In the face of unprecedented tumult and uncertainty, sommeliers and beverage directors have made hard choices and big transitions that may reshape the field for years to come. From cross-country moves to cross-industry shifts, many have harnessed the business and service skills they honed on the floor to embrace new professional challenges.
In this issue, SevenFifty Daily caught up with Josh Nadel, MS, Jack Mason, MS, Sally Stewart, and Steven Washuta to learn how their career trajectories and perspectives have changed over the past year, exploring some of the biggest challenges and unexpected benefits they’ve faced in new roles.
Josh Nadel, MS
From beverage director at Noho Hospitality Group in New York City to working the floor at The Wine Bar at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado
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Behind the Move
After spending some time at home on Long Island’s North Fork upon being furloughed from Noho Hospitality Group (NHG) last April, Nadel linked up with The Little Nell wine director Chris Dunaway, who invited Nadel to join the team as they reimagined the après ski-focused Chair 9 lounge as a wine bar. “‘It’d be cool to have a Master Sommelier around,’” Nadel recalls Dunaway saying. He started in early December.
Nadel’s wine knowledge is integral to his new role, but this time, it’s on a smaller scale—for individual guests rather than entire restaurants. “It’s a return to basic hospitality, which I really enjoy,” says Nadel, who notes that he’s doing everything from polishing glassware to recommending bottles and mixing margaritas. “It’s nice to put myself back into the shoes of the people I’ve been mentoring for the past decade.”
“I’m used to a pretty big chair at the table,” he admits. In Aspen, he’s working on someone else’s team rather than making the decisions, which is both a challenge and an opportunity. “It’s been an interesting internal exercise to shut up and tell myself, it’s not your rodeo,” says Nadel. “But I’ve seen things done differently, such as more empowerment and trust in line level staff, and I’ll take those observations back to New York.”
Nadel has embraced the mountain lifestyle from his temporary home in Carbondale, Colorado. “Spoiler alert: It’s awesome! You trip out your front door onto a hiking or mountain bike trail.”
The gig at The Little Nell goes through mid-April, at which time Nadel will rejoin NHG while focusing on his new role on the board of directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers. “The team at Noho has been my extended family since 2009, and I’m excited to get back to work with them,” he says, noting that while the proximity to the outdoors in Aspen has been eye-opening in terms of quality of life, he also can’t wait to return to New York. “I’m looking forward to resuscitating the city—my city.”
Jack Mason, MS
From director of wine operations at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, Texas to state portfolio manager at Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC)
Behind the Move
Furloughed last March by Pappas Bros., Mason spent the next few months doing odd jobs, inventorying the cellars of local collectors and writing wine lists for new restaurants. “It got to the point where I was like, ‘It’s been seven months, I’ve got to figure something out,’” says Mason. He’d never considered working for a distributor. “I’m a restaurant guy, you know? But with everything that’s changed, it started to look like something that might be fun.” Mason took the RNDC job in early November.
Mason’s existing relationships with Texas buyers as well as international suppliers have been essential in his new role, where he works across all divisions and with the entire RNDC book. “The scale is much larger and the volumes are much bigger,” he says.
“Working in a restaurant, it’s kind of immediate results—you put a wine on by-the-glass and it’s like, boom, there’s an impact,” he says. As a distributor, it’s about “not just winning that little battle, but overall, long-term sustainability.” It’s a different sort of challenge, but he’s enjoying it.
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Instead of spending an entire day in a single restaurant, Mason now drives around to different restaurants for meetings. In addition to having the schedule flexibility to spend evenings with family, he’s enjoyed “getting out and really exploring Houston in a way that I never would have had time to.”
Mason plans to stay on the distribution side and help elevate favorite producers; a noted fan of Champagne, he appreciates getting to work with some of the greats, like Salon and Philipponnat. “Being on the distributor side has helped me gain a sincere appreciation for how hard everyone works to support the needs of both an account and the supplier,” he says. “It’s like being a somm to the restaurant world.”
Sally Stewart and Steven Washuta
From wine director at Portale (Washuta) and head sommelier at Cut by Wolfgang Puck (Stewart) in New York City to co-owners of Denver Wine Merchant in Denver, Colorado
Behind the Move
Stewart and Washuta had long aspired to own their own wine shop, but life changed in 2019 when Stewart was diagnosed with ALS, forcing her to leave her job at Cut. She and Washuta reasoned it was time to fast track their dream—thinking that was compounded when Washuta was laid off from Portale early in the pandemic. They took over ownership of an existing beer and wine shop and renamed it Denver Wine Merchant last August.
The restaurant veterans have brought their hospitality-focused attitudes into their retail careers. “We treat everyone like a guest rather than a customer,” says Stewart. Adds Washuta, “We recommend wines like somms. At other stores, you’re not going to find that.”
“Running a business is so complicated and that’s something neither of us have experience in,” Stewart admits. The duo are doing everything themselves, from accounting and inventory to creating the website and managing deliveries. “People order directly off of our website or over the phone and we fulfill it ourselves,” explains Washuta. Given the hefty fees and prioritization of mainstream products, they found that delivery apps aren’t worth their time.
“We prefer the laws regarding wine in New York City, and I miss the energy,” says Washuta, explaining that in Colorado, there’s no purchasing on the gray market, a secondary channel within which wines are sold at lower prices. “But it is much easier to live here and escaping the city is quick and easy.”
Stewart and Washuta look forward to helping further cultivate Denver’s wine scene. “We want to be the pillar of the wine community,” says Washuta. When it’s safe to do so, they plan to invite wine students to lounge on the shop’s couch for casual mentorship and conversation, and host guided tastings and educational seminars. “We want to continue to practice our restaurant experience, but do it in a way that works in the current climate,” says Stewart.
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Rachel Tepper Paley is a food, travel, and lifestyle content writer and editor based in New York City.