Inside a Greenwich Village comedy club on a sweaty Wednesday evening in July 2019, Sam Mushman takes the stage. He starts out his seven-minute set talking about one of his obvious physical features: his height. He’s 6-foot-6 and describes to the audience how women he’s dated believe his stature makes him a good fighter. He disagrees.
“Let’s be honest. I have bad knees and soft hands. I’m no more useful than a giraffe.” The audience laughs. “During the day,” Mushman goes on, “I’m a sommelier. If you don’t know what that word means, its French for self-righteous prick.”
Mushman is a Level 2 Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and he’s the beverage director at Arthouse Wine Bar on the Upper West Side. But his 9-to-5 (or 12-to-7, depending on the day) gig is not as glamorous as it may sound. While Mushman’s day job revolves around wine, his duties are more focused on managerial tasks — managing people, inventory, and operations. His day-to-day work largely consists of booking rooftop events, making the staff schedule, and overseeing payroll. And the office where he spends most of his time is in the basement of the Arthouse Hotel, where the approximately seven-foot ceilings are only just tall enough for the ex-college basketball player.
Earlier, on the day of his comedy show, Mushman’s schedule at the Arthouse Wine Bar was packed. He spent the morning dealing with paperwork and staring at a computer screen, organizing the scheduling for his staff of seven, making sure they all got their requested days off. That part, he said, is like trying to solve a sudoku puzzle. At 2 p.m., he met with a wine sales representative and tasted through a flight of nine wines. Listening to him speak with the rep was like listening to a conversation in a foreign language.
“Oh, it’s got a little funk to it,” said Mushman, describing the first wine. “Can you send me the case drop on that?”
“The structure is so nice,” the sales rep added.
“This is like roasted red pepper all day.”
“Great mineral complexity.”
“[Sommeliers] are dissecting [wine] on such a psychotic level,” Mushman explained. “We can sometimes get caught up in all of the ‘Is this more roasted red pepper or is this more new oak?’ That’s our lingo.”
Later, when deciding which wines to put on Arthouse’s menu, Mushman went ahead and translated his winespeak into layman’s terms for his customers. On the menu, he prefers to use short, simple phrases to describe the wines. One Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is listed as “crisp, citrus, grassy, minerally.” A Zinfandel is identified with notes like “jammy, oaky vanilla, cedar, chocolate.”
Mushman is an easygoing guy in a profession that’s sometimes intimidating to people who don’t know a lot about wine, and part of his job is to help make the confusing world of wine approachable to all of the people visiting the wine bar.
One way he does this is by making the wine list prices as approachable as possible. “I try to pick wines that are off the beaten path that don’t cost as much,” Mushman said. For instance, he had a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley on his by-the-glass menu. But since Sancerre’s prices tend to be on the higher side, Mushman selected one of the sales rep’s other Sauvignon Blancs from a producer farther down the Loire River outside the Sancerre appellation. “It’s [grown] in the same soil,” Mushman pointed out. “Now I can offer what tastes to me like a bad-ass Sancerre for $12 or $13 — and people can experience it.”
After the meeting with the sales rep, Mushman went to work moving bottles around and unpacking boxes filled with booze. Walking between the narrow shelves, he bent down to check the bottles, turning a few to make sure the labels were facing out.
It’s hard to imagine that this is what a man who talks openly about his role-playing sex life on stage does all day. But Mushman says that comedians and sommeliers share a number of similarities. “Sommeliers are almost like comedians in a way,” he said. “You think comedians [and sommeliers] are these egotistical, loud, abrasive, crazy people. When, really, we’re all just emotionally crippled, overly self-deprecating and usually pretty self-aware.”
Mushman fell in love with comedy even before he fell in love with wine. While attending Holy Family University in Philadelphia, he wanted something to take his mind off the pressure of tough basketball games, so he started listening to comedy albums.
“I thought it was such a cool art form,” he said. “I thought some of these guys were rock stars, so I looked up some open mics in Philly.”
After graduating with his degree in communications in 2012, Mushman made the move to New York to pursue comedy, and it was there that he also found wine. Between unpaid comedy gigs and his then-desk job selling TV ads, Mushman started hanging out at Willow Creek Winery in Cape May, N.J.
He became so fascinated with wine that he quit his desk job and took a job at Willow Creek in 2014 managing guest services. From there, he earned his introductory sommelier certification, and he’s since gone on to hold several other positions in the service industry, including wine director at Public, an Ian Schrager hotel in downtown Manhattan.
The rest of Mushman’s afternoon at Arthouse was taken up by meetings. He met with an Italian winemaker, a potential DJ for the weekly Rosé on the Roof program, and then did a walkthrough of the Art Hotel’s rooftop space with a potential client interested in renting it for a party.
Mushman’s latest venture is an hour-long comedy special called “Vino-Comic” that he’s performing in the tri-state area. It showcases both of his loves — wine and humor — in one hour-long segment. In it, he talks about wine culture and somms, and he concludes the show with an interactive wine tasting, in which he assesses wines from the wineries that host him. He says his show is meant for wine lovers who don’t take themselves too seriously. That is certainly sommelier and comedian Sam Mushman.