One of Kilolo Strobert’s all-time greatest pairings was a bottle of Peirano Estate Chardonnay from Lodi, California and a vegetarian bodega sandwich stacked with sweet and hot peppers, gouda, pepper jack, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato.
“Peirano has lots of pineapple and tropical notes, and all I could think of was spiced fruit,” says Strobert, an assistant manager at Fresh Direct Wine & Spirits in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. “You know, like the women on the subway selling fruit dipped in chile salt.”
The customer to whom she suggested the pairing came back a week later and bought more of the Chardonnay.
As a neighborhood wine professional, it’s an interaction that plays out regularly for Strobert. “In a half-hour, I will have paired wines with beef patties, shawarma and hot dogs,” she says.
Strobert loves getting the right bottle of wine into customers’ hands. Even though she’s not on a restaurant floor, she thinks her job looks a lot like that of a sommelier—just with some extra schlepping. She’s got the chops, industry training, hospitality gene and sales game. But no dice on the title.
“Somms aren’t even somming right now. We’re still somming, though. I’m somming all damn day.” —Kilolo Strobert, assistant manager, Fresh Direct Wine & Spirits
In her 20-year career, Strobert has worked as a cook, server and sommelier. She has held jobs in wine events, importing, wholesale and education.
For a while, she called herself a “retail sommelier” on social media. Strobert edited her profile when she received blowback from peers in restaurants.
“Then Covid hit, and I thought, ‘What the hell else am I?’ Somms aren’t even somming right now,” says Strobert. “We’re still somming, though. I’m somming all damn day.”
Retail wine is among the industry’s few bright spots since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Between March and July, sales increased 27.3% over the same period last year, according to Nielsen.
On-premise sales, of course, are a different story. According to Yelp, nearly 16,000 restaurants in the country have closed permanently since March, while fine-dining revenues have fallen by as much as 85%. Economic models from McKinsey predict that sales at high-end restaurants won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
Where does that leave sommeliers? A select number are back at work, but many remain unemployed. Others are hustling and engaged in the great pivot that is 2020. They’re moving into retail, consulting, delivering wine, hosting Zoom tastings, working harvest, writing and joining online customer-service teams.
But if they’re not on the floor of a restaurant, are they still sommeliers?
It’s a time of upheaval. The Court of Master Sommeliers is being called out for anti-Blackness and exclusionary practices. Young professionals are working to make wine more equitable. The status of cult restaurant figures is waning. We might as well ask, what the hell is a sommelier, anyway? And is it time to guard that title, or expand its meaning?
“If somebody asked me that question in the past, I would have said, ‘A sommelier is a position in a restaurant,’ ” says Dustin Wilson, a Master Sommelier and the cofounder of Verve Wine in New York and San Francisco. “It’s a person who makes wine recommendations and is more focused on service. It’s a wine steward. I was pretty dogmatic about it. But I think things have changed in the pandemic. My mind is starting to open up.”
A Brief History of the Sommelier
The role of a sommelier has evolved over time. The title was derived from soumelier, an Old French word for a pack animal driver. These early sommeliers transported goods like wines for royal households. Eventually, they would select wines and taste them to make sure they weren’t poisoned.
With the fall of the French monarchy and the subsequent rise of restaurants, sommeliers began to tend to cellars and barrels of wine.
“It wasn’t some special guy on the floor,” says Thomas Pellechia, a wine writer and historian who has also tended grapes, produced wine and run his own retail shop. “Early restaurants were family operated, and they handled local wines.”
The 1970s and ’80s accelerated changes to the profession in the United States. The 1976 Judgment of Paris excited Baby Boomers about fine wines, and the introduction of nouvelle cuisine brought tasting menus and wine pairings to American diners. The Court of Master Sommeliers hosted its first stateside exam in 1987, the same year that the Beastie Boys gave us “Fight for Your Right.”
Until restaurant sommeliers took root, Pellechia says that the folks with the greatest wine knowledge were often merchants that worked at places like Berry Bros. & Rudd in London or Acker Mearrall in New York City. They purchased lots from well-known regions and estates, and sold them to wealthy clients in an increasingly global market. They were forerunners to the professionals who work in today’s bottle shops.
But what do we call these wine experts in 2020? Wine retailers? Sales associates? Master schleppers? Pellechia suggests “merchant sommeliers.”
“There’s not really a term out there that’s broad enough for all aspects of wine service,” says Aimée Lasseigne New, the New York City brand ambassador for Lieb Cellars and Bridge Lane Wine on Long Island, New York, who worked in wine retail for more than a decade. “I don’t think language has evolved to what the work is right now.”
Making the Case for Retail Sommeliers
Eric Moorer thinks the industry already has the right title for retail pros: sommelier. Moorer spent the first five years of his career in restaurants before joining the team at Domestique Wine, a natural wine store in Washington, D.C.
He didn’t abandon his hospitality training in the transition.
“Everybody who works at Domestique has worked in restaurants, and we take the best things we learned and apply them here,” he says. “People don’t necessarily expect a restaurant level of service with retail. But that’s a flawed premise. We’re all taking care of people, making sure people are happy. And we’re devoted to giving someone an experience through wine that they might otherwise not have.”
For lots of wine shoppers, the context of that experience is food. This is where Stobert thinks retail pros outshine their restaurant peers.
“A sommelier’s number one job is to sell their list, just like it’s my job to sell the hell out of mine,” she says. “The only difference is you have a static menu, and I have to be well versed in 80 cuisines.”
The Sacred vs. Profane
Part of what Lou Amdur loves most about retail is cultivating regulars and rounding out their dinner plans—even if two out of five pairing requests are for salad.
His Lou Wine Shop is located in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. He doesn’t begrudge the salad eaters, though. Amdur sends them home with bottles of Grolleau and Cabernet Franc blends, or maybe an amphora-aged Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. For pasta and pizza, he has a shelf labeled “Spaghetti.”
But he also gets to work with the area’s multinational and traditional cuisines.
“I’m always interested when people are dining out at Park’s BBQ, maybe for their fifth anniversary,” says Amdur. “It’s a great opportunity to turn someone onto orange wine.
“We also have multigenerational Japanese folks, and as you can imagine, high-quality sushi is a big deal here. If someone wants a bottle for sushi, I love giving them something like Rotgipfler, something with texture and a little ginger, and that’s not oaky.”
“To me, there’s a service context that’s unique to restaurants, and, for that, a sommelier gets all the glory. There’s no movie like Somm called ‘The Wine Schlepp.’ ” —Lou Amdur, owner, Lou Wine Shop
Listening to Amdur, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to dub him the “Sommelier of Silver Lake.” He ran a successful wine bar before opening the shop and has Level 3 Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certification. He tastes hundreds of wines a week. Still, Amdur doesn’t consider himself a sommelier.
“Wearing the suit is an index of your level of seriousness,” he says. “To me, there’s a service context that’s unique to restaurants, and, for that, a sommelier gets all the glory. There’s no movie like Somm called ‘The Wine Schlepp.’
“When you enter the ritual context of a restaurant, already, your experience is elevated to something outside the mundane. It’s sacred. When you enter a wine shop, it’s profane. You’re driving to a strip mall and buying wine from somebody in a T-shirt.”
It’s that lack of pretension that inspires great, everyday drinking no matter the meal or occasion. When your guard is down, it’s not scary to ask for glou glou wines to enjoy with Netflix, or inquire about a tasty pairing for Dorito chicken casserole.
“There’s nothing dramatic about meatloaf and a bottle of Chianti Classico,” says Amdur. “The important part is that we’re giving people the same level of satisfaction.” He says that restaurants provide context, while it’s a shop’s job to understand the context in which someone will be drinking wine.
The latter still holds true, but the pandemic has muddied Amdur’s dichotomy between retail and restaurant. Even the most thoughtful outdoor dining arrangements are threatened by thunderstorms, honking cars, and neighborhood dogs taking a leak next to your table.
Home-cooked meals and takeout—pho, pizza, burgers, tacos and gyros—have sustained Americans, not tasting menus. Restaurants will return eventually, but many sommeliers will have moved on, whether by necessity or choice.
“I just want to reassure sommeliers, it is possible to serve in other ways,” says Lassesigne New, whose hospitality instincts help guide her work as a brand ambassador. Many will be adopted into other parts of the industry, including wine retail, where the pay is lower, but the hours more forgiving.
Moorer, Strobert and Wilson all cite quality of life as a major reason they left restaurants for retail.
“On the brighter side of things, this provides an opportunity to step back and ask, ‘All that stuff I was chasing, is it still what I want to chase?’ ” says Wilson. “For so long, there was this momentum: I want to take a test, get my next position and hustle on the floor. Now, there’s this big break.”
Wilson, who left Eleven Madison Park to open Verve, says that when he made the leap to retail he faced major learning curves.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m a Master Sommelier, a guy that was running a program at arguably the best restaurant on the planet. I feel so underprepared for this,’ ” he says. “I’ve been spouting for a while: ‘Guys, stop nerding out about wine. You’ve got to diversify your skill sets, understand business and [profit and loss] statements, and learn to manage people so you can bridge into other jobs down the road.’ ”
Wilson says he’s not a big title guy, which may come in part from the security of “MS” behind his name. Strobert, on the other hand, does not have any formal wine certifications. She has approached her career as an ongoing apprenticeship, developing her palate and picking up skills in various jobs.
Even while Strobert associates the word “sommelier” with exclusivity, she wants a piece of it, in part to democratize it but also to claim a title befitting her knowledge.
If not “sommelier,” Wilson agrees that a sexier word is needed for people in retail.
“If you find it, let me know,” he says.