#SommLife in the Time of COVID-19

Some years ago, when I was first embarking on my wine career in London and trying to decide which path to take, I spent two days working as a sommelier at an upmarket restaurant in Soho. Just two days. After this trial period, the restaurant manager and I mutually agreed that I was perhaps better suited to other areas of the industry.

Ever since my 48 hours of physical exhaustion and agonizing embarrassment, I have greatly admired the very special skill set and years of experience required to make it as a top sommelier. Incredible wine knowledge is perhaps what they are best known for, but this is just the tip of the training iceberg.

At least two or three times per month, I dine out at restaurants where I enjoy being able to strike up a conversation with a sommelier. Sure, a bit of wine-sparring between experts ensues, but eventually I like to bow to the master, allowing the somm to come through with a few wine surprises for the table. Yes, I’m a Master of Wine (MW), but I do not know every wine in the world, and thankfully, I never will. A good sommelier is the undisputed master of their wine list and menu. No one knows their restaurant’s wines and cuisine, how best to present and serve those wines, nor how to communicate the stories behind the wines to enrich your experience like a skilled somm can. And so, after defining my dining parameters, I always find it best to sit back and let the restaurant’s somm drive. That way, they can take me on a journey of new discovery, reigniting that intrepid thrill I had every day when I was first learning about wine. 

I shudder to consider that it has been over a month now since I dined in any restaurant due to the current global COVID-19 stay-at-home/lockdown/quarantine conditions. It is true that a few areas of the wine industry are, in fact, flourishing, mainly down to panic buying. Online retailers in particular are experiencing an upward trend. Conversely, the economic impact on restaurants has been nothing short of devastating. 

“Restaurant sommeliers are the first to get fired and the last to get hired back,” Geoff Labitzke MW explained to me in a recent phone conversation about a brand-new charitable foundation he has been involved in setting up, to help recently unemployed sommeliers make ends meet. “On my first day sheltering in place, I received a late-night text from Cristie Norman of Spago Restaurant, asking me to be part of an initiative to raise money for sommeliers who were beginning to lose work due to COVID-19. A week later, the entire restaurant world went into shut-down mode, and sadly, many of my sommelier and wine director friends are now unemployed. They are at home and hoping that they have a job to go back to when this crisis is behind us.”

The United Sommeliers Foundation is the brainchild of Cristie Norman and Chris Blanchard MS. In fact, all of the founding members of the recently formed board of this charity-in-the-making work a broad range of positions in the industry, but they have each assured me that this foundation isn’t about who they are or what they do, nor is it designed to help any of them personally.

Until COVID-19 struck, Chris Blanchard, a Master Sommelier, was working as a salesperson for a major wine producer in Napa.

Cristie Norman is a 25-year-old sommelier who was recently furloughed (temporarily laid off) from her position as “fourth somm” at Spago Restaurant in Beverly Hills. “When everything is going great, it is different,” she explained on our phone discussion. “The majority of somms get an hourly wage, a small percentage of tips and maybe a commission. Like servers, we don’t have a set declared income, so things will be particularly difficult for the floor somms.” 

This is a pretty bleak picture when you consider it could be four to six months until many somms like Cristie get their jobs back, if indeed they ever do. “I have thought about going to Ralphs down the street and applying,” Cristie confessed. “They are doing a booming trade! But that work doesn’t use any of my hard-earned skills.” When I asked if there were any existing charities available for somms, she explained that most of these charities or non-profits simply weren’t designed to help with such situations. “Charities can’t just switch to giving grants. For example, organizations would likely not be allowed to provide emergency funding, according to their non-profit bylaws.” 

Cristie’s situation is absolutely typical of the desolate sommelier landscape right now. And it highlights an important point. The stereotypical image most folks have of sommeliers is that they are snooty, high-paid, white collar workers basking in the glory and spoils of their chosen career. In reality, many just about get by on minimum wage, thankfully supplemented by tips. Health and dental benefits and/or 401K/retirement plans are not usually part of the package. The floor-work includes very long, antisocial hours, including holidays and weekends, and there is no paid time off or sick leave.

Cristie Norman, a sommelier, was recently furloughed (temporarily laid off) from her position as "fourth somm" at Spago Restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Chris Blanchard is a Master Sommelier who was, until COVID-19 struck, working as a salesperson for a major producer in Napa. “It was just after Saint Patrick’s Day, I got a call from a buddy in Vegas,” Chris told me. “He’s a single dad and he’d got laid off three days before. He was a wreck, wondering how he was even going to get groceries for the kids. I was really feeling for him. Then everyone around me started falling like dominos, and I kept thinking, what can I do here? I thought, I could do an auction. I texted my friend Cristie at Spago. ‘Let’s start a GoFundMe page,’ she suggested, ‘Let’s get our network going to help to support these people.’ A group of us got on a call a couple of days later and started formalizing plans for this fund.”

Right now, the wine world is facing a situation where thousands of sommeliers across the United States and indeed the world are out of work or soon will be. Simply through word of mouth, The United Sommeliers Foundation started by Cristie, Chris and their network has already had over 400 grant applications. 

“What began as a GoFundMe page has evolved into a charitable foundation,” Geoff Labitzke informed me. “We recently established a Board of Directors and approved the bylaws. We have applied for 501(c)(3) status in Washington DC and are expecting approval from the IRS shortly.”

“There is no minimum level of experience or qualification to be considered for a grant,” Chris assured me. “This fund is for the most basic people too. The criteria for a grant will mainly be based around urgency of need.”

The group is starting to sort through the many heart-wrenching cries for help: rents that can’t be met, loan and mortgage payments that are heading into default, children that need to be provided for. To avoid any favoritism that may exist amongst the relatively tight network of somms, Labitzke told me, “All applicants' names will be blind to the board when considered for funding. We will be using a scoring system based on need to rank the most immediate cases.” After this COVID-19 crisis is behind us, Chris Blanchard envisions this foundation receiving continued applications, addressing a whole range of needs. “Consider what happened during September 11th or the recent Napa Valley fires,” he suggested. 

COVID-19 certainly highlights the precarious employment situation of sommeliers. Without some sort of safety net put in place in the future, we could see more and more talented wine experts avoiding employment in this sector of the industry. “Long-term, I think we’re going to lose a lot of people,” Blanchard said. “I think that the job security situation of this is going to push people away. The most accomplished somms will likely go.”

The United Sommeliers Foundation is the only fund designed exclusively to help sommeliers unemployed due to the extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19. I urge recently unemployed sommeliers with nowhere else to turn to go on this website and apply for a grant now. Otherwise, those that are in a position to give and feel, like myself, that this is an important and worthy cause, please consider a donation, however small. The full story of The United Sommeliers Foundation is available on their website: www.unitedsommeliersfoundation.org

The following funds are available to the wider restaurant and drinks industry employees and provide important resources to those struggling during this time: 

The US Bartenders Guild Foundation (USBG): https://www.usbgfoundation.org/

The James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Relief Fund: https://www.jamesbeard.org/relief

The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation Crisis Relief Fund: https://www.restaurantworkerscf.org/

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