A former Citibank investment banker, André Mack drew attention as the first Black winner of Best Young Sommelier in America in 2003 by Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Food and Wine Society. The award catapulted him to floor sommelier at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, and later to head sommelier at Per Se in New York City.
From the start, Mack set his own pace, regardless of social or cultural trends or norms, including the current Black Lives Matter movement. “Being black in the wine industry is no different than being black for 47 years of my life,” says Mack. The ultra-competitive New Jersey native shows up, suits up and plays to win.
Case in point: winning the Best Young Sommelier award. “The whole adventure was surreal, to say the least,” says Mack. “It absolutely felt like an out-of-body experience! I couldn’t believe that they were calling my name. But I came with the intentions of winning and proving to myself that I could compete amongst the best in the world.”
Mack also thrives on personal interaction. Indeed, he left his lucrative banking career precisely because he missed the immediate gratification of hospitality. “I believe I was an entrepreneur way before I ever got into wine,” he says. This led to juggling floor life with side projects, including Maison Noir Wines, a garage wine project in Oregon, founded in 2007. “It just felt like the natural progression from being a sommelier, moving to production so I can continue to learn about wine.” Mack’s winery owns no land. Instead, he leases vineyards throughout Willamette Valley, farmed to his specifications.
New York bar owner Paul Grieco “said this amazing thing to me once,” says Mack. “One day he called me and said ‘Hey, man, I didn’t realise you were making this wine — I would love for you to bring it by. We really try to support and get behind sommelier-backed projects, because we want to show sommeliers that there’s life after the floor’.”
Mack’s other ventures include motivational speaking, writing and creating the Bottle Flip Challenge app game. Street culture inspires Mack’s boutique graphic designer firm Get Fraîche Cru, where he serves as designer and creative director for clients such as Joel Gott Wines, Palm Bay imports and Charles & Charles wines. “Just fun stuff to give back,” he says, adding he also wanted to create a subculture that didn’t yet exist. “I always wanted to show other sommeliers that it’s endless.”
Mack’s previous investment experience taught him about the importance of diversification. His “on floor” experience taught him about the connection between wine and hospitality. Both experiences drive his other empire, the & Sons Hospitality Group. The neighbourhood portfolio comprises & Sons Ham Bar, & Sons Buttery provisions store, VyneYard wine shop, and et Fils Microbakery, all located blocks from one another in Brooklyn.
“A lot of sommeliers that I know don’t really come from other careers,” says Mack. “They started out working in restaurants, then they evolved into wine,” and a lot of them don’t have other skills. “And so now that the restaurant’s not there, what can you do? I worked in finance, so I had some skills.”
Those skills became amplified during the Covid-19 in-house dining ban, when restaurants came to a screeching halt. “Some people were just getting by, wanting to keep the doors opened,” he says. “And leaning on their community, they turned into wine shops, they turned into pantry stores. But it’s nothing even close to the numbers that they were doing before.”
Luckily, Mack already owned a wine shop, plus a pending provisions store he’d leased three years earlier. As dine-in restaurants scrambled to replace lost income through take-out and wine sales, Mack simply fast-tracked his provisions store opening and offered free delivery at the wine shop.
The result? “We saw retail wine go through the roof,” he says of VyneYard. “We witnessed our little shop — which might be 200 square feet, about 200 SKUs — doing $60,000 a month.” Ground sales for Maison Noir Wines lagged, however. “We were slow,” he admits. “We’re probably down 20 percent for the first four months of this year, compared to last year.” His winery direct-to-customer (DTC) business also boomed. “Online sales have been crazy. Since 2 June, we’ve done over $150,000 online. It’s insane.”
Mack checks on colleagues constantly. “I talked with friends all across the country,” he says. “Wine shops were closing days so they could clean and catch their breath, because there was so much business.” Elsewhere, he reports some restaurant groups are focusing on 2021 and using the rest of 2020 to re-evaluate and ask themselves hard questions such as: “Are we still doing this for the right reasons? For the reasons we got into it?”
Moreover, despite on-trade differences from state to state, guest and employee safety concerns remain unwavering. “Moving forward, everybody just needs to be patient,” says Mack. “Everybody needs to understand that everyone’s going through something. And it’s going take a little bit of time. No two days are going be the same. And for a lot of us, that’s why we got into the restaurant business. We got into it because every day throws you a curveball — something unexpected. The show must go on.”
And the future of somms? Mack errs on the side of optimism. “Who believes that we’re never going out to a restaurant again?” he asks. “Do we believe that? Is it going to be the same? Probably not. But I believe that people will go out to restaurants. We are social creatures. Eating at home is just not enough. In the end, restaurants will still continue. I believe in that. They should still believe in that, too.”
However, Mack does foresee somm culture shifting. “I think that the culture will change. You’ll probably take on more duties, because the restaurants can’t afford them any more,” he says. Additionally, somms will embrace more online and social media tastings and seminars. “The number one fear, after dying, is public speaking,” Mack says. “Something like Instagram Live or Zoom — there might be a whole bunch of people but you’re not right in front of them, so it builds this kind of cocoon. It doesn’t feel like public speaking.”
Social media platforms build upon existing fan bases, in turn feeding other businesses down the line. “People are starting to look at other businesses, things that they thought weren’t in their wheelhouse,” observes Mack. “So — diversify. It’s all lifestyle, right?” He says people who love a restaurant will keep supporting it in other ways. “You’re starting to see that shift.”
Ultimately, Mack believes the “new normal” for wine and hospitality in the time of Covid-19 will look a bit like the old normal. “I feel like things will totally go back,” he says, “just not the same.” Restaurants will continue thinking creatively to build alternative business models. Retail and DTC sales will continue to dominate. And somms and hospitality will continue building community via social media.
“Being in the restaurant business, being in culinary arts, and hospitality — I feel there’s a lot of creative and smart people. And you witness that — they all got creative and figured out ways to continue to be opened,” concludes Mack. “I’m excited to see what happens on the other side of this. I want to see what 2021 looks like, when people have had enough time and let these ideas incubate, then see if they’re going to come to fruition.”