After a difficult two years, beverage industry professionals likely have long lists of changes they would like to unfold in 2022. From the ongoing impact of COVID-19, to difficulties stemming from supply chain disruptions, to continued disparities in the industry’s equity and diversity, the new year has plenty of room for improvement.
But many are entering 2022 with a sense of optimism—and with renewed determination to change the things that are under their control.
SevenFifty Daily asked 10 leading wine and spirits professionals about one thing they’ll be doing differently in 2022—professionally, personally, and in some cases, philosophically.
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Dave Lofstrom, Wine Director at Tavern by WS, New York City
Getting Back to the Floor
Not long ago, Dave Lofstrom found himself talking to a table of guests at the Tavern by WS, the Wine Spectator-affiliated restaurant located on the west side of Manhattan. The guests had hailed Lofstrom without knowing he was the restaurant’s wine director—fortuitously, as it turned out, because they were seeking a pairing recommendation for their raw bar order.
“I said to absolutely have some Chablis,” Lofstrom recalls, and then, because he had a moment, he gave the table the abbreviated story of Chablis, particularly how the decomposed limestone and fossilized oyster shells in its soil gave the wines their affinity for oysters.
The guests were spellbound. “That was a moment of revelation for them,” he says, “with geography, geology, wine, and food all coming together.” But Lofstrom, formerly a sommelier at Aldo Sohm and Manhatta, was spellbound too—just differently. “To see their excitement was really gratifying,” he says, and was a reminder of why he’d become a wine professional in the first place: to share knowledge and pleasure, to convey a specific kind of joy.
Hence what Lofstrom is doing differently in 2022: “I’m doubling down on the floor,” he says. “Connecting with our guests and trying to build a sense of community.”
Wine directors don’t do enough of this, he says. “A lot of it has to do with availability and workloads,” adds Lofstrom. “It’s easy to get lost in spreadsheets and menus and invoices.” But human interaction is the root of service. “When you’re talking with people about wine, you’re reminded of why you got into this in the first place,” he says.
Paula de Pano, Proprietor of Rocks + Acid, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Keeping Wine and Values Aligned
It sounds like the premise for a 1980s British television show: the wine merchant who moonlights as a detective. But in sommelier-turned-retailer Paula de Pano’s case, the detective work is part and parcel of the wine trade.
This spring, after half a decade as beverage and service director at the esteemed Fearrington House restaurant, de Pano will open a hybrid wine shop/wine bar, called Rocks + Acid, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Centered in the shop will be a 20-seat communal table where de Pano plans to host a revolving series of wine education classes. She’ll offer two dozen by-the-glass selections and keep 300 to 400 different labels in stock.
And all of them, de Pano says, will have undergone a stringent background check. “I’m trying to be socially responsible about what I sell and what I serve,” she says.
That’s where the detective work comes in. She’s been digging online and relentlessly quizzing her distributors and importers. “Who owns it and who makes it?” de Pano wants to know. “How do they hire their pickers? Do they use fair labor practices? Do they practice sustainable agriculture? I’m doing due diligence to make myself accountable for the wines that I sell.”
Some wines are easy to investigate. Other wineries, however, make claims that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. “It sucks, but you do have to be skeptical about it,” she says. Still other labels get murky as you trace the rungs of ownership. “One very well-known wine that I won’t name, with lots and lots of accolades, turned out to be owned by a very big donor to a particular politician,” de Pano recalls, sighing. “It’s offensive to me to have that on my table.” Needless to say, it won’t be on a rack at Rocks + Acid.
Adam Hannett, Head Distiller at Bruichladdich, Scotland
86ing the Carbon
Bruichladdich distiller Adam Hannett is hoping to see a lot less of something in 2022: carbon dioxide. Besides Scotch whisky and Botanist gin, carbon is the other product that the storied Islay distillery produces, owing mostly to the oil-fired boiler necessary for boiling the grain and distilling the spirits. That will start changing this year, however, when a hydrogen combustion pilot project comes online.
Bruichladdich, founded in 1881, aims to join the small but growing ranks of zero-emission distilleries by 2025. A prototype hydrogen boiler—part of a roughly $3-million investment in decarbonizing the distillation process—is slated to start firing later this year. “It’s a big step forward,” says Hannett, who’s headed the distillery since 2015. If the boiler’s innovative technology works as hoped, it could prove a big step not just for Islay’s distilleries but for the remote island as a whole. Bruichladdich’s green hydrogen project could prove a model for hospitals, schools, and other high energy users.
“The distillery has survived 140 years,” says Hannett, “but this is about the next 140 years.” He quotes his predecessor, Jim McEwan, the whisky icon who helped resuscitate Bruichladdich in 2000: “The job of a distiller, Jim used to say, is passing on the distillery to a new generation. And he’d say you must always pass it on in better condition than you found it.” The same rule, Hannett notes, applies to the planet.
Tonya Pitts, Wine Director at One Market Restaurant, San Francisco
Focusing the List
On Tonya Pitts’s to-do list, for 2022, is some pruning.
Pitts is the longtime sommelier and wine director at One Market Restaurant, at San Francisco’s Embarcadero. “Our guests expect a wealth of selections,” she says, and for years that’s what she’s given them with a roughly 700-bottle list. “I’m still going to give them that wealth, but it’s going to be more focused.”
That’s where those figurative secateurs come in. Pitts plans to prune the list down to maybe 500 bottles. Part of that entails cutting what might be deemed fat: multiple vintages from certain producers, for instance. Another part of that means scaling certain categories back to make room for wines from underrepresented regions, for wines made by women, for what Pitts affectionately calls “the little gems.” And part of it means editing the list so that it bears its own distinctive character, its own tang, its own collective identity.
“I have to distinguish myself from everyone in my corridor and in my city,” says Pitts, who came to San Francisco from St. Louis, Missouri to study painting but pivoted to studying wine after stints at Zuni Café and Bizou. One way she’ll do that is by rotating producers “in and out of the wine list the way the kitchen uses ingredients seasonally.”
Another will be by culling many of what she calls her “big brands.” Her guests purchased a lot of wine at retail shops during the long COVID lockdowns. They got familiar with the price stickers. They’re increasingly attuned to the markup. “The guest that comes in the door now,” she says, “is much more savvy about pricing.” What that means, Pitts says, is that “if you can find a wine at Costco, I need to rethink whether it has a place on my list.”
Deniece Bourne, Account Development Manager, Wine & Spirit Education Trust, New York City
Taking Care of Herself in Order to Take Care of Others
When Hurricane Elsa smashed into Barbados in July, Deniece Bourne happened to be on the island visiting her mother. Bourne’s parents are Bajan, but she was born in New York, and she has a New Yorker’s breakneck sense of ambition and drive. When the electricity flickered out on Barbados, however, the former wine importer and current wine educator found herself with something different: peace and silence, whole days of it. The rare opportunity to do nothing but, as she puts it, “sit inside my head.”
The mental recharge she experienced was instructive. “If the pandemic has taught us anything,” she says, “it’s that we have to prioritize ourselves.” Call it self-love, self-care, or self-appreciation (Bourne subscribes to all three): the theory and practice of devoting some measure of time and energy to oneself. Bourne has weighty ambitions for 2022—to achieve her WSET Level 4 Diploma while continuing to help “persons from minority and marginalized communities have greater access to wine education”—but, she’s come to realize, “I need to be full to dedicate the necessary efforts.”
Bourne’s is a recipe for mindfulness: “Disconnect from work. Make time to have time for me. Eat with intention. Actually enjoy wine.” Lately she’s also been walking New York City “the way a tourist does,” wandering for the sake of wandering, with no other purpose than to reinhabit that restorative open headspace she found in Barbados. “To be of great service to others,” she says, “you have to be of greater service to yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Matthew Kaner, SOMM TV Host and Producer, Los Angeles
Leaving Room for Magic
“My life was very different in the past,” Matthew Kaner understates. Just two years ago, Kaner was juggling what might be called a miniature empire: two L.A. wine bars (the list-free Bar Covell and Augustine), a restaurant (Good Measure), a Santa Barbara winery (AM/FM), and an online wine club (Solovin). The life of an emperor, however, wasn’t a comfortable fit for Kaner. By the end of 2020, he’d shed all of it, shuttering the restaurant and wine club and divesting himself from the wine bars.
“I got into this thing”—the wine biz—“because I was interested in wine,” he explains. “But the more stuff I did, the less time I had with wine.” Managing bars and a restaurant, he’d found, was, for him, too much about managing people. “You become more than someone’s boss,” he says. “You become like a parent or an older brother. You’re the bank. You’re the payday loan service. It all started to wear on me. Did I really want to be working this many hours? For what?”
So what will Kaner be doing differently in 2022? The answer: just about everything. He’s signed on as a host and producer for the streaming SommTV network; look for him on Sparklers, a competition show that pits five wine pros against one another as they cook and pair dishes with sparkling wines. The first season of his History of Wine! podcast is available. He’s consulting and ambassadoring. “I’ve also done a big pivot into the NFT space,” he says, “as an advisor on projects bridging the worlds of art and wine.” So far, he reports, “I’ve never been less stressed. I’m feeling very light-footed.”
His advice to those seeking to shed their own jobs, careers, empires? “You never know who’s sitting on LinkedIn, Instagram, or lurking wherever, waiting to give you an opportunity,” he says. “Always leave room for magic to happen.”
Lee Campbell, Ambassador for Early Mountain Vineyards, Brooklyn, New York
Consuming Less, Competing Less—and Enjoying More
A current ambassador for Virginia’s Early Mountain Vineyards and a onetime importer, retailer, sommelier, and, per the Wall Street Journal, “grand dame” of the Brooklyn wine scene, Lee Campbell has occupied a front-row seat from which to observe the myriad changes in the American wine world for years. And some of them wear her out.
She’s weary of the intensity. First, the “hardcore, party-centric” intensity in some wine circles. “I’m looking for a way to celebrate my love for wine,” she says, “but at the same time staying conscious about health and consumption.” In other words: slow your roll. Grand crus aren’t Jello shots.
Second, she could use less of the pedantic intensity. “Sitting around deconstructing a wine, listing its 27 attributes, undermines what I love about wine,” she says. That’s not drinking, to her; that’s dissecting. “I feel like a lot of it has become neurotically competitive. I don’t want it just to be about how many wines I taste in a week or how many countries I’ve visited. Can we dial that back?”
One of the side effects of the canonization of Masters of Wine, she thinks, is discouraging sommeliers from becoming specialists—from digging into the regions and varieties they’re truly passionate about. The MW idyll is, of course, to know everything and have tasted everything. “But it’s okay,” Campbell insists, “to be like, I’m a Loire Valley expert, that’s what I do.”
What Campbell is doing differently in 2022, she says, is renewing her old love affair with fine dining. “We’ve come through an amazing era of mid-level or more casual dining,” she explains. “And some people might think fine dining is defunct, or soon to be. But I’m ready for dining in a holistic way. I’m ready for that humanistic, service-based aspect to be brought back to the front.
“I don’t want to just drink-drink-drink and eat-eat-eat,” she adds. “I want to enjoy the full experience again.”
Rachel Van Til, Wine Club Manager and Lead Sommelier at the Clubs at Houston Oaks, Houston
Deepening the Bond Between Sommelier and Guest
“It’s amazing how much you don’t see them,” says Rachel Van Til. They don’t advertise. They almost never get press. They’re off-limits to the public. Van Til is discussing private clubs—from the golf-centric spreads that are sometimes (though decreasingly) called country clubs to their more urbane cousins in the Soho House mode. Until 2020, Van Til was only vaguely aware of them. She was a high-flying Houston sommelier who thought, not unhappily, that she’d “always be doing restaurants.”
Then came COVID. And furloughs. And closings. And then came, for Van Til, a career swerve. She took over the wine program at the Clubs at Houston Oaks, a posh (initiation fees can range into the six figures) members-only club northwest of the city with 10 lodges, 17 lakes, 900 acres and six dining options. “So the thing I’m doing differently in 2022,” she says, “is exploring another side of the industry.”
She’s not alone. Private club memberships and revenue have been on a steady rise since the pandemic struck, with more and more people seeking less bustling, more exclusive settings for dining and leisure. San Vicente Bungalows, a private club in Los Angeles, reportedly had 9,000 people on its waitlist this fall. L.A. will also see the Gwyneth Paltrow-backed Arts Club open this year.
“What I love most about it,” says Van Til, “is that instead of dealing with a stream of different people, as in restaurants, I’m dealing with the same people on a regular basis.” This allows a deepening of the bond between somm and guest—or in this case, member. “You get to have repeated interactions, learn their tastes, and build a relationship. It’s not just about what they want to drink that night or with that dish.”
Ektoras Binikos, Co-Founder of Sugar Monk, New York City
Expanding into New Realms
We all know the cliché: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, life dropped some big fat lemons on Ektoras Binikos in 2020. His Harlem cocktail lounge, Sugar Monk, had been open less than a year when the pandemic swept into New York City and put a lock on his doors.
So Binikos, along with as many employees as he could afford to keep on the payroll, converted an upstairs room into a makeshift laboratory where he passed long days and nights experimenting with herbs and barks and dried fruits and spices. The result: not lemonade, of course, but six distinctive house-made amari that have sold out so steadily that Binikos and partners are gearing up to put them into full production.
So this is what Binikos is doing differently in 2022: “Taking it to the next level,” in his words, and expanding in another direction. “It’s always an evolution,” he says.
“The pandemic has been very, very hard,” he notes, “but it was a time to reinvent. It was a time to be creative.” Distilling had long been an interest for Binikos, who managed the bar programs at Aureole, Oceana, and Gabriel Kreuther before cofounding Sugar Monk with the photographer Simon Jutras. He comes from a family of amateur distillers in Greece, he explains, so “it’s in my blood, my DNA.”
And now it’s in his daily schedule. He’s currently scouting production space in Brooklyn or upriver in Hudson, New York, and hopes to be bottling by the spring, with an initial annual run of 700 cases. One amaro (Sarbanda, named for one of the five movements of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor) hits deep somber notes with rhubarb, oregano, coriander, cardamom, and patchouli; another, Corrente, gets playful with dill, eucalyptus, hibiscus, black cardamom, allspice, mastiha, and saffron. But the primary note in all the amari is clearly resilience.
Jeff Harding, Beverage Director at The Waverly Inn, New York City
Highlighting Wines from Biodiverse Vineyards
When COVID-19 struck New York City in 2020, and Waverly Inn beverage maestro Jeff Harding suddenly found himself without a restaurant for five months, he launched an Instagram Live series he dubbed #vineyardchat.
Among the many winemakers Harding interviewed—most of them standing amidst their grapevines—was Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier of Château Anthonic in the Médoc. Cordonnier has become an eloquent proponent for a more biologically diverse viticulture. “Vines and trees evolved together,” Harding recalls Cordonnier saying, “and he believes there’s a connection that occurs when tree roots meet vine roots.” Trees (and hedgerows) also harbor bats, which create natural insect control. Soil that’s left unplowed traps its carbon underground. Worms work their wriggly magic. Nature deploys her synergies. “Biodiversity,” Cordonnier told him, “makes the vineyard more robust.”
Harding was convinced, and also inspired. So one thing that he’ll be doing differently in 2022: seeking out wines from biodiverse vineyards, from wineries—typically small, independent, family-owned wineries—that practice the kind of agroforestry that Château Anthonic has been spearheading. He wants his list to reflect—and support—the positive changes he sees happening in viticulture.
And about that list itself: “I’m going to continue to use QR codes,” he says. “It saves paper, because I don’t have to print a new list every week. And if you want to be picky, it saves ink and electricity too.”