The first time I really thought my career as a sommelier and wine director might be over was Saturday, Feb. 29. That was the day that the first U.S. casualty from Covid-19 was reported in King County, Wash., where I live and work. While Covid-19 had already entered the public consciousness at least in part, that was the first night I directly saw its impact on my line of work: Cancellations for that night’s dinner services reached levels previously only seen when it snowed in Seattle, and they only continued to pile up over the next week. I knew that my position in particular would be extremely vulnerable in the short and medium term, as wine education, purchasing, and sales would take a back seat to figuring out how to pivot to delivery, takeout, and, frankly, figuring out if the restaurant company could survive. I was laid off on March 15.
This has been the fate, or at least the potential fate, of sommeliers and wine directors throughout the United States ever since this virus arrived, and even with hopeful news of vaccines on the horizon, the threat has never been more acute to sommeliers.
Take it from long-time wine professional John Wabeck, who has now worked through his second economic and professional crisis, the first being the 2008-09 Great Recession. Warbeck spent the last three years as the beverage director for the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group in Pittsburgh before being laid off in November. If he were an owner, Wabeck says, “I’d do exactly the same thing. Beverage specialists are the first to go and the last to come back when times get tough. Honestly, I feel like I did such a good job in putting systems in place that I cost myself a job, because the restaurant general managers should be able to handle reordering and stocking.”
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Even those who have managed to keep their jobs have seen things change dramatically. “I don’t really do anything in person at all,” Cappie Peete, beverage director at AC Restaurants in Raleigh, N. C., says. “I’m a content builder at this point: We do weekly wine packs that are themed based on seasonality or based on a specific region or variety. It’s that, plus helping everyone keep their curbside menus curated.”
While curating wine packs or organizing cellar sales might allow a sommelier or wine director to stay employed or even learn a new set of skills, that doesn’t change the fact that on-premise wine sales in particular are suffering. In-person dining has been limited or banned in many parts of the country for almost a full year, and every wine director and sommelier I have spoken to agreed that take-out and delivery sales for wine are a tiny fraction of what on-premise sales would normally be. This is because most wine drinkers are relying on grocery stores, wine shops, and direct-to-consumer sales for their wine needs, leaving restaurants forced to sell off inventory just to generate cash flow, even wines that had been cellared for years.
Many of the best opportunities for big sales are off the table. Take it from Bobbie Burgess, wine director at Restaurant Tyler in Starkville, Miss. “Most of our guests are people who come for sporting events — college football, women’s basketball, and baseball,” she says. “Plus, we would get a lot of business that comes in for the university. We do get locals as well, but we really rely on travel.” With those events either canceled or limited, restaurants all over that rely on special event traffic are even more imperiled than restaurants as a whole; and their wine programs in particular tend to depend on celebrating fans or otherwise enthusiastic drinkers to boost the bottom line.
Beyond that, an entire genre of restaurant that provided regular demand for wine professionals might be on the verge of extinction, or at least severe contraction: the expense-account restaurant. Typically (but not always) a steakhouse, these restaurants rely on a steady stream of business travelers and the corporate credit cards that come with them. With experts predicting that business travel may never return to previous levels, these restaurants will struggle to find an audience that actually has the plastic to pay for $125 steaks and $25 glasses of mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon.
Looking forward to a time when in-person dining returns more robustly, wine professionals share a mix of excitement and trepidation, as well as a recognition that things won’t just “go back to normal.” As Peete explains, AC Restaurants “will definitely be opening with a streamlined menu, in part out of necessity because we sold through things and we’ll be working with a smaller team, but also because only time will tell how and when we can expand.”
Burgess sees her goals and priorities shifted. “It used to be this thing that you wanted to have a Wine Spectator Award,” she says. “In my first year, I earned three wine list awards.” But curation seems like a luxury. “Now I’d much rather have a menu that rotates and moves through wines. I want to have more like 150 selections,” she says. For Restaurant Tyler, Burgess plans “to start small going into 2021, and then trying to expand in 2022.”
Specialized staff is also likely to become a luxury that most restaurants can’t afford. As has been common at many smaller or less wine-focused restaurants, many larger restaurants are possibly considering folding wine programs into a broader set of managerial responsibilities.
The dedicated sommelier might well become a rarity in the post-Covid landscape. “If I were an owner [of a post-Covid/Covid-era restaurant/restaurant group], I’d want a well-rounded staff,” says Burgess. “I’d want to have people who, if someone gets sick or it’s a busy night, can get behind the bar and make cocktails, or take a section, or bus tables.” In a Covid-era restaurant, Burgess adds, “It’s the only way we will survive, because we can’t afford to just have floor somms.”
Wabeck puts it more bluntly: “Every time I’d mentor somebody, I’d tell them, ‘you can’t just do beverage, you have to bus tables.’” There will undoubtedly be some fine dining establishments in the post-Covid era with floor sommeliers and robust wine lists, but the smallish bistro or neighborhood joint might well feel like a 200-bottle list and a dedicated wine professional is simply a luxury they can’t afford. If I’m right, well, there goes my own career, and an entire class of restaurant workers.
A year ago, the American sommelier was riding relatively high. The job title had joined chef and bartender as one that customers recognized as signifying skill and knowledge. Yet when the dust settles on 2020, the sommelier might well be viewed in the same light as the maître d’, a relic of a bygone era. “All I’ve done my whole life is restaurants,” Wabeck says. “If the restaurant industry collapses, what do I do?”