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In this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe sits down with Belinda Chang to discuss her new project, “Virtual Boozy Brunch.” While this project is Chang’s newest endeavor, it is one of many exciting positions she has held in the wine world. Here, Chang discusses how she moved into the wine and hospitality industry shortly after majoring in biochemistry and economics, and the influential roles she has held along the way.
Early in her career, Chang moved to Chicago then San Francisco, where she was selected to replace Rajat Parr as the new wine director for the Fifth Floor. From there, she earned a series of interesting positions and was chosen to be the wine director at MoMA, as well as the first national Champagne educator for LVMH. She also led a team to win a James Beard Award, as well as hosting both an annual pre-prom for female nominees to get ready for the ceremony and an annual pool party in Aspen.
The latter two events were put on by her own company, which she describes as “luxury experiential marketing.” Now, her platform hosts “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” which she initially launched to support wine professionals at the beginning of the pandemic. Today, the series has evolved into what she calls a “sip-along, cook-along, bake-along, dance-along, and many- other-things-along experience,” where users can log on and learn within interactive sessions. Chang emphasizes that these events always focus on user engagement and storytelling and will continue on well into the future.
Or Check Out the Conversation here
Zach: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “Next Round” “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on the issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with James Beard Award-winning sommelier and the creator of “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” Belinda Chang. Thank you so much for your time.
Belinda: It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me virtually, Zach.
Z: That’s still the way we do pretty much everything these days, for now. So let’s start before we get into “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” where I want to spend a fair bit of our time today talking about your past with your trajectory, your career as a sommelier, before Covid-19 changed everything.
B: Sure. Like many of us, I started at university. I was a graduate of Rice University in Houston, Texas, who majored in biochemistry and economics. And if you ask my parents, they would probably say it all went wrong when I started dating the lead singer of this ska band. I mean, there were pretty good ska bands, right? They opened up for the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. It was a college band, but they were pretty darn good. And the lead singer of the band who I was dating, he was a senior. I was a freshman, and he had the whole down low on how to be really well-fed and drink wine while being a college student and on a typical college student budget. And that was to work at the University Faculty Club, which is called Cohen House. And so that was my first job ever. Of course, I followed along and got myself a job at the Rice University Faculty Club, and I ended up being the head waiter there because I think I was just really having so much fun. So what that looked like was during my lunch hours, I was carving brisket — that brisket in Houston is so delicious — and ladling out bowls of the incredible gumbo and shrimp to say that they had on the buffet line for all of my professors. And then in the evenings, we had a small team that did these synchronized service, fine dining events for the president of the university. And a lot of the illustrious alumni, like the Baker family, people like that. And that was my first experience with fine dining and great wine. Well, the great wine at the time, I think, was Magnums of Macon-Villages.
Z: Seems great.
B: Yeah I mean, it was a private institution, and to me, that was slightly nicer than what they were serving at some of the other faculty clubs. But that’s how I got into this whole thing and fell in love with wine and fell in love with hospitality and fell in love with it all and decided to abandon the path that I had been set on to, maybe become something respectable, like a doctor or a lawyer management consultant. So while I was there, I then — after I fell in love with the lead singer of the ska band who knew a lot about how to get free food and wine — I then fell in love with the new chef of the top restaurant in Houston, which at the time was a restaurant called Cafe Annie, owned and operated by a Ph.D. in biochemistry who became a chef. His name’s Robert Del Grande. He won all the James Beard Awards and was a huge wine lover and lover of rabbit enchiladas and mole. So that was interesting. But, they ended up with a Wine Spectator award-winning program. And it’s a beautiful place where I believe that we had the most interesting clientele you could have at the time, like Colombian drug runners and people like that that are in Houston. And so there were a lot of Chateau Mouton ’82 and magnums of Dom Perignon all over the place. So that was a really fun place to get my start in restaurants proper. So I started in the kitchen there. I knocked on their back door one day and ended up being hired on as a banquet line chef. So I know a lot about making wild mushroom quesadillas really quickly and en masse and also doing that, remember that like ’90s Zig-Zag from the squeeze bottle? The crema fresca over the mole-topped enchiladas and all kinds of beautiful Southwestern food. And that’s where I got my first subscription to the Wine Spectator. I started reading about wine, started guzzling that Newton Chardonnay Unfiltered. I guess Texas is the biggest buyer of that wine. And there started my wine education that set me in that direction. And then a lot of things happened after that. I don’t know if we want to go into that.
Z: Well I just was going to say maybe obviously you’ve had a remarkable and illustrious career, and feel free to recount more of it, but I’m just wondering, obviously for all of us there are the initial formative restaurant experiences that you say “this is where I learned the ropes.” But then along the way for you as well, were there any other stops that you particularly feel like recounting? Or if not, we can certainly move on.
B: Yeah, I mean, I think I think the early stops are to be the most interesting because they really are the formative ones. So I had a great time at Cafe Annie and I loved working with the husband-and-wife team. And I’m grateful that I started on the culinary side to have a good grounding in how a fancy kitchen works and all of that, which made it easier for me to adapt moving forward. So while I was at Cafe Annie — and maybe this is also a little bit about my career strategy from the beginning — I went to Cafe Annie because a friend of mine told me it was the best restaurant. So if you’re going to learn something about cooking in restaurants, go there. And then while I was at Cafe Annie I saw a cover of the Wine Spectator that said that Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago is the best restaurant in the world for a food and drink experience. And I thought, oh, well, of course, I should just go work there next.
Z: I appreciate that. That is some self-confidence.
B: Right. So I wasn’t even thinking about it. It’s like how you might think to yourself, like, “Oh really? Yeah. I’ll just go to Harvard. That’s what I’m going to do.” And so I faxed my resume and went to Kinkos before it was FedEx. I remember driving there, sending in a resume that I’d cobbled together. And lo and behold, by the time I got back, on my answering machine that used a regular cassette tape was a message from Chef Trotter himself. So that was the next thing I did. I packed up everything. And I think within a week I just hustled myself out to Chicago and started working there. And there he starts you wherever he wants to start you, and even though I was so proud of myself at that point, at Cafe Annie I was the only woman working as a captain in the dining room, which in fine dining is like the top of the heap. I went to Charlie Trotter’s, and I was a food runner. So five years there, and I ended my time as the wine director of that very venerable cellar and learned everything you could possibly learn about operating a restaurant in the way that he did and many other lessons. So I think that’s the stop that really set me on this path forever and also informed a lot of what I believe in hospitality and how to deliver experiences and how to work and how to mentor and lots of other things. So I did that. So I went from Houston back home to Chicago. My parents have lived here, and I lived here from third grade on. This was my hometown. And after a couple of years at Charlie Trotter’s, I got a call that a chef named Laurent Gras was looking for a wine director and a replacement for Rajat Parr in San Francisco.
Z: I think I’ve heard of him.
B: Yeah, right. So I was like, oh my God, who doesn’t want to be the follow-up to Rajat Parr and that incredible cellar stocked from floor to ceiling. That was a giant cellar of Burgundy, I think probably the largest in the country, if not the deepest in the country just at that moment in time. And so I flew myself out to San Francisco with the same thought, like, “Of course, I’m the one to replace Rajat Parr.” And I met the chef. I think I was probably the 60th person he’d interviewed, the very last person who put their hat in the ring for it. And there’s a nice moment here where I took the elevator up to the fifth floor, right? The Fifth Floor in San Francisco was on the fifth floor, and I saw Martine Saunier sitting outside and she was on a cell phone. And it wasn’t an iPhone. It was like one of those big ones, I think, or maybe a Motorola flip phone. And she looked up, and we didn’t know each other well. But I met her a few times and she said, “Oh, Belinda Chang.” She said, “Are you here to interview?” And I said, “yes.” And she nodded. And I went into the interview. I found out later that she called chef Gras after and said, “hire her”.
Z: Oh, wow.
B: Yeah. So that was a really cool moment. And I didn’t know about this for many years. And I can tell you, I love him deeply. I think he’s so amazing and I treasure my years that I worked with him. But I do know that when I walked into the room, he was definitely like, but you’re a girl, right? But he comes from very classic dining rooms. And I’m sure in those years, there definitely was not a woman sommelier on any of those service teams.
Z: Yeah, I think that is a safe assumption.
B: So it was pretty cool that she got in the game and told them what to do, and he followed her advice. And I think that at that time that was the job that a lot of people wanted.
Z: I bet, yeah. If 60-something people applied, I bet so. So before we shift gears and talk a little bit about “Virtual Boozy Brunch” and what you’ve been doing lately, what was the last sommelier or wine director job you held? Was your stepping away from the floor just a thing or time that had come, or how did you make that decision?
B: Yeah, it’s a great question. We can fast-forward to it. So from the Fifth Floor in San Francisco I came back to Chicago to oversee a big group of restaurants for Richard Melman from Lettuce Entertain You. From there I was recruited by Danny Meyer’s team to take over the wine director position at the Modern and MoMA in Manhattan. And then after that, after winning the James Beard Award with my team, I then went into a couple of experiments. I worked with Graydon Carter and Ken Friedman at the Monkey Bar, and then I went into that corporate paradigm that a lot of people think that they want to go into after single owner-operators or small-group restaurant paradigms. And I spent some time as the corporate wine director at Starwood Culinary Concepts, which was part of Starwood Hotels and restaurants run by Jean- Georges. And then after that, I spent time as the first national Champagne educator for LVMH, for M.H. USA. So those are all the various things. And then after all of that, I decided it was time to get back onto the floor. So I took a managing partner and wine director position here back in Chicago, my hometown, with Maple and Ash. So that was the last time that I was on the floor. And that was a two-and-a-half-year stint that launched me into my own business.
Z: And so let’s let’s talk about that. So what were you doing, broad strokes, pre-pandemic? And how did you pivot into virtual events?
B: So pre-pandemic, I was about a year and a half into my first foray into single-owner-operated bootstrap entrepreneurship — terrifying in and of itself. But pre-pandemic, I had some great clients. I was working with Champagne Taittinger and Calvisius Caviar, and I was already then doing something that’s not easily explained. I guess if you had to give it a one-liner, it was luxury experiential marketing. The funny thing is, I actually did do some virtual Champagne 101 and food and wine pairing classes via Skype for editors at Sauver Magazine and Elle Magazine before this all happened. But aside from that, I was putting on really cool experiences, like an annual pool party in Aspen and my six-year-running James Beard Awards pre-prom, which put together a glam salon for all the women nominees and women winners to get them red-carpet ready. So things like that. So definitely in the luxury space, definitely in the experiential marketing space. So when we got to that fateful March — which feels like it was 10 years ago, but I guess it was just a few months ago — it was the first year of the business where I felt like it was all going to be OK. I had all my 2020 Q1, Q2, and Q3 lined up, deposits put down, and it was in one day, I was in Toronto on a business trip when I got all the calls. I got four of them in a row, which I thought was really weird, from different clients. And they were all calling me to refund deposits, so I emptied — like, literally emptied, maybe to the last 5 cents — my operating cash account and, of course, refunded all these clients, because I want to work with them again later and sat and cried on my couch, on this red velvet couch. So you can picture me just like, “Oh my God. Oh, my God!” Yeah. So that led to a “Virtual Boozy Brunch” a couple of days later.
Z: So can you again, having attended a couple of them, I don’t know that I could fairly ask you to summarize it in a couple of sentences, but just for the people who are listening who aren’t familiar and we’ll include the links in the show description, what is “Virtual Boozy Brunch” and and how has it maybe evolved since the early days of the pandemic?
B: So it’s how I got off the couch. So I got off the couch a day later and I saw Jackie and Dani’s virtual happy hour. I don’t know if anybody has seen that, but they were really, I think, the first to really put on this big effort where they were inviting three bartenders a night with two showings a night and recreated a bar scenario where friends and supporters could come in and virtually tip these bartenders from all over the country. And they also gave an opportunity for the liquor brands to come in and help out and sponsor all these bartenders that needed help. They’re all furloughed. They’re laid off. What are they going to do? So I thought I should try to do something for the wine people. I feel like that never happens because they all think that we’re landed gentry or something. And it might be because we all have friends who are such natty dressers, that I think it’s pretty unusual or until now pretty rare that there was a dedicated effort to help them. Like, who needs help? They look like they’re doing just fine. But just because we are sipping and swirling Jayer doesn’t mean that we bought it ourselves. It’s just a part of our job. So I thought well, what could I do that could be something similar to this virtual happy hour scenario that really helps wine people? So I called Carrie Leavens, who is a protege of mine. I called a friend Rachel, who was at Osteria Mozza. And I said, “You know what? Let’s put together a Sunday brunch where you can come and chat about wine. You can invite all of your collectors and your fans and your friends and your supporters. And they can tip you for sharing your magic. And we’re going to find a way to do that virtually on camera so that you can still ply your trade.” Right? Which is making people feel great and helping them to drink good wine. So that was what episode 1, 2, and 3 were about, having great wine people and giving them a place to connect with their supporters and fans and try to make some money and do it without having to ask for a handout. And what we realized was that a lot of our chef friends were coming and tuning in and a lot of other people with interesting stories and magic to share were tuning in. So it evolved after a few weeks into this sip-along, cook-along, bake-along, dance-along and many- other-things-along experience. So it evolved really quickly from being like a virtual wine class into being like, I don’t know, it’s a living magazine. It’s a virtual experience. It’s a lot of things right now.
Z: Yeah, well, and I will say just from my own experience attending a few of them, one thing that I think is really fun about it is it feels like going inside the cooking segment of something like “Good Morning America.” And this isn’t a negative thing, but not kind of polished within an inch of its life the way those things are, like, “Hey, mistakes happen!” Swear words definitely happen. People are drinking. But I think you guys do an amazing job of making it. If you want to learn how to do something, you really can. And I think that was the next question I was going to ask. I think one of the hardest things about the virtual format in my experience, especially as it relates to things like cooking, cocktail creation, even the more static things like even just wine tasting, I find it’s very hard to communicate and to receive that training when you’re distanced from somebody, when you’re watching them through a screen. But I think you guys do a really good job of making all of the recipes, all of the cocktail recipes really comprehensible. So how have you done that?
B: Well, I think from the start, we’re thinking about why someone would tune in and how we could keep a great audience and make this endeavor worth our time and engage people all the way through. I mean, I don’t know about you, but especially as I got later into my career, I was like “the formal wine tasting is the most boring thing.” And I was always trying to find ways to make it a little more interesting, in that landscape of back in the day when you and I were full-time directors on the floor, you get like 50 invitations per day. So it’s like, how do you choose which one’s going to be really great? Aside from like maybe going to the one that has the most expensive wine, I think in this virtual space, the ones that are really interesting to me are the ones where I get to really participate. Right. So we never have a moderator read off the questions from the chat and relay that to the chef. We flip you up on screen if you have a question about, “did I do this correctly or does this look right or is it brown enough?” So our audience is always invited to be a part of the experience in every way. I always tell our team if at some point you’re looking at the gallery of viewers and they’re all looking down and they’re texting or they’re looking at their phones instead of what’s happening, we’ve done something wrong. We want it such that everybody who’s in the audience is engaging with the talent the entire time. So it’s a really worthwhile endeavor, whether the talent wants to tell a brand’s story or share a recipe or technique, or just connect. We make it so that it’s a platform in which they can always do that at the highest level. So I think that’s what we’ve learned how to do throughout the pandemic. And I think that’s what we’re doing best.
Z: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I definitely can tell the participant and viewer engagement is high, which is very challenging to do, both in person, frankly, and also virtually. So I think the last thing I want to ask you about, at least at the moment, is we are hopefully — knocking on every piece of wood in my house — at a point in time where it feels like the end of the pandemic might be closer than the beginning. And obviously, none of us know what that process period is going to look like. It’s going to be uneven. Some people are going to be vaccinated and feel comfortable going out in the world. Some people might not even after being vaccinated, it’s going to take time, et cetera. But obviously, like anyone who’s created something in this period of time, you have some thoughts about how to carry it forward into a post-Covid landscape — and don’t feel like you’ve got to share any trade secrets here — but what have you been thinking about in terms of continuing “Virtual Boozy Brunch” once that virtual part is no longer mandatory?
B: It’s such a smart question, Zach. And also to your point about not showing any trade secrets, I’m very proud of the fact that I think that our “Virtual Boozy Brunch” format, which started March 16, has inspired tons of people to do their own take on it. So all my trade secrets are not secrets, I always want to share. I love sharing best practices and what I’ve learned. But to your question, I absolutely think that this is an idea whose time has come — not just because of the pandemic, but because it’s a smart way forward, particularly for marketing and this striving for experiential marketing and authenticity and storytelling. I’m going to be attending virtual experiences, I think, for the rest of my life, because it’s expensive to travel, right? Remember when we would get offered the trip to Germany, but you could only send one person from the restaurant or they were only inviting 10 wine directors from around the world? You can put together this programming that is so powerful if you do it well and hire the production team where it feels just like you’re in Luca Cerrado from Vietti’s mom’s kitchen, smelling the blueberry risotto because they sent you all the ingredients. And you can be stirring that pot with them from home and you can visit the vineyards and you can invite as many people as you want from all over the world. So I think that this is some cool stuff. I always use this analogy: You know those futuristic movies where they’re having the board meeting and all the people on the board are holograms and they’re all sipping the same Scotch together? Whenever I saw a movie vignette like that, I always thought, “Oo, how could we do that in the wine and food space?” And we’re doing it! So I think that this is going to go on forever, and people are going to get better and better at it and send bigger experience boxes and really make this so it does feel just like you’re in the room, but you’re in the room so safely and you can be in any room anywhere in the world with just the click of a button and the opening of a laptop. So I think it’s so cool. I’m all about it, and I’m all in. And I don’t know when I’m going to want to go like, are people going to still do Vinitaly? I don’t know. I did the virtual version of it this year, and it was really fun.
Z: Yeah well, I think that — just my two cents on this whole thing — I think two things seem pretty true to me. One is that virtual experiences and in-person experiences are not mutually exclusive. And people are going to want some of each. They’re going to want the experience of whether it’s getting on a plane and going to Europe, some of them, or the experience of just going out to dinner or having someone serve them. All those things are going to still be popular with people. But I think what we’ve learned, as you said, is that you can do an amazing job of creating a really memorable experience. I think the fear heading into this or before the pandemic was people were going to see a virtual experience as, at best, a pale imitation of an in-person experience. And I think what we found is they’re not exactly the same thing. And there are things that a virtual experience can deliver that an in-person experience can’t, including the fact that you could do it in your house with your pajamas on. And that is, as it turns out, for a lot of us, a thing that we like very much. I also think the other piece of this is that I wonder about, even in my own career. You said that in-person wine tasting had gotten old to you. And I largely agree that there becomes a time for everyone, especially professionals, but even I think for amateurs or just hobbyists and enthusiasts that having access to all the wine is less important than having good wine. And I think about some of the consumer-facing events I’ve been to big, big events in the States and it’s like, is there going to be the same demand? Maybe there will still be the same demand for the drunken s*** show that is these big, hundreds and hundreds of producers pouring drinks as much as you want events. There are always going to people who want to get drunk, for sure. But I think that the smarter positioning for a lot of people is going to be, if you’re a winery or a spirit brand or whatever, do you really want to go be lost in that sea of drunken red-wine sloshing, or do you want to do focused events for people around the country? Who are your actual potential customers? And I think that’s where you’re going to see a lot of that shifting is people’s marketing budgets are going to say, “You know what? We’ve been able to really reach our audience directly, as opposed to hoping that someone not too inebriated comes by our booth, likes our wine, and then remembers to order it five days later.”
Z: Yeah, exactly. Remembers anything that happened, of course.
B: Agreed. 100 percent. I think we’re at a really interesting moment for those of us that engage in the storytelling marketing activation side of things. I think we are now going to see some permanent changes and things for how we move forward, even when it is possible for us to all be safely together in the same space again.
Z: Absolutely. Well, Belinda, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. It’s been super cool to watch you experiment and explore this virtual space, and I look forward to seeing what comes in the months and years ahead.
B: Thank you so much, Zach. It was a pleasure.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced by myself and Zach Geballe. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah. Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder Josh and our associate editor, Cat Wolinski. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity