The pandemic has forced sommeliers and beverage directors to adapt in dramatic new ways as restaurants have closed and furloughed staff. Many have transitioned to very different roles, harnessing the business and service skills they honed on the floor to embrace new professional challenges.
In this issue, SevenFifty Daily caught up with Cristie Norman, Rebecca Flynn, and Harry Ballmann to learn how their careers—and their lives—have changed and hear about the biggest challenges and unexpected benefits of their new ventures.
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Behind the Move
Fine dining mecca Eleven Madison Park has not reopened its doors since New York City restaurants were shuttered in March, so Flynn went from working demanding shifts to spending months on end at home with her then-fiancé, now-husband Ryan Totman, who also works in wine as the beverage director of Corkbuzz.
In July, she seized an opportunity to take over as the general manager and beverage director of Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn as the team got ready to reopen for full outdoor service.
“Billy Durney, the owner of Red Hook Tavern and Hometown BBQ, and I had a phone interview, and we ended up talking for two and a half hours,” recalls Flynn. “He seemed like a great person to work with.”
Trading in a suit for more casual attire doesn’t mean letting go of fine-dining touches, says Flynn. “At the Tavern, I put the glass down with the stamp facing the guest, I use open-handed service, and I use a tray when clearing glassware,” she explains. “I encourage my servers to be mindful of their movements. Just because it’s an outdoor tavern, doesn’t mean we can’t make it a beautiful dining experience for guests.”
Some of these white tablecloth-style techniques have also proven to help the restaurant maintain health and safety and win diners’ trust during the pandemic. “If you’re grabbing people’s dirty glasses from the top, not only is it really gross, it’s not COVID-safe,” says Flynn.
“I’m not a stranger to long hours and working really hard, but being a general manager is a lot more emotionally demanding,” Flynn explains of adapting to her new role.
Between juggling everything from guest complaints to managing changing COVID protocols and figuring out how to keep the patio warm in January, Flynn is stretched thin. She’s also navigating her management style with the FOH staff. “I try to make sure there are steps of service in place,” she says, “without being too bossy and harping on people too much.”
Despite the increased responsibilities, Flynn plans to stick with her management role. “I have a great, supportive upper management within the company that I rely on for the heavy duty things, like installing electricity on the patio to follow FDNY heater protocols,” she says. “I also enjoy running my own program: introducing the staff and guests to new wines, collaborating with the bar team on new cocktails, teaching new steps of service to the team, and working closely with wine reps and distributors.”
Behind the Move
Almost immediately after being furloughed from his job as a sommelier and head of drinks at Folie in London, Ballmann launched a wine retail venture in the U.K.: Cépage, an online shop that sources directly from producers to offer competitive prices.
“I originally had a plan in the works for a pop-up bar and a restaurant,” says Ballmann. “My idea was to have one anchor importing company—Cépage—to feed the bar. But when I saw how quickly online retail was picking up in the pandemic, I realized that online retail was a good route to go down.”
Many of the skills Ballmann honed in his previous role—including purchasing wine, budgeting, and managing inventory—gave him the business experience necessary to launch the new venture. “At Folie, I spent a lot of time curating via auction and buying directly from winemakers,” he says. “I’ve done that with Cépage. Obviously, we have a limited budget, so I’ve had to get creative.”
Working as a beverage buyer also helped him understand pricing in the wine market, which was essential to Cépage’s competitive price strategy. “I knew exactly where I wanted to go with my pricing and knew what my wines were worth based on their qualities,” says Ballmann.
Working in a virtual environment has required Ballmann to learn new skills. “Online retail is something of a dark art, and of course we haven’t quite mastered it,” he says. “I had to become semi-proficient in search optimization, which was difficult.”
Operating virtually, rather than face-to-face, also changes the way that Ballmann interacts with his clientele. “The challenge is really understanding what people actually want to buy,” he says. “You’re selling blind when you sell online. So, you have to be purchasing the right bottles that people want to drink.”
Would Ballmann ever return to sommelier work? “Of course,” he says. “You get a buzz being on the floor, selling and opening fun bottles. I will go back to it, but under my own capacity, when I own my own floor.”
Behind the Move
When Norman’s shifts at Spago started getting cut in March, she leveraged her network and social media presence to start the United Sommeliers Foundation (USF), a charitable organization working to provide financial assistance to out-of-work sommeliers.
“Our GoFundMe was shared by well-respected people in the industry and through their contacts I was able to set up our first auction to help the somm community which raised over $300,000,” says Norman. Auction house Acker Wines now sponsors the United Sommeliers Foundation fine wine auction.
Alongside her non-profit work, Norman also hosts private virtual tastings through paid producer partnerships. “Just doing two master classes a month, I’m able to make more money than I was making at Spago,” she says. Though Norman can attract more lucrative partnerships due to her large Instagram following, she insists that any sommelier should get paid to organize tastings.
Norman’s network in the industry has proved invaluable. In addition to enabling her to raise funds for USF and attract virtual tasting partnerships, her professional connections helped her find the right people to build her vision. “If I don’t have a particular skill or resource, I know the people that do,” says Norman. “It’s about putting the right people together.”
“When I first started doing virtual tastings, I was doing everything by myself: acquiring wines, splitting up the bottles, coordinating pick-ups,” says Norman. “I would allocate about seven hours a week for this.”
Norman overcame this logistical challenge by recruiting a 12-person volunteer team to assist her with the unpaid virtual master classes she hosts for the somm community. “I learned a lot of organizational lessons in truly delegating,” says Norman. “I divided what I was doing every week into four roles, and we have amazing captains that handle some of the details while I oversee and focus on expansion.”
Norman has also found larger audiences for her virtual master classes, such as a recent Alsace master class with Olivier Humbrecht of Zind-Humbrecht, which had 78 attendees. “I never would have been able to organize that prior to the pandemic,” she says. While she misses in-person tasting groups, the virtual pivot has provided new opportunities to connect with global producers and mentors, like Yannick Benjamin in New York. “I can now overnight wine samples and we can taste together.”