On May 19, the United Sommeliers Foundation announced its launch after its founding on April 8. The charitable organization was created in response to the financial crisis faced by sommeliers around the country during the current pandemic.
“We exist because sommeliers are often the first to be laid off and the last to be hired back,” says Erik Segelbaum, vice president of the United Sommeliers Foundation. “Most somms are paid hourly, have little to no benefits and live pretty close to paycheck to paycheck. When a situation occurs where they lose their ability to make money, it’s pretty critical in terms of the financial situation it puts them in.”
The United Sommeliers Foundation raises funds to be immediately put into the pockets of those in the industry who have lost their jobs. At the time of writing this article, over $300,000 had been donated to their fund by wine lovers and industry names alike. On May 25, the foundation opened an auction of some rare and wonderful wines to raise more money for sommeliers out of work. Not every wine is a “unicorn” wine as Segelbaum puts it, but every dollar raised directly impacts someone in need. Those in the industry who have lost their jobs can apply for monetary aid directly on the foundation website, and will receive a check as soon as possible from the foundation. Segelbaum says that so far, the applications have been heart-wrenching accounts of the reality of many people’s situations and the difficulty of admitting they need money.
“Honestly, this has been such an emotional rollercoaster,” he confesses. “It’s equally heartwarming to hear that we’re making a difference in people’s lives and devastating to read the applications.”
Though “sommelier” is not a title in everyone’s lexicon, they are an essential component of the restaurant industry, which, as we all know, is experiencing extreme hardship due to the nature of the pandemic. Sommeliers wear many different hats. Not only are they experts in the field of wine, but they are often the face you see at the front of the restaurant, helping to run food to your table and assisting in any other necessary operational capacities. Sommeliers are seen as a creative and therefore can be seen as disposable rather than essential. And like all other restaurant workers right now, sommeliers don’t know if they will have a job to return to as the country begins to reopen.
“The numbers and percentage of restaurants that will shutter from this are anywhere between grim and bleak,” states Segelbaum. “If we had a vaccine tomorrow, the amount of restaurants that would be shuttered means that there would be way more sommeliers looking for work than jobs available.”
The current reality for sommeliers is just as desolate. According to Brent Kroll of Maxwell Park, three quarters of those in the industry that he has spoken to have been furloughed or let go. Kroll posits that this is reflective of the creative role sommeliers play in the restaurant. And, like Segelbaum, Kroll believes that sommeliers will be some of the last people to be able to return to their position due to this.
“If you bring back servers and bartenders, they’re generally very low hourly [waged workers],” Kroll states. “But unless you’re a sommelier who knows operations, you’re not going to be the first to be brought back.”
Sommeliers will have to adjust how they present themselves to employers, and prove that they are an indispensable team member. Segelbaum believes that this means not only increasing their wine education, but their business management skills. Being a sommelier will no longer mean just selecting wine for the menu, but working closely with the owners and chef to plan how to conduct business in a profitable manner. John Filkins, beverage director of Masseria, echoes these thoughts.
“For most sommeliers in the city, it’s been hard,” Filkins begins. “It’s definitely changed how we do business as a whole, so [we at Masseria] kind of had to reinvent some of our sommeliers to fill different roles and help drive our programs.”
For sommeliers entering the field, simply having experience may no longer be enough. As Segelbaum, Kroll and Filkins have all outlined, the industry will now have a level of competitiveness not seen before. Even sommeliers who are a part of the management team in a restaurant will have to prove themselves in their role to stay ahead of the competition. A local sommelier working at the Michelin-starred Gravitas has already begun to do so for herself. As part of the management team, Rebecca Cagle has been an essential player in planning Gravitas’ reopening strategy and keeping their workers paid in the meantime. Moving forward, Cagle plans on attending an accelerated course of study to receive her Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma starting this year if possible. She suggests others in the industry look to do the same.
“If I could offer any advice to any other somms in the industry, it would be to take this time to further your education if you are financially able,” Cagle says. “The industry will be that much more competitive when we come back because there won’t be as many restaurants. People who have 15 to 20 years in the industry but aren’t master [sommeliers] have built their reputation and experience. For young somms who are just starting their careers, the education is going to be more important if only to give you that little bit of a competitive edge.”
Despite the current circumstances, there is hope for sommeliers yet. It is clear to see that the community will continue to support one another in their darkest times. Though the future of the sommelier community may seem dismal, Segelbaum and the United Sommeliers Foundation will carry on their fundraising efforts and lift the industry up even as it moves past the pandemic. On a final note of hope, Segelbaum states that there will always be a spot for somms at the table, no matter how they must adapt.
“Nothing can erase the personalized experience of a sommelier. No digital app in the world can do it the way a somm can. It doesn’t work that way. Now more than ever, somms are going to really need to prove their ultimate value to the business.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content and to get a monthly print edition delivered to your door. Support local journalism and start your membership today.