Essay

Pushing Ahead as a Wheelchair Sommelier

Mirko Pastorelli aspires to work a restaurant floor and create more awareness around disabilities in the hospitality industry—here’s his story

Mirko Pastorelli. Photo courtesy of Mirko Pastorelli.

Several years ago I was in a very dark place. I was working as a web developer in the Forlì Cesena area of Italy, where I live, but I didn’t want to spend my entire life in an office, behind a desk. I was born with spastic paraplegia, and though I can get up and stand—even walk around a little bit—I’m mostly in my wheelchair. When I first started using one as a teenager, it changed my life for the better by offering me independence. Being in a wheelchair, I feel like I can do anything—even become a sommelier on a restaurant floor.

But in Italy, where I live, there’s not a very progressive attitude toward people in wheelchairs—or with disabilities in general. I needed a career where I could express myself, where I could meet new people and share my passions. But I felt trapped in my job.

Then, while I was dealing with these struggles, I met the first person who would help change my life, the late celebrated photographer Arnaldo Magnani, who became a close friend and almost a brother to me. Though he too was born in Italy, he worked his way up as a photographer in New York City over several decades. From the very first time I met him, he told me, “You need to think big in your life. If you don’t like your work, if you don’t like your life, you need to change that.”

That was the first spark for me—what initially led me to wine. I had inspiration within my own family as well. My father lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 50 years before passing away last year, but that never stopped him from accomplishing his goals, working as a bus driver and then as a painter. He was an amazing example. I still carry his lessons with me, and the most important one is this: Even if you have a disability, you can do everything you want.

I was fortunate enough that as I lost his presence in my life, I gained another—one of my mentors, Yannick Benjamin. It was actually the day before I flew to New York for the first time to meet Yannick that my father passed away. But another thing I learned from my father was that he lived his life his way, and I needed to pursue my own. I needed to get on that plane to follow my dream.

Left: Mirko Pastorelli (photo courtesy of Mirko Pastorelli). Right: Yannick Benjamin (photo courtesy of Wheeling Forward).

Connecting in the Wine World

Wine changed my life in a very positive way. It gave me the hope that I needed to change everything, and with Magnani’s urging, I started to plan my next chapter. After beginning to study wine in Italy at the end of 2017, I Googled “wheelchair sommelier,” and that’s how I learned about Yannick and his story—how, after being paralyzed in a car accident in 2003, he went on to become the world’s first sommelier to work on the restaurant floor in a wheelchair. Before that point, while I had been interested in wine personally, I had never thought about pursuing a career in it—I didn’t think it was possible.

Today, Yannick is the head sommelier at the University Club in New York City, an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the cofounder of Wheeling Forward, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower individuals with disabilities and hosts the signature Wine on Wheels annual fundraising event. I messaged him immediately after finding him through social media and told him about my plan to work in wine—that I wanted to be a wheelchair sommelier like him.

Here is Yannick’s own account of the first time we connected: “[Mirko] found me and he told me that I was his inspiration to keep pursuing his dream. I was extremely touched by his words, and I promised him that I would do whatever I could and that I’d use my resources to help him achieve his goal of becoming a sommelier. I also told him that he needed to be prepared for rejection and a lot of skepticism, and that he would need to work three times as hard as the typical sommelier.”

I was alone in Cesena at this time, but Yannick was there to help me. With his words, his energy, his dedication, I was able to keep going, to continue studying. We have this strange, powerful connection. Even when I’m in Italy and he is in New York, we have a unique understanding of each other and try to write every day. He was the person who motivated me at every turn, at every doubtful and dark moment.

Experiencing Wine on Wheels for the first time in the spring of 2018 was so special. It changed everything in my mind about having a disability and reinforced my dream of wanting to work in wine. I met amazing people with such great, positive energy—people who are dedicated to a good cause. I learned that with many people together, you can do big things. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone—I felt like I was part of a big family.

Another person I’m thankful for is Giuseppe Vaccarini, a legendary sommelier based in Milan who was named Best Sommelier in the World by the Association of International Sommeliers (ASI) four decades ago and has continued to thrive in the industry ever since. Giuseppe motivated me a lot, and he believed in me.

Recalling our initial introduction, Giuseppe says: “When I met [Mirko] for the first time, I was surprised by his level of preparation and his determination to deepen his studies. I noticed a crescendo of interest and passion, in parallel with his determination to want to establish himself as a sommelier.”

Giuseppe was also honest with me, saying that it might be hard to become established and, especially, to find a job in Italy. 

Giuseppe adds: “I tried to give him useful advice—and no illusions. While I believe Mirko could work in the restaurant business, he could encounter many difficulties, especially in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. The legislative aspects protecting the disabled here advance very slowly, actually penalizing them.” 

However, Giuseppe told me to stick with it, to keep going, to push, push, push. With his help, earlier this year I passed my exam with the Association of Professional Italian Sommeliers (ASPI)—the only organization in Italy to be recognized by the ASI—and gained my final diploma as a sommelier. 

Yannick Benjamin and Mirko Pastorelli at Wine on Wheels 2019. Photo courtesy of Wheeling Forward.

The Challenges Are Mental, Not Physical

In Italy, there’s a different mind-set toward people with disabilities. In the U.S., people seem very open-minded, and if you have a disability, you want to continue improving, to keep going, to think positively. But here at home, people don’t think the same way. There’s no culture of people with disabilities being pioneers—people don’t think big in that way. It’s a close-minded mentality, and therefore it’s impossible to change people’s perceptions.

Commenting on this predicament, Yannick says: “Since Italy is a bit more close-minded to Mirko’s situation, he will have to do everything that he can do to change the perception of who he is and show them his greatness. He is extremely eager, curious, and highly intelligent, and he contains all of the ingredients one needs to succeed.”

The biggest limitation is the mentality; often those with disabilities have a self-limiting mind-set, and others may limit them in terms of what they can accomplish. But you can change your point of view and see the wheelchair as a positive. Then even in a restaurant, a customer might say, “Wow, I’ve never been served by a sommelier in a wheelchair—that’s really amazing, fantastic!” And from there we can have a conversation and make that connection.

To me, the biggest challenges of working as a sommelier in a restaurant are mental, not physical. I’ve seen Yannick work, and he’s able to pass between tables. You can organize a restaurant so there’s space by moving tables apart or arranging them in a certain way, and Yannick has his tray for carrying wine to the table. The modern sommelier’s job is not just serving wine, but being a communicator and establishing a connection with the guest.

Yannick considers this, and points out: “Even when Mirko finds an employer who believes in him, he will have to make sure that the establishment is accessible and comfortable for him to work in and to be able to accomplish his tasks. And that is not an easy thing but certainly not impossible.”

In Italy, sometimes I feel like I can do nothing, and that’s very frustrating. I would like to find a place somewhere in the world where I can be myself, where I can express myself and prove that I can do incredible things with my ideas and my energy, if only given the chance. If I got a call right now to work in America or in Asia, I would move tomorrow! 

I know that I’m not alone in my frustration. Yannick experienced something similar earlier in his career—and as the first person blazing that trail, it took him nearly a decade to overcome.

Yannick explains: “When I tried to get a job in 2005, two years after my car accident, nobody wanted to really meet and interview me, because they had already made up their mind that a person using a wheelchair cannot work the floor of the restaurant. It took me almost 10 years from the day of my accident to finally work [a] restaurant floor. My biggest piece of advice for Mirko is that complacency should never be in his vocabulary. Every day that he wakes up, he should have the desire to do better than the day before.” 

In the end, the physical challenges can be overcome with the help of supportive individuals who are willing to overcome the mental roadblocks. 

“For me,” Yannick adds, “it is very simple what the wine world needs: We need more powerful voices who have strong visibility and presence in the industry to set the standard and speak up for the forgotten people. Then you will see more change.”

Wine on Wheels 2018. Photo courtesy of Wheeling Forward.

Paying It Forward

I came back to Wine on Wheels this year, and it was very emotional for me to receive the support from Wheeling Forward. Yannick believed in me, and it made me proud—I want to do better every year. I want to inspire other people, like Yannick did for me, and help other people in the same way. I can talk to other people with disabilities and show them that they don’t have to be stuck in an office—you can do anything and everything!

I want to see a change in the perceptions around disabilities: Use your disability like a positive, and think about someone with a disability in a positive way. As a wheelchair sommelier, I can share my story and inspire other people in wheelchairs to follow their dreams and enter the hospitality industry. Maybe then, in the next few years, there will be a few others, and with a community all around the world, we can do big things.

Yannick and I are like pioneers, and in the future I hope that we can create a great community for those with disabilities in the wine world. That makes me feel alive—to do something that other people haven’t done before, and to inspire others to do the same. But it’s only the beginning, and at the beginning the difficult part is just to get the wheels moving. Once you start that, you have positive momentum to move forward.

Wine represents hope for me. And now I am happy to be in a wheelchair because when I look in the mirror, I’m happy with what I am, where I’ve gotten, and where I hope to continue going. The ingredients are constancy, passion, and determination. I’m ready to embark on this next part of my journey and to start this amazing new career.  

If you have a disability, take your disability and transform it into a great opportunity, into a positive direction. That’s the secret. See the disability in a positive form, because you can do great things with that. It’s not a bad thing—it’s a great thing.

—As told to Jake Emen

Mirko Pastorelli is a sommelier from Cesena, Italy, who was born with spastic paraplegia and is largely confined to a wheelchair. After leaving his job as a web developer in 2016, he turned to wine, a field in which he’s found hope, community, and passion. Pastorelli, 26, is now certified as a sommelier by the Association of Professional Italian Sommeliers and plans on following the path of his mentor, Yannick Benjamin, and becoming a wheelchair sommelier. He’s currently continuing his wine education while seeking employment opportunities in the industry—and is ready to move anywhere the wine world takes him.

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