“It’s not just about wine,” says Yannick Benjamin, beverage director and managing partner of Contento, a restaurant launched last June in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood.
For Benjamin, obligations as a beverage director extend far beyond an encyclopedic memory of wine appellations or an Instagram account populated with #unicornwines.
“We have to do better,” he says, to develop “social and environmental consciousness” within the wine and hospitality industries.
Benjamin, formerly the head sommelier at New York City’s University Club, is a veteran of some of America’s top restaurants. He also happens to be paralyzed below the waist following a car accident in 2003 and works the restaurant floor in a wheelchair.
Notions of accessibility, inclusivity and sustainability permeate Benjamin’s discourse on everything from wine to his role as restaurateur and community advocate.
Contento was designed by Benjamin and his fellow managing partners as a community space that is both physically and philosophically free of barriers to people of all backgrounds, particularly people living with disabilities.
Table and bar heights, as well as spacing between aisles at Contento, are designed for ease and accessibility of guests and employees in wheelchairs. To welcome patrons with blindness or visual impairment, menus are available in braille or audio by scanning a QR code.
Benjamin’s beverage list is a thoughtful selection that offers enjoyment but also shines a spotlight on winemakers he feels are breaking barriers. A category of “wines of impact”—wines made by champions of social or environmental causes, or pioneering winemakers of color, women and people with disabilities—are placed front and center.
George Gallego, also a managing partner at Contento, is Benjamin’s long-time mentor—a para-athlete and advocate for people living with spinal cord injuries. According to Gallego, “Yannick has totally annihilated the stereotype of a person with a disability, which has opened the doors for many and created more possibilities and options…for the wine and hospitality industries.”
Benjamin has also become an advocate for people with disabilities outside of the hospitality industry. In 2011, he cofounded Wheeling Forward, a nonprofit organization to provide support and resources to underserved people with disabilities. Wine on Wheels, a series of nationwide charity wine tasting events organized by Benjamin in support of Wheeling Forward, has raised almost a million dollars to date.
In hopes of making a positive impact in their East Harlem community, Benjamin and his business partners at Contento are launching a number of outreach programs. The Axis Project is scheduled to open a wellness and physical fitness center just a block away from Contento to empower people with physical disabilities to pursue healthy, active lifestyles. An initiative called the Solera Project will provide hospitality industry training and employment opportunities in East Harlem, particularly people with disabilities. “He embraces hospitality from both a personal and professional standpoint,” says Heidi Turzyn, Benjamin’s wife and a consultant at Contento. “Yannick has seen many sides of the word ‘hospitality’…and he dedicates himself completely and equally to both.”