Before the pandemic upended the restaurant business, personality and panache were equally as important to a sommelier’s professional success as wine knowledge. Now that everything we know and love about restaurants has changed, so have wine careers.
Social media has become vital, says Amanda McCrossin, a Napa Valley-based sommelier known as “SommVivant” on YouTube and Instagram. These platforms enable sommeliers to connect with new clients and customers, and it helps some secure their livelihoods in an exceedingly uncertain market.
“Wherever you go, whatever you do, you can always take [your audience] with you, and you can leverage that,” says McCrossin. “It’s something very valuable to have.”
“It has definitely blown open the access… now we’ve been able to experience so many people who just want to share the knowledge.”—Kyisha Davenport, Tanám
Tanám, a worker-owned restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts, closed in March 2020. Before it reopened for takeout in September, Kyisha Davenport, a partner and beverage director, had a lot of time to connect with other businesses and wine personalities through social media.
“I think the biggest benefit of social media at this time has been networking,” she says. “On the one hand, it has been a blessing to connect with other businesses when typically we would have been very busy.”
Davenport says that she hasn’t seen any financial or material gains, however. “For smaller businesses, unless you are already really tapped into social media marketing, there hasn’t necessarily been a direct benefit during the pandemic.”
Davenport and Tanám persist in a grim marketplace for restaurant workers. Hospitality unemployment is 157% higher than the national average and, in December 2020 alone, 372,000 restaurant jobs in the United States were lost. As of January 2021, there were 2.5 million fewer U.S. restaurant jobs than in February 2020.
McCrossin, the former wine director at PRESS restaurant in Napa, had given notice mere weeks before the pandemic shuttered businesses last March in order to focus on her own brand.
“What I was doing on Instagram was really just scaling what I was doing in a restaurant,” says McCrossin. “It was getting to interact with people. Social media has allowed somms to showcase their lives outside the restaurant and show what they’re excited about as wine drinkers, and not just professionals selling wine on the floor.”
McCrossin’s SommVivant Instagram and YouTube channels have 24,100 followers and 6,500 subscribers, respectively. On her channels, she hosts tastings with winemakers and visits storied wineries like Opus One and Harlan Estate.
This direct portal to other people anywhere in the world with an internet connection makes wine educational more accessible, says Davenport.
“It has definitely blown open the access to what people have paid for some of these courses, classes and seminars, and now we’ve been able to experience so many people who just want to share the knowledge,” she says. Davenport has been conducting online classes through her Instagram handle, @barnoirboston, which has more than 600 followers, in partnership with Boston-area businesses.
“Being active on social media and using virtual events was all we had. That was our wine bar. That was our tasting room.”—Philippe André, Charles Heidsieck Champagne
Social media has also changed the access point for grand tastings and other formerly exclusive events. Upon the onset of the pandemic, “being active on social media and using virtual events was all we had,” says Philippe André, U.S. ambassador for Charles Heidsieck Champagne. “That was our wine bar. That was our tasting room.”
Pandemic restrictions presented challenges for André, who had been tasked with growing the small yet storied brand across the U.S. Charles Heidsieck exports approximately 4,000 cases to the U.S. annually, whereas competitors Moët Chandon and Veuve Clicquot account for more than 60% of domestic Champagne sales.
“ ‘No one is asking for your wine, so why should I bring on another Champagne?’ That is what I heard every time I talked to a retailer,” says André. “The way to reverse engineer that problem [is to] go directly to the consumer and have the consumer ask the wine shop for my wine. I was able to utilize Instagram to reach consumers in a different way or unique way.”
André’s Instagram account, @niquesomm, has 16,100 followers. In addition to using social media to sustain their businesses and clients, he says, wine professionals should focus on growing inclusivity and accessibility beyond the pandemic.
“I think we get a bad rap as somms, or wine professionals, that we are pretentious and that the wine industry itself is intimidating because of that pretense,” he says. “And when you factor in race or gender, it gets even more pretentious and even more intimidating.
“We need to strike that down in some way. How do we create a community that is fun, exciting and wholesome, rather than douchey, braggadocious and exclusive?”
That question has been the subject of dozens of webinars, panels, Instagram Lives, and Facebook Lives since the pandemic began. In June, André co-moderated “Unheard Voices in Wine,” a two-part webinar that sought to amplify the voices of Black wine professionals.
In the seminar, an entirely Black panel spoke about its experiences and hopes for growing the industry’s sense of inclusivity. Davenport says that’s a big win.
“I think that’s probably the biggest thing that’s come out of all this,” she says. “More people have emerged that are open to just sharing the knowledge, as opposed to gatekeeping or hoarding. That improves the industry as a whole.”
McCrossin would like to see the wine establishment embrace the democratization of the industry.
“I hope people recognize that what we are trying to do is connect more people with wine, and whether you do that through an IG live or whatever it is, that it’s a good thing and that should be championed,” she says. “A whole new generation is gaining access to the marketplace.”