In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.
Prior to the pandemic, Luke Boland was the wine director of Crown Shy, a neighborhood fine-dining restaurant in lower Manhattan. An award-winning wine professional, Boland has worked as a sommelier, beverage director, and consultant in some of New York’s most celebrated dining hotspots, including the Major Food Group’s The Grill, Carbone, and Dirty French, as well as La Sirena and Del Posto.
Boland graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011. He received his Advanced Certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2014. He was also a regional finalist for the Guild of Sommeliers 2015–2016 Top New Somm competition. He won the Somms Under Fire competition in 2016 and was a second-place national winner Chaine des Rotisseurs Jeune Sommelier in 2017.
But the experience of riding out the pandemic in Brooklyn, witnessing the effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, and having time to reflect on his career—and himself—has altered Boland’s outlook. He recently switched gears and took a role as a sales rep at Volcanic Selections, a new importer and distributor focused on small, up-and-coming producers.
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After shooting Boland’s Supertasters video, SevenFifty Daily caught up with him about Crown Shy’s pivot during the pandemic, how his view of restaurant culture has changed, and why he made his recent career move.
SevenFifty Daily: You’ve been quarantining in Brooklyn since March. How has this time changed how you view the wine and restaurant industries?
Luke Boland: First and foremost, I felt kind of powerless, like the industry I worked in didn’t matter. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d spent my whole life working in an industry that, in the face of something so devastating to humanity, didn’t hold a candle to people doing real work to fight against it. My dad and brother work in medicine; my brother works in emergency medicine in Austin. I felt like I was doing something “lesser” when I knew that he was literally putting his life at risk every day to help people.
But then I saw how many restaurants were rallying to help the community and feed people. So many establishments got funding to make meals for underprivileged people or frontline workers. To me, that showcased the deep care of restaurant owners for those around them and their ingenuity to find ways to provide for those in need.
How did Crown Shy pivot during the pandemic?
Crown Shy first partnered with Rethink Food, a nonprofit organization working to create equity within the food system. During that time, Crown Shy was creating between 700 and 1,200 meals a day to fight food scarcity during the pandemic. Once they were able to get the permit for outdoor dining, Crown Shy switched to outdoor service five days per week. The menu went from à la carte to a three-course meal to ensure that the food could be prepared consistently with a smaller team in the kitchen. There were about 11 tables outside, which would double on Fridays and Saturdays when they had permission to close down the street in the evening.
What changes did you make to the wine program to suit outdoor service?
We switched to a smaller format on everything: fewer wines by the glass, a PDF list generated by the QR code that also brought up the food menu, and a “summer flight” which consisted of a cocktail, a glass of white, and a glass of red for around $60. Whereas the normal wine list was organized by region and appellation, the outdoor list was meant to be a bit more digestible, so there was a section at the top of around 15 whites and 15 reds, all under $80 and meant for easy drinking and approachability. Following that, there were 20 to 30 “cellar selections” which would satisfy someone looking for specific appellations or producers.
What was the epiphany that led you to choose wine as your career?
Working in the kitchen is really, really hard, and I’m just not cut out for that! So for me, wine was more happenstance. It was a survival mechanism to derive income from some kind of a profession, rather than an innate passion that was awakened by a particular moment. Over time, though, from studying, tasting, and immersing myself in the culture, I developed an appreciation and love for the people in wine and wine itself as one of the most profound agricultural products on earth.
What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?
I’m excited about Bachelet-Monnot at the moment. In the never-ending quest to find value-driven Burgundy, these brothers are making serious white wine from Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, along with incredibly charming red wines from Maranges. For Burgundy with style, their Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières is a knockout, and for a perfect dinner companion, their Maranges Premier Cru La Fussière is a stellar bet.
What wine region would you most like to visit after the pandemic—and why?
I want to go to South Africa or Australia. I’ve been digging the wines from both of those countries recently and I think they deserve more attention and list placements. It’d be good to go and see these places to bring back some passion and knowledge to drop.
If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?
In my life? I’ve been working with wine for about 10 years. If you assume I’ve only tasted five wines a day at work, that would still average out to 13,000 wines. Now five would be quite low, and that also excludes days off, during which I may also taste (or hey, who knows, maybe even drink) wine, but that’s just me tossing out a number as a reference point. So I would say, all in all, somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000.
How has your time in quarantine changed the way you view yourself?
Quarantine gave me a fresh perspective towards myself that I don’t think I would have ever derived on my own. After working in restaurants for 15 years, I came to identify myself almost exclusively by my job title or the restaurant I was working at. I think in those 15 years the only time I took two weeks off from work was for my wedding, so it’s pretty clear that I did a bad job of taking care of myself.
This was the first time I got to actually reflect and think about “happiness.” I realized I wasn’t really happy with working until 1 am anymore. I was tired of feeling guilty about taking time off or time for myself, and I wasn’t happy identifying only as a wine professional instead of a human being. You’re thrust into a time when death and disease is rampant, social injustice and systemic corruption are inescapable, and you’re still expected to “leave the bad stuff at home because when you’re in service you need to just be in service.” It just feels dehumanizing and emotionally stunted.
How has your view of restaurant culture changed?
Many of the subservient restaurant mentalities—”The guest is always right,” and “Don’t talk back to the chef”—reinforce the idea that your opinion doesn’t matter. Having time to think about these kinds of things helped shed light on the fact that I really wasn’t happy [working in restaurants] anymore, and I didn’t want to keep sacrificing my own joy for the rest of my life.
Closing at 2 am is often part of the job for a sommelier. I used to feel ashamed to admit that I just didn’t want to do that anymore because I thought it conveyed weakness, and that scared me. I’m very thankful I don’t think that way now.
What’s next for you?
I don’t want to be done with wine. I recently took a job at Volcanic Wine Selections, a distribution company started by Jeff Porter about a year ago. Jeff and I worked together at Del Posto when he was the wine director, so I’m excited to be working with him again. He has put together a really exciting book of wines from small producers focused on organic/biodynamic viticulture with great diversity through France, Italy, Australia, and the United States. We even had our first portfolio tasting early September at Popina and the response seemed overwhelmingly positive. I believe a job based on sales or education will feel much more balanced for me. Having evenings to myself, I realized during the pandemic, is a wonderful thing.
If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?
I have two things here: I don’t like when everyone wants every bottle to satisfy every single demand they’re looking for. The whole point is that every producer, vineyard, and vintage is distinct, so I think when people are overly critical and unwilling to just drink, enjoy, and accept a bottle for what it is, it kind of becomes a joyless pursuit of perfection. (And when I say “for what it is,” I mean “in good condition.” Don’t drink flawed wine.)
And be patient. Not every wine is meant to be drunk young and not every wine is meant to be cellared forever. Learn from moments when a wine wasn’t quite in the right place and use that to bolster your knowledge for the future.
Jen Laskey is the former executive editor of SevenFifty Daily. She is also an award-winning wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and editor based in New York City, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate.