Out-of-Work Sommeliers Face Grim Job Market, Complicated Choices

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If you scroll through many sommeliers’ Instagram feeds, you may never know there was an ongoing global pandemic. Photos of oysters on the half shell alongside a bottle of rare vintage Champagne still flood the platform, accompanied by hashtags like “#sommlife.”

Off-screen, a very different reality faces the U.S. sommelier community. It’s been more than seven months since hospitality businesses initially shuttered due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. While many restaurants have since reopened, thousands of wine professionals remain out of work. They do not expect to return to their pre-pandemic positions any time soon.

Others may have returned only to find that restrictions are being reinstated due to increasing case numbers, and worry what that might mean for their employment status yet again.

“We see wine directors bartending now, and the role of wine director/sommelier isn’t existent right now.”—Jahdé Marley

“It’s an incredibly difficult moment for sommeliers because, to restaurants that are already against the wall in terms of labor costs, we are kind of a luxury to have on payroll,” says James Sligh. He worked as a sommelier at New York City wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels until early March, when the city closed all non-essential businesses.

“Oftentimes, we are the first to go when cuts happen, or our roles end up getting merged into roles that should be full-time jobs, like management.”

Jahdé Marley is a wine consultant for importer and distributor Indie Wineries. Her work takes her to hospitality businesses across New York City, where many restaurants’ staffs are reassigned or downsized.

“I’m seeing owners filling in as wine buyers, bartenders and even prep cook if the business is small,” says Marley. “We see wine directors bartending now, and the role of wine director/sommelier isn’t existent right now.”

According to a survey by SevenFifty, upwards of 300,000 people worked as sommeliers in the U.S. in 2019. That’s certainly a smaller figure than that of bartenders and servers (654,700 and 2,613,000, respectively, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), but it’s still a significant number.

As the job market shifts, some wine professionals are pivoting. Sligh developed an online educational program called The Children’s Atlas of Wine. It features his hand-painted watercolor wine region maps, which he also sells as prints.

Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for members of the sommelier community to supplement their income outside of restaurant service. Some would offer private classes, tastings or other consultation services while holding down full-time restaurant jobs.

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When non-essential businesses in California closed in March, Cristie Norman, then the sommelier at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, already offered an online beginners guide to wine education. During the shutdown, she made her tasting group digital and welcomed others in the Los Angeles sommelier community.

“When the coronavirus hit, and in April things weren’t better, I was like, ‘Okay, this is the rest of the year,’ ” says Norman. “That’s why I dove into the virtual tasting group because there’s no way we’re going back to anything normal in seven to eight months.”

Now, every Sunday, she sits on a lawn chair in the parking area of her Studio City apartment complex with a large cooler, shielded from the sun by a rainbow beach umbrella. One by one, 50-plus sommeliers drive up to her to receive a bag containing six individual serving-sized bottles of wine to taste together during a coordinated event on Zoom. She compares it to “a wine drive-through.”

Helping area sommeliers continue their studies redefined Norman’s connection to her work in wine. “If I said, ‘Oh, well I’m a sommelier and I only do these things,’ then I would have missed this opportunity,” she says.

It also reflects the reality of a job market that remains unkind to sommeliers. On August 31, Yelp reported that more than 32,000 restaurants nationwide permanently closed since March.

Some herald the return of indoor dining in certain locations, but Sligh worries that the push to reopen restaurants is short-sighted for workers and employers.

“Workers have been put in an impossible position because, instead of being able to choose to go back to work, they are forced to return to work because there’s no safety net, and that incentivizes a lot of bad practices,” he says.

Sligh also notes that it’s a classic choice for restaurant workers to ignore illness in lieu of losing wages and tips. “You may have a lot of incentives to power through [feeling sick] and pretend that it’s not happening. Indoor dining has been a real reliable way for [Covid] case counts to tick up.”

The issue of a missing safety net is only compounded by the fact that those collecting unemployment benefits will lose them once their employers invite them to return to their jobs. The choice then becomes to return to a potentially unsafe workplace, or face housing and food insecurity.

In March, Norman cofounded and joined the board of the United Sommeliers Foundation, whose mission is to provide financial relief for out of work sommeliers.

“Bills are piling up, that’s the number one problem,” she says. The foundation partnered with global brands to raise nearly $1 million for out-of-work sommeliers, and has fielded applications from over 1,000 wine professionals.

“We want these people to know there’s someone who cares about them, that we are a united industry and that it’s going to be okay,” says Norman.

“Workers have been put in an impossible position because, instead of being able to choose to go back to work, they are forced to return to work because there’s no safety net, and that incentivizes a lot of bad practices.”—James Sligh

Winter weather now looms for much of the country, and outdoor heaters are already in short supply. It creates additional stress for beleaguered restaurant workers and owners.

“They are devastated they have to make these life or death decisions on whether to open their business and bring back their employees or stay closed and lose their business,” says Marley. “If we had a proper relief package, people would have been able to stay home properly, and then we would have been able to reopen properly.”

Outside of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) launched in April to help small businesses maintain their payroll, there has been no federally funded relief effort made to sustain independent restaurants as the pandemic continues. The PPP program was also critiqued for funding large and otherwise healthy companies, like a $20 million loan awarded Ruth’s Chris, a chain that employs 5,000 people and earned $468 million in 2019, instead of prioritizing small, struggling businesses.

Marley encourages people who seek to support restaurants to appeal to their elected representatives.

“I really don’t think it should be on the consumer to feel obligated to go out if they’re not necessarily comfortable in the name of saving restaurants,” says Marley. “Because [restaurants] did not receive those funds and had to open prematurely, we are in this situation where everyone is fighting to survive.”

Organizations like the United Sommeliers Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition are working to help create solutions and support networks for hospitality professionals.

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Norman believes more prominent leaders in the industry should step up and lead.

“And also to the people who are not at that level yet, to not be afraid to step up, because a lot of wine knowledge doesn’t equal leadership,” says Norman. “We need young people to be stepping up in these moments too. It’s time to be in service to each other, and band together.”

Sommeliers are proving to be a resourceful bunch throughout the pandemic. Sligh attributes this to wine being “portable.”

“We are in a slightly luckier position than servers who are looking for a job because we have something you can take to the distributing side, the freelance journalism side, or take to retail,” he says.

Still, many wine professionals eagerly await the day the job market shifts, and somms are hired back en masse.

“I miss service. I love service,” says Norman. “Any chance I could get to go back, I would. There just isn’t work.”

Published on November 9, 2020
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