If there was any one takeaway from the seminar State of the Industry: The Future of the Sommelier at the TEXSOM 2018 conference, held August 11–13 in Las Colinas, Texas, it’s that wine professionals have to be change agents for themselves and their companies in order to stay relevant in an evolving industry.
Moderated by GuildSomm president Geoff Kruth, MS, a panel of sommeliers and educators discussed not just individual steps for wine professionals to take to ensure their future employment and growth, but paths they might follow. The panelists were London-based Ian Harris, DipWSET, MBE; Master Sommeliers Devon Broglie and June Rodil; sommelier and author Kelli White; Wines of South Africa marketing manager Jim Clarke; and writer and educator Elaine Chukan Brown.
Provide Value for Your Employer
With restaurants worldwide facing rising costs of doing business, and more specialist roles under scrutiny, today’s sommelier needs a broad mind-set to survive.
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“Being a sommelier can easily be a singular position within an organization,” says Rodil, the vice president of operations for McGuire Moorman Hospitality’s eight Austin, Texas, restaurants. And if that’s the definition for you, she says, “there will not be opportunities for you.
“If you want to grow as a wine professional,” she says, “you have to have a different set of skills aside from opening a bottle, and have an understanding of how that singular position can grow.” Rodil has applied this mind-set to her own career path. She started as a sushi server and grew into various management roles as she identified growth areas within her company and made herself open to them.
We may be in an age of wine specialization, but restaurants tend to favor somms with flexibility, who can perform a number of tasks beyond delivering a bottle to guests, such as bussing tables, hosting, expediting—even learning to do garde manger. And that trend is likely to become increasingly common in the future.
“If you can do beverage and everything else,” says Kruth, “you are the last person to be laid off. If you can do only beverage, you’re the first person to get laid off. And as soon as they invent a robot that walks around saying, ‘This wine is smooth,’ they will outsource sommeliers.”
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Think Like a Businessperson
With restaurants facing mounting financial pressures—labor and real estate chief among them—somms have to think beyond the bottle. Way beyond. And it’s a global concern.
In London, Harris says, restaurants—“even household names that you think are well funded”—are closing down weekly, forcing a reexamination of the role of sommeliers based on their ability to drive revenue. “Rents are high,” he says. “The whole cost of running a restaurant has gone up, and you have to look at how to generate that extra income … how to put a couple of extra bums on the seats.”
Being versed in design and cost analysis beyond the price of a case can help somms get a leg up. Those two extra feet of space in the cellar that you crave? Think like a businessperson, not like a kid with a wish list. The ability to do that, says Rodil, creates relevance for you and your company. “That two feet is a chair,” she says, “and that chair is $45,000 more per quarter. And then ask [yourself], What is that space in the cellar really going to do for me, and how does that translate into dollars at the end of the day?”
Balance Education and Service
The increase in the number of people obtaining specialized wine knowledge and certifications has also given rise to smarty-pants somms, who may be tempted to co-opt the guest experience by expounding esoteric details on grape variety and terroir. While a solid base of wine knowledge is key, Harris suggests that it should be shared mindfully in the context of hospitality. “Your objective is to make people happy,” he says, “because when they’re happy they’ll spend a bit more money, which is why we’re all here. Don’t shove [education] down consumers’ throats—they just want a little bit of guidance, even as simple as ‘I tasted this and really liked it.’”
Devon Broglie, the global beverage buyer for Whole Foods Market, advises somms to “focus on being service-oriented as opposed to memorizing data to regurgitate to customers.” Customers, he says, “want things from a wine professional that they can’t get from a Google search.”
Use Social Media to Drive Business
“It’s become expected that sommeliers are going to have an active social media presence,” says Kelli White, a sommelier at Press in St. Helena, California. She says she knows a number of somms “who have a double life trying to be a social media influencer.”
And while posting images of unicorn wines on Instagram may get a lot of “likes,” it doesn’t necessarily drive business. When social media is used to help tell the story of a restaurant and its offerings, however, somms’ feeds don’t have “just the ability to move the bottle to the table,” says Kruth, “but the ability to move customers off their couches and into the restaurant.”
Lana Bortolot has written on food and wine for Dow Jones, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and other magazines of the wine and spirits trade. She reported on community development and arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post and on design for Entrepreneur magazine. She holds the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Level 3 Advanced Certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking to add a new wine-stained stamp to her passport.