Before the COVID crisis spurred restaurant closures (both temporary and permanent) throughout the United States, “fine dining” represented a strong economic force and a major employment provider, particularly in large cities. But with massive percentages of the hospitality workforce now grappling with unemployment, many restaurant workers and patrons alike find themselves wondering whether certain pockets of the industry will ever fully return to their pre-pandemic glory. Fine dining definitely falls into this questionable category, and a current lack of on-site opportunities threatens the livelihoods of service professionals specific to “high-end” service, like sommeliers.
“The extreme loss of our restaurant community, and subsequently, the wine that is sold through them, has been severe. In some reports, we are seeing the prediction that 60% of restaurants, especially the independently owned, won’t recover. That is going to be felt by all aspects of the market for some time,” Michelle Metter, the founder of SommCon, an educational conference for wine professionals, offers as a realistic piece of context. However, she also says that “if there is a silver lining, it’s in seeing both how the industry is coming together to help those in need, the innovation by companies looking for a new way forward, and the continued heart of hospitality.” In this spirit, many enterprising somms are choosing to seek out ways to utilize their wealth of expert knowledge, viewing the pandemic as a compelling reason to carve out new professional paths.
Our conversations with sommeliers about the post-pandemic possibilities available to them largely centered around a single theme: Digital sommelier work is the future. This shift isn’t easy, and it requires sommeliers to develop and activate new skills (and to push past natural frustrations). Sommelier and wine teacher Caroline Conner, who is based in Lyon, France, tells us that “we had a hardcore quarantine here in France, and I immediately realized that my business was dead and I would need to change everything. Honestly, it’s been horrible and sad and I’ve grieved a lot, but it’s also opened up my world and I truly believe I will be much more successful and have a bigger audience because of it. Going digital is hard, and it takes a long time. It feels often like there’s only room for the ‘sexy wine girls’ on Instagram (it’s a thing, seriously), but I power through by remembering that I know my stuff and that even though it’s slow, people are responding positively to what I’m putting out there.”
Sommeliers who are eager to explore the digital frontier have plentiful options (along with some specific in-person avenues), with the following five business-venture categories appearing particularly popular and relevant right now.
In an upscale restaurant environment, the individualized attention provided by a sommelier can significantly elevate a guest’s overall experience. They have the chance to talk through their preferences and their food selections with a wine expert, and the somm offers personalized recommendations based on these conversations. The value of these one-on-one dialogues can’t be overstated, which is why some sommeliers now find themselves pivoting into “concierge” projects that enable them to sustain similar relationships with clients.
One such project, The Supper Share, owes its creation to Juliana Colangelo, a PR exec who focuses on food & wine. Colangelo tapped her extensive sommelier network to round up skilled and knowledgeable professionals with excellent hospitality instincts, and she now operates The Supper Share as a platform where individual clients can hire these somms for digital wine tastings and dinner parties. The sommeliers chat with the clients to learn about their preferences, then they create bottle packages specific to the client’s needs and ship the wines directly to the participants. “Being involved with Supper Share has been an excellent way to connect with wine lovers during these unprecedented times. It has allowed me to utilize my skill set, and to continue growing as a wine professional outside of the restaurant,” effuses San Francisco-based Advanced Sommelier Jienna Basaldu.
In some cases, wine stores (which have largely proven successful and profitable throughout the pandemic) will enlist sommeliers to help clients choose their perfect bottles, whether remotely or in person. At Domestique in Washington, D.C., manager and sommelier Eric Moorer spearheaded two new initiatives designed to provide somm support while social distancing: Hot Wine Bling (bookable phone appointments with sommeliers to talk through wine purchases and gather recommendations) and Pretty Vacant (individual in-store shopping appointments where a somm will be available to field questions and offer assistance). “Coming in for a Pretty Vacant appointment or talking to us via Hot Wine Bling is meant to be an extension of what we already do in the shop. In a pre-pandemic world, we offered this to everyone who walked in; the only difference now is we can actually carve out a solid fifteen or thirty minutes where that person is our sole focus as opposed to having to scan a room and prepare ourselves for what’s coming up next. From there, we talk about what the individual may like or not like, entertaining wine experiences they’ve had, [and] potential for their growth in drinking. We talk about what albums and moods pair with bottles and how to make sense out of a wine and food pairing based around macaroni and cheese. We try to make the conversation as comfortable as possible,” Moorer explains.
We’re all eminently aware (perhaps more aware than we’d prefer…) of the enormous rise in Zoom calls, FaceTime chats, and Google Hangouts that began in the early days of quarantine and continues to make up a large proportion of many people’s social lives. For some sommeliers, this heightened demand for video correspondence introduced an opportunity to conduct tastings similar to the ones that they used to lead for clients in-person, but all done digitally.
Master Sommelier Laura Maniec, who owns Corkbuzz in New York City and currently runs a virtual tasting series with Benchmark Wine Group, sees video tastings as a format with great lasting potential, telling The Manual that “I do think they are here to stay; the consumer wants to learn and share their passions with others, so this format is ideal because it is safe (no drinking and driving) and because it allows for multiple people in a household to enjoy wine. Many times in corporate entertainment, the client is invited to an event without their spouse, but by hosting virtual events, the recipient of the wine can share their experience in the comfort of their own home and not miss dinner with their significant other. I think there will be a much bigger turnout for corporate events using this format.”
Sisters, sommeliers, and co-founders Shaunna Cooper and Shayla Smith of WineSpencer conduct virtual tastings via Zoom, and they’ve also launched numerous social media activations to share their wine knowledge. They’ve found online tastings to be a highly effective way to keep their business going throughout the pandemic, but they also acknowledge some inherent challenges in this remote educational format: “The most challenging aspect is making sure all guests on the call have access to wines selected by the host. We like to create a shared experience and try and make sure all guests in different states can enjoy the same wine. However, as we started having more virtual events with guests spread out across the country, we learned a little more about wine distribution. [For example,] wines that are available in our local retailers or for online shipments may not necessarily be available to another person in Texas. So it has taken additional time and creativity on the wine recommendations selected to make that happen. If we are absolutely not able to locate the same wines, then we recommend alternatives from the same region.”
For sommelier and beverage director Braithe Tidwell of Brennan’s in New Orleans, virtual tastings prove most effective when they veer away from general wine knowledge and hone in on nuances and details. “I would advise selecting a specific angle for virtual tastings. For the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, we’ve chosen to connect with wineries that have a connection with New Orleans. I think that finding a theme for your tastings helps provide direction — just make sure it’s something that you can connect with on a personal level,” she says.
Social Media Activations
The power of social media knows no bounds, and Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and other platforms enable somms to conduct their own marketing and to present their knowledge in a highly accessible form. Cooper and Smith of WineSpencer frequently use social media to both discuss wine and to address racial injustices, as well as to expand perceptions of wine drinkers beyond common stereotypes. “Social media helps those in the wine industry understand that many different types of people drink wine. The stereotype of the ‘sophisticated wine drinker’ is an older white man. Social media has changed that narrative, with women, young people, and [people of] other races saying ‘we are here, and your messaging should speak to us, too.’ Social media also helps smaller brands get noticed. Walking into a wine store can be overwhelming with the number of options. But a person can remember that small brand they saw on their feed and decide they will give it a try,” Cooper and Smith tell us.
Coly Den Haan, a sommelier who owns the Vinovore wine shop in Los Angeles, also praises social media as an outlet for spreading the word about products, initiatives, and the wine community as a whole. “I have noticed the best way to get the word out about new wines, specials, and events these days is through social media and email blasts. We just don’t have the luxury of chatting in person everyday any longer about what we have going on. Our virtual wine tasting events have been really cool, and we have been working with female winemakers from around the world. While we may be sequestered to our couches, you almost get a sense that you’re traveling when tuning in to a winemaker halfway around the globe and tasting and learning together. Now is the time to adapt and get creative. People are still seeking a connection with their wine and as professionals; it’s our job to think of new ways to make that happen,” explains Den Haan.
In lieu of Zoom, sommelier Trevor Gorham of Vino Veritas Wine Bar and Bottle Shop in Portland, Oregon hosts virtual tastings on Instagram Live, and he says that “while many bars and restaurants have come to a halt, the world of wine never stops. A sommelier’s responsibility is to represent the wine industry by sharing stories, recommending wines, and educating our listeners. While our typical platform is limited, IG Live offers a strong opportunity to run live digital tastings, educational events and interviews. These tools have been around for several years now, but since the pandemic, we are starting to realize the importance of social media and the opportunity it provides.”
Physical wine shops may be thriving even throughout the pandemic, but for shoppers who’d rather not risk an out-of-house venture for a bottle of vino, e-commerce wine stores play a crucial role. Sommeliers can find lucrative and fulfilling positions as advisors for these platforms, and sommelier Justin Timsit, whose resume includes Gramercy Tavern in NYC and Rittenhouse in The Philadelphia, does exactly that for Case Made Wines, a new e-commerce operation based in California. “E-commerce and direct-to-consumer businesses will forever be impacted by this moment in time. People want easy access to everything they buy, with a simple click and instant delivery. Wine retailers that capitalize on this need will set themselves apart both during and well beyond the pandemic. However, the consumer dilemma of knowing which wines to buy remains the same. With so many wine buying options at one’s fingertips online, there is a premium on having expert guidance available, now more than ever. Wine drinkers want to find something they like and don’t mind paying a bit extra for it, especially if it comes with a value added service that a sommelier can provide. If a sommelier can earn a buyer’s trust through warm hospitality over the phone or via email, they’ll have very satisfied customers coming back for more,” Timsit says of the value of a sommelier in an online wine-buying transaction.
Online Wine Schools for Professionals
Enthusiastic wine drinkers who want to gather more information about their preferred varietals have access to endless Zoom workshops and IG Live programs … but what about aspiring wine professionals who find their educations upended by the pandemic? Can they still learn at the necessary level and still prepare to take their certification tests when conditions allow? According to sommelier Alessandra Esteves, the co-founder and director of wine education at the Florida Wine Academy, online professional classes have significant benefits, including the fact that the digital format allows for a wider geographic spread of students. “The advantage is to connect with people from other cities, states and countries. During lockdown, we were hosting webinars for 100 people and we had guests from Guatemala to Australia. [This is] a difficult moment for the wine industry, but we will get through it. Use the time to study, advance in your certification, and when the time comes, you will be rewarded,” she says.
Sommelier and founder Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia agrees that online courses are an excellent opportunity for students prepping for certification exams during the pandemic. “The advantage of using a digital medium is huge. We can cover more information in a way that was unavailable in a classroom. We can deliver information in different mediums, all in a single stream. Some information is best described in an infographic, some as a video, some as a map, others in the spoken word. This means we don’t have to compromise. We can also stream information at a rate the student wants. Some students will devour a class in 30 minutes, others will take a few days. Not everyone learns effectively at the same pace,” he explains.