyer will be diminished, Goldtsein believes. “The idea of carrying that much inventory will be curtailed, and restaurants will instead be looking to make deals” with distributors for bargains.

Just as “influencers” have blossomed as prime social media jobs in recent years, having a “sommelier” education has been a stepping stone to entry level jobs in food and beverage marketing and in public relations agencies. Advanced degrees — or ‘levels’ as they are called — have been badges for promotion and prestige. It is not an exaggeration to say that most young people attaining education from a sommelier accrediting group have never opened a bottle of wine for anyone other than a house guest.

Although there are several accredited sommelier and wine education training programs in the world, the best known are WSET (the English-based Wine & Spirits Educational Trust) and the stately Court of Master Sommeliers. “Our business has taken a bruising, but we are still alive, being creative, finding ways to keep going and keep students engaged,” says Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, director of the WSET’s New York-based affiliate, the International Wine Center. 

“It was heartbreaking to see the hospitality industry collapse with the blink of an eye.” Nevertheless, she says, “I do not think things have dampened interest, but they have certainly impacted the ability of many students to take courses — for financial and/or logistical reasons — and so, for sure, this it has impacted us.”

The career changers

Some sommeliers have moved quickly to find a silver lining. “Many individuals that may have considered a career change in the past will take this time to make a change,” says Alexandria Sarovich, who switched from being a restaurant sommelier to serving some of the same functions at a Sonoma winery, which also serves food, partly because it is also giving her online sales training opportunities.

Others have used the pandemic as a sort of “gap year,” similar to students taking time off for travel or practical experience before entering, or re-entering, university. “I actually just arrived in Germany – Pfalz – for harvest a week ago,” California-based sommelier Vincent Morrow reported in mid-August. “I’ll be here with my girlfriend, also a sommelier, through the end of the year working in the vineyard and cellar.” Meanwhile, he is checking out job leads back home. “I’m very much still in the restaurant mindset,” he says.

Mia Van de Water had been a somm for three years at the prestigious Eleven Madison Park in New York and “went through a week of panic” before becoming a wine buyer at a Whole Foods Market and later landing an assistant general manager job at another restaurant. She finds she enjoys management and is even trying her hand at being an entrepreneur — but will miss the old life. “I love the focus and adrenaline of service, the evolving relationships with guests, the camaraderie and athleticism of the kitchen and the dining room teams,” she says, wondering if that world may be permanently gone.

Restaurateur Sorrentino thinks it is: “The future for [sommeliers] will be education online and becoming kind of wine-influencers…targeting the new generations such as Millenniums and Generation Z and all the generations to come.” Chicago sommelier Jon McDaniel set up the United Sommeliers Foundation to raise funds for out-of-work somms, “They’re completely lost,” he says. “They had dedicated their lives to be sommeliers, but sommelier jobs where they only sell wine is a dinosaur job.”

Or, as Rosengren states it, “Sommeliers will likely have to do a broader set of tasks once they get back to work. Perhaps now is a good time to brush up on your Excel skills or understanding of bookkeeping and basic business finance instead of memorizing wine facts.”

Doug Frost is one of America’s best-known sommeliers, a rarity who is both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wines and rarer still for having those credentials and continuing to work the floor at a Kansas City restaurant. “My role as a restaurant beverage manager lingers insomuch as we have all-outdoor dining at present,” he says, but notes safety concerns. “I’m unwilling to work the floor on a regular basis, so I show up for special events only and always wear a mask, as do all restaurant staff. But I tend to limit my interaction with tables. Long, friendly chats are a thing of the past.” 

Roger Morris

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