Long gone are the days when the word sommelier conjured up the image of a dour Frenchman in white tie and tailcoat—with a tastevin around his neck. Today’s somms are an increasingly diverse bunch, working not just in fine-dining establishments but in all kinds of bars, restaurants, hotels, and resorts.
As restaurants and other on-premise venues have become less traditionally formal over time, a near-universal relaxing of dress codes has enabled sommeliers to express themselves through a range of styles. SevenFifty Daily spoke with somms from New York City to Fairbanks, Alaska, to find out what drives their personal style—and to get their advice on achieving comfort and making a statement on the floor.
Dressing for Your Guests
After taking into account the dress restrictions of an establishment, a sommelier’s first consideration is often a desire to put the customer at ease. Lee Campbell, a New York City–based consultant and the former wine director of Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants, explains that she dresses “with a bit of whimsy”—in colorful dresses with playful patterns—to mitigate what she calls the wine intimidation factor.
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The ever-elegant Charles Dion Springfield, an independent sommelier also based in New York, takes his style inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance and the golden age of Hollywood. Springfield makes no bones about the importance of his style when meeting customers. “There has to be a certain finesse to what I do as a sommelier,” he says. “My personal style gets people’s initial attention when [we’re] talking about wine—and my knowledge helps me keep their attention. People still have a certain expectation of how a sommelier should dress. My style feeds into that perception but also gives them something a little unexpected to expand their perspectives.”
Keeping It Casual
Great style is not always about dressing up. Femi Oyediran, the co-owner of Graft Wine Shop and Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, wears Nike sneakers with jeans and a T-shirt in an effort to project a relaxed feeling to his customers. “I’m all about vibes,” he says. “I like people to feel at home. I think it’s disarming for most people and allows them to relate to me as a friend as opposed to a guy in a suit trying to sell them wine.”
A proponent of smart-casual attire on the floor, Sebastian Zutant, the owner and sommelier at Primrose in Washington, D.C., describes his style as immediately disarming. “Yesterday I was wearing a bright orange shirt,” he recalls, and says that people immediately commented on it. “‘Whoa!’ said one person—‘Isn’t that jumping out at me?!’ I’m wearing clothing to comment on. It takes away from the fact that I’m a sommelier and makes it less intimidating. I think if I were to roll up in a suit, people would feel a little bit more uptight about it.”
Jhonel Faelnar, the wine director at Atomix in New York City, buys most of his clothes online using the Spring app, and he favors accenting his minimalist style with pops of flair, like pocket squares. “Socks,” he adds, “are a great way to make a quiet statement.”
Seth Wilson, the wine director at Booth One in Chicago, has no reservations about approaching a table in a suit. However, recognizing the formal appearance of a jacket and bow tie, he defuses any latent tension by means of the colorful sneakers that have become his trademark in the restaurant and on social media. “My style of service is not to oversell to people,” Wilson says. “When people see the sneakers, they feel a bit more comfortable and not put off [as they might feel] when you approach the table in a suit that’s very tailored. When things are put together to a T, it can be a bit intimidating, [especially] if you’re just going for a relaxed meal.”
The Importance of Comfort and Safety
Of course, sneakers fulfill a dual purpose in the restaurant world: Besides lending a casual vibe, they’re comfortable for people who have to be on their feet for long shifts. For Mandy Sparacino, the wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Los Angeles, however, sneakers are not the go-to footwear. Sparacino is also a musician, and her personal style—which features lots of black with leather accents—reflects her rock-and-roll roots. “I wear heels for service,” she says, “and I find it necessary to switch it up daily to keep a happy foot. I have some really great heels with interesting shapes that stand out on the floor, but they’re comfortable and have great grip for when I’m running around.”
Campbell agrees that if you’re going to wear heels, the type of heel is key. “Shoes with a solid heel and grippy sole are a must,” she says, “and wedge heels or platforms. You can’t do a kitten heel or stiletto for work. It’s hard enough to climb up and down wine racks in jeans and sneakers, let alone Louboutins.”
Sparacino and Campbell both point out that safety is an important factor when considering what to wear on the floor. Loose and billowy sleeves that might knock things over or catch fire from a candle, bulky jewelry, and oversized cuff bracelets can all be potential hazards. And the more banal restaurant-related mishaps, from stains to sweating, have to be accounted for too. Claire Paparazzo, the beverage director at New York’s Dirty French, always keeps a backup jacket and a Tide wipe handy to ensure that her gothic-inspired look—accented with MAC Diva lipstick and metallic glittery nails—stays fresh.
Pockets, Hiding Places, and Advice
June Rodil, the vice president of McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group in Austin, Texas, oversees staff at a number of restaurants. She says there’s one essential for women somms: “As a woman, it’s very important to have pockets. It’s very difficult to have your phone at the ready, or your wine key, if you’re holding them both in one hand—and you can’t have a clutch around. If I can find a dress or a skirt with pockets, I’m able to give myself a bit more femininity but still maintain professionalism and have the tools that I need on hand at all times.”
Lelañea Fulton, the former wine director at Dirty French, now an independent chef-sommelier living in Fairbanks, Alaska, also emphasizes the importance of pockets in the romantic, flowing pre-Raphaelite dresses she favors. She prefers to hide her wine key in the secret tucks and folds of her garments, including in “thick waistline belts … and tight cuffed sleeves.” She also offers a warning to young women somms starting out: “If an establishment needs their female somms to dress ‘sexy’ to ensure the profit of the wine program, then that’s not a place you want to be.”
The most important question to consider when adapting your personal style for the workplace, suggests Oyediran, is “What are you trying to communicate about the place you work? If it’s a fancy place to eat, dress sharp, look confident. If it’s a casual place, that doesn’t mean you should lower your standards.” Or as Zutant sums it up, “You have to be considerate of who it is that you work for and what it is that you do, but if you’re allowed to, dress how you want.”