With Restaurants in Crisis, Wine Pros Seek a Way Forward – The Wall Street Journal

AT SEA Sommeliers are exploring their career options as the restaurants that employ them fight for survival.

Photo: Michael Glenwood

SOME MAY LAMENT the absence of their hairdresser or weekly sessions with a yoga instructor during the pandemic shutdown; I’ve been missing the sommeliers. It’s been months since I consulted a wine professional in a restaurant and I’m feeling the loss. But what of the losses to the sommeliers themselves, especially those whose restaurants are temporarily or forever closed?

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The news has been grim as restaurants have either stayed shut or reduced customer capacity to numbers that are cripplingly small. And while some employees have returned, albeit in much altered and often multiple roles, many are still furloughed, awaiting word. Some are seeking different work altogether, as I learned during many heartfelt, often heartbreaking conversations with wine professionals.

It’s been a wrenching few months for Erik Liedholm, longtime wine director of the Seattle-based John Howie restaurant group. He’s been selling off valuable bottles from his restaurants’ cellars—for the same prices he paid years ago—to keep his staff employed and the company afloat. Among the pretty remarkable bargains on offer: a 2004 Harlan Estate Cabernet for $399 (compared with $800 retail) and a 1999 Chateau Lafite Rothschild for $499 ($780 elsewhere).

At many restaurants, takeout wine sales have been brisk, but with fewer diners, in-restaurant wine sales have often been close to nonexistent. Sommelier Carrie Keyes of Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar, the founding restaurant of the John Howie group, outside Seattle, recalled the night (July 12, to be exact) she sold a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut Non Vintage Champagne to a table of guests—the only wine sale in the restaurant that night. “I stand around a lot,” she said.

They had transitioned into winemaking, wine consulting, wine marketing and wine sales

While Seattle restaurants are open for indoor dining in a limited capacity, New York restaurants are open only to patrons dining outdoors, a challenge for staff. Amanda Smeltz, wine director of Estela and Altro Paradiso restaurants, now functions as the interim general manager and beverage director at Altro Paradiso, the only restaurant of the two that is currently operating. Since New York restaurants reopened, she’s found her way by trial and error. She decided the wine list—initially printed on paper in an abbreviated version, used once, thrown away and replaced with a fresh list for the next customer to avoid surface transmission of the virus—would work better as a PDF that diners view on their smartphones. On a recent night, a downpour definitely dampened business.

Some diners protest requirements that they need to wear masks and social distance. But others are deeply grateful for the opportunity to dine out. “Some guests are almost in tears. They realize how much risk it is for the employees to come from their faraway apartments. Serving these people has been a huge pleasure,” said Ms. Smeltz.

The former wine director of Auburn restaurant in Los Angeles, Rich Arline, noted that the city shut Auburn down in March, on the restaurant’s one-year anniversary. The restaurant shuttered for good in May. Mr. Arline transitioned into a partnership in a West Hollywood wine bar scheduled to open this fall. And he recognizes his good luck: “I have friends who don’t have any certainty their jobs will exist.”

Some sommeliers had already been in the process of pivoting before the pandemic hit. Jason Jacobeit, wine director of Bâtard restaurant in New York, and Daniel Jung, head sommelier of Tribeca Grill, will be opening Somm Cellars Wine & Spirits, a retail wine shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in October. “I think it’s uniquely fortuitous timing,” observed Mr. Jacobeit with a small laugh. When their restaurants reopen Mr. Jacobeit and Mr. Jung plan to work there as well.

Joe Robitaille, former sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in Manhattan, left the city last fall to realize a long-held dream of owning his own restaurant, Homespun Food, in Beacon, N.Y., and also run the café at the museum Dia Beacon. Both closed in mid-March; the restaurant reopened in mid-June and the café is supposed to open again in August. I asked what advice would he offer sommelier peers wondering whether to jump ship. “I’d say sit tight and see how it plays out,” he replied.

Still, many sommeliers are researching their options. Michelle Metter, founder of SommCon, an organization that normally hosts live conferences for sommeliers on the East and West Coasts, recently hosted a hugely popular two-part webinar called “Managing Career Uncertainty.” She estimated about 1,200 tuned in to both courses—double the usual attendance. “We’re continuing the series in another 3-4 weeks,” she said. I watched both webinars and was impressed by the panelists, all sommeliers who had transitioned into new professions, including winemaking, wine consulting, wine marketing and wine sales.

According to Napa-based wine-business recruiter Christopher Pappe, many sommeliers who aspire to move into wine sales with a wholesaler, importer or winery don’t realize how difficult that can be. As sommeliers, they’re in a position of power, building a wine list and deciding which wines to buy; as salespeople, they sell to their former sommelier peers. “It’s hard to take off your buying hat for your selling hat,” said Mr. Pappe. And Napa Valley is, above all, a community, he emphasized. A sommelier really has to be a part of the community to get a sales job with one of its wineries.

Jon McDaniel, formerly beverage director of the Gage Hospitality Group of five restaurants in Chicago, quit to found the wine consulting company Second City Soil. He serves as the Midwest and national ambassador for a number of importers and wineries and holds trade tastings and educational seminars—now virtually. He’s also a sales ambassador for wine brands and trade organizations. Mr. McDaniel noted that he’s been flooded with calls in the last few months from fellow somms looking for advice.

“Chicago restaurants invest in chefs,” Mr. McDaniel said. Because wine programs and therefore sommeliers aren’t the focus of the city’s fine-dining scene, Chicago sommeliers are harder pressed than ever to show their worth to restaurateurs under the current circumstances. They need to demonstrate that they understand a P&L statement, can make a profit for the restaurant and perhaps even run food to tables.

The professionals I spoke with noted the many qualities a sommelier must possess: intelligence, discipline, a strong work ethic and good social graces. I’ve found all of these in top professionals, and I wonder if those talents will be put to use in restaurants again. Mr. Liedholm, who has spent decades in the restaurant business, said, “I’m feeling pessimistic about the way things are going with the current restaurant model. Fine dining really has to be reconsidered.” If it is, will sommeliers be deemed a necessary part of the dining experience?

Write to Lettie at wine@wsj.com

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