Where have all the sommeliers gone?

If you’ve recently dined at an upscale restaurant, you may have faced the difficulty of selecting a bottle of wine without the help of a sommelier. If you dine frequently, you may have noticed this not just once, but as a trend in a certain industry of relatively casual restaurants that also focus on offering delicious and interesting wines.

The reasons for this are complicated but, unsurprisingly, they date back to the start of Covid, when daily sales plummeted and restaurant staff were laid off en masse. Wine, which was once an investment for restaurants to pay off in the long run, has suddenly emerged as the only safety net available.

“During Covid, it wasn’t just that we saw jobs being cut,” says Hamilton Weaver, a sales rep for Skurnik Wines who has experience selling wines on the East Coast. “We’ve seen restaurants auction off their wine cellars to make money to keep the lights on.”

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This shift from long-term thinking to short-term thinking is one of the reasons sommeliers have declined. Before Covid, Weaver regularly tasted wine with floor sommeliers who worked directly with customers – qualified and trained wine professionals who were on the floor most nights, talking to customers about a wine list. restaurant. Today, he says, he more often works with a corporate beverage manager, someone who might oversee a handful of restaurant beverage programs.

“There are fewer sommeliers working right now,” Weaver says. “There are even fewer beverage managers in terms of single-minded people. It’s more corporate these days.

Many sommeliers were laid off during the pandemic, which made sense: they were often paid more than cooks and servers, and without a clear idea of ​​when indoor dining could resume, their positions seemed expendable. But even as restaurant dining resumed and jobs returned, the landscape continued to change.

“I think we’re still feeling the repercussions,” Weaver said. “There are people I know who are leaving right now – they’ve been through the worst of the pandemic, but now they realize they’re not getting paid enough and they’re working all the time, and they’re deciding to go and pursue other things.

Jamie Harrison Rubin has been part of the evolution of wine sales over the past two years. Rubin, an advanced sommelier and master sommelier candidate, was fired from his position as director of beverages at Ambra Restaurant Group, a small Philadelphia collective with four restaurants in 2020. Today, he runs Kidstuff Hospitality, a hospitality consulting firm .

“More than anything, a restaurant needs to have the willpower to employ a sommelier more than it needs a base of certain sales or a certain type of food,” says Rubin. “A good sommelier will justify his salary, without a doubt.”

In 2021, wine sales declined across the board, belying predictions that millennials would continue to drink more wine than any other category. The report shows that restaurants were more interested in selling fortified spirits, beer and even sodas than wine. Weaver suggested that this drop in sales could be partly linked to the exodus of wine professionals.

“When you don’t have floor sommeliers, you don’t really have people who are there to walk you through and build that bridge between a regular wine and something a little more interesting,” Weaver says. A young wine drinker can try a little, but it’s hard to decode a sprawling, multi-page wine list without someone to help you.

Fewer floor sommeliers also means fewer mentoring and training opportunities for young people in the beverage industry. Rubin says he’s seen the road to becoming a beverage manager getting shorter and shorter in recent years: people start as servers, move up to bartender, then quickly become beverage managers and move into sales and distribution. The ability to train as a floor sommelier before becoming a beverage manager is less common, and people progress faster without being paid more. As a result, they quickly move on to better paying jobs with more support.

A series of scandals has shaken faith in the Court of Master Sommeliers, once a highly respected certifying body, leading to fewer beverage professionals seeking structured training programs. Although a handful of alternative training programs and certifications have sprung up, nothing has replaced the intensity of training required by the Court.

“It’s not that I think it’s a certification or a bust,” says Weaver. “But I see buyers who know nothing, who swear they know everything, and that’s a problem.”

Even as the knowledge gaps about wine widen, the interest in learning – from both professionals and amateur drinkers – is still there. Rubin sees him weekly at the Southwark restaurant in Philadelphia, where he takes over the bar every Monday and serves whatever he wants.

“I largely live in a fantasy world where everyone comes to me and trusts what I pour them and tell them to pour,” Rubin says. The series, affectionately dubbed Winewark, is an opportunity for wine lovers of all kinds to chat with Rubin, learn from him and, of course, drink some truly excellent wine. If the crowds there each week are any indication, the thirst for education and insight that the sommeliers provide has certainly not gone away.

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