When businesses across the U.S. shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, daily life upended overnight for millions of Americans. The struggle to juggle careers with personal commitments had already approached a painful breaking point for many wine professionals who are also parents.
Shutdowns were devastating for a broad swath of working families. Child care routines became an unsolvable puzzle. Jobs hung in an uncertain balance. The specter of deadly disease loomed everywhere.
Some 20 months after the first shutdown, a growing chorus of parents who work in wine also herald the freedom they’ve found in the industry’s pandemic-era pivots. Many are now dead set against returning to the way things were.
“I would not see my child, pretty much at all, for five days out of the week,” says Joe Catalino of his pre-pandemic life working the floor as a sommelier at Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco. He loved his job and adored wine, but the restaurant’s demanding hours made quality time with his then-third grader a scarce commodity. It had been taking a major toll on Catalino when the Slanted Door shut down and Catalino was furloughed.
“I hate to say it out loud, but when Covid hit, it was a huge blessing for me in many ways,” he says. “Obviously, it was financially scary, but it was great to spend time with my child, who more or less was becoming a bit of a stranger to me.”
The Slanted Door never reopened, and Catalino, enticed by his newfound ability to spend time with his family, decided to ditch restaurant life altogether. Instead, he and his wife, Celia, a food and drink photographer, opened What To Drink, a sustainable wine club and online shop in nearby Oakland, California.
Running a small business comes with its own challenges, he says, but being able to set their own hours makes all the difference. For Joe in particular, it means that parental activities like helping with homework, cooking dinner and attending school functions—all things that were out of reach when he worked in restaurants—are back on the table.
“Covid is obviously a terrible, terrible thing,” says Celia Catalino. “But it did give our family this opportunity to spend time together, which I think a lot of families… may take for granted.”
Other companies shifted their business models to accommodate valued wine professionals with family obligations. Sommelier Brendan O’Leary, who has a two-year-old son, says that his employer, Four Seasons Resort Maui, came to him after eight months of furlough with a big question.
“They’re like, ‘All right, you’ve had a very long time off,’ ” says O’Leary. “ ‘What would you like to do for the company now?’ ”
O’Leary had previously served as lead sommelier at the resort’s DUO Steak and Seafood restaurant, which required long hours on the floor that kept him away from his son during infancy. Apart from groggy mornings together, the two barely saw each other.
During his months of furlough, however, O’Leary took on a major parenting role. He loved it.
“I didn’t want to give up that part of myself,” he says. “I’ve been a server for 20 years and I love guest service. I get a genuine buzz, a genuine high, from taking care of people. I was hopeful to find an area that I could still be impactful in that way—while also not having those nights where I’m getting home at midnight or later, which is just the reality of the industry.”
And so, Four Seasons Resort Maui created a new role for him: Resort Sommelier. O’Leary now oversees the wine programs for all of the resort’s restaurant properties, banquets and in-room dining. He does inventory, sources bottles, trains staff and more; but his role allows him to regularly spend quality time with his son.
O’Leary says he’d always had a good relationship with his employer, but this level of care impressed him. “[It shows] it’s possible for the industry to adapt, to take care of families and be more cognizant of the realities of parents, that we need to be present within our families,” O’Leary says.
“Jobs are important, money is important, and we all have to make a living,” he says. “But I work so hard because I love my family. There has to be a balance there.”
It’s not just restaurant industry wine professionals who historically struggled to find work-life balance. Alexandra Schrecengost was formerly the head of communications and digital at fine wine importer Wilson Daniels, and is a 2021 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 Tastemaker.
Before the pandemic, Schrecengost says, she traveled more than half the year. It was difficult to find time to spend with her twin boys, now seven, and her husband, who also traveled often. “We always had a rule: One parent was always home,” she says. “I feel like I hadn’t seen my husband in like five years. We would see each other at the airport and high-five.”
Schrecengost began working from home once the pandemic hit, but, by summer 2020, her bosses were asking when she planned to return to the office. At that point, vaccines were still a distant dream. She worried about how she might manage care for her sons, whose schedules remained a “pretty hybrid” mix of virtual and in-person activities, she says. Meanwhile, she’d hear daily reports from sommelier friends who struggled to find employment. Many of them were also frustrated about returning to a work environment that so often kept them away from their children and partners.
That summer, Schrecengost launched Virtual With Us, a virtual and hybrid events company that offers high-end wine tastings as well as other food and drink experiences. It was a hit. By fall, Schrecengost was devoted to the company full-time, growing Virtual With Us from two to eight employees. She also works with a network of 40 sommeliers and chefs, many of whom have children.
Online events were obviously a lifeline during the pandemic, Schrecengost says, but she doesn’t anticipate them going anywhere even once life returns to normal now that companies have seen how financially and temporally efficient they are. That shift could have major implications for families within the wine industry.
“It’s potentially the most inclusive hospitality you can have,” says Schrecengost. Virtual events require a much shorter time commitment—there’s no physical set-up and breakdown—and often that work can be done from home, a relief for professionals who are also performing childcare.
For Melissa Saunders, a single mother of two and the owner of Communal Brands, an importer and distributor of wine, the pandemic necessitated a major life restructure. Her kids struggled with Zoom school, and Saunders found it impossible to single-handedly manage their education while running her business successfully. And so, she packed up their Brooklyn, New York, home and moved to an upstate enclave where in-person school was still an option.
Saunders found the change of scenery unexpectedly liberating.
“My kids go to a farm school; it’s a working organic and biodynamic farm,” she says. “I have a garden up here. Chickens. It’s a life that is, to my mind, more sustainable.”
The shift inspired her to change elements of her business. Saunders is pursuing more environmentally sustainable processes with her brands, like packaging wines in cardboard boxes rather than glass bottles. “It’s like 10 times more carbon footprint for a 750mL [glass] bottle of wine than it is for a one 3L bag-in-box,” she says.
The move proved more emotionally sustainable, too. Saunders no longer commutes into an office, leaving her more time with her kids. The extra time has given her the mental resources to chase her longtime passion for the environment. Saunders feels like she’s “honing in on what’s most important.”
It’s impossible to know how many pandemic-era wine industry pivots will remain in place as life inches back to normal—or toward whatever “normal” means in the years to come—but there’s no question that the industry, as it was, wasn’t adequately serving working families.
There’s much lip service paid to making the wine industry inclusive, Schrecengost says, but until accommodations are made for working parents, it’ll remain just that.
“When you look at the older white males that are running the industry, their wives stayed at home with their kids,” says Schrecengost. For single parents, or those whose partners also work, “it doesn’t really work with what the wine industry is today. I hope that changes.”