As recently as January, the outlook for restaurants seemed bleak. While this impacted all restaurant jobs, it was particularly dismal for the sommelier—a position that is not universal across restaurants and is often considered expendable when operators are forced to reduce labor costs.
Yet as summer approaches, the situation is far more optimistic. Restaurants have reopened in every state, and in many major markets, new sommelier job openings are posted daily.
“I think the reliance on a great somm is coming back quicker than expected,” says Matthew Kaner, who until recently was the owner of several Los Angeles wine bars and is currently a consultant, host, and producer for SOMM TV, who notes that L.A. restaurants in areas like Beverly Hills, Venice, and Santa Monica have been very busy.
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“If you’re a somm and you want a job, this is your market,” adds Jeff Porter, a New York City-based wine and hospitality consultant, and the owner of Volcanic Selections, who notes that large restaurant groups and independent establishments alike are hiring sommeliers in New York.
But with restaurants strapped for cash and facing a different hospitality landscape, how has the sommelier’s role on the floor changed in a post-pandemic world? Most employers are looking for flexibility and salesmanship over rote knowledge and certifications—and above all, a commitment to hospitality.
Why the Hunt Is On for Top Wine Talent
For upscale restaurants that have long hung their reputations on robust wine programs, sommeliers are simply an essential part of the dining experience.
“If you take wine seriously, you need to have these positions,” says Bobby Stuckey, MS, a Boulder, Colorado-based partner behind Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale, Tavernetta, and Sunday Vinyl, who continued to have sommeliers on staff throughout the pandemic. Guests are returning en masse, he reports, and they “expect great wine service.”
This is particularly critical in “sommelier hubs” like New York, reports Porter, who is helping a restaurant group hire sommeliers for new establishments opening later this year. “This is a wine town,” he says. “In other cities it may be different, but New York is a city where guests expect that level of service, and operators are being bullish on the industry.”
“The hiring landscape is about as nuts as it’s ever gonna get. If anyone wants to leap into fine dining, this is the time to do it.” – Bobby Stuckey
Yet even more casual restaurants feel the pressure to deliver, especially as consumers return after over a year of largely avoiding sit-down dining.
“Diners returning to upscale casual aren’t just coming because they are hungry and thirsty,” says Gretchen Thomas, the VP of creative for Barcelona Wine Bar, who predicted last fall that somm jobs would return quickly even though Barcelona Wine Bar does not have traditional sommelier positions. “They are coming because they are desperate to feel normal. They don’t want a modified experience at their favorite restaurants—they want the real deal, sommelier and all.”
Many operators also recognize that as they dig out of a financial hole, sommeliers can help drive sales and maximize revenue more than any other employee. “A restaurant’s wine program is the single biggest area of opportunity for raising profitability, full stop,” says Mia Van de Water, MS, the assistant general manager at Cote in New York City and Miami. “The ceiling on wine is nearly limitless, and unlike cocktails and food, it is not something that can be effectively sold by the average server.”
New Opportunities in a Job Seeker’s Market
The job market for sommeliers has certainly done an about-face since last year: While out-of-work sommeliers were fighting it out for the few open beverage director or sommelier positions throughout 2020, now it’s the owners who are fighting for top talent.
“The hiring landscape is about as nuts as it’s ever gonna get,” says Stuckey, who is currently hiring readily across positions to bring his restaurants up to full staff. “If anyone wants to leap into fine dining, this is the time to do it.”
The result is a reported shortage of staff to fill open restaurant positions—sommelier jobs included. And because so many positions are now open, wine professionals looking for floor sommelier positions can take the opportunity to make an upward career move.
“It seems like most of the big jobs with titles that people clamor for are free now,” says Caleb Ganzer, the managing partner for Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York, who is currently looking to hire a sommelier. “But hiring for the middle tier or lower tier is nearly impossible. There’s not a lot of lateral movement right now.”
While there are reports of restaurant workers choosing not to go back to work unless the risk of working on the floor is fairly compensated, the problem is that restaurants are still strapped for cash. “It’s not that restaurants don’t want to give more,” says Stuckey, who noted that in 2019 the average restaurant profit was just 5.9 percent. “But you can only squeeze so much from a stone.”
There’s also a high rate of burnout from those who worked in restaurants throughout the pandemic. Many people have relocated from major cities (and top wine markets) like San Francisco and New York. Some wine professionals have changed industry channels, shifting to work in retail or wholesale, and others have left the industry completely.
“I think a lot of us have left the industry, mostly out of necessity. There were months that we didn’t have jobs or steady income,” says Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, formerly the sommelier of Elaia and Olio in St. Louis, who is primarily working at Louis Vuitton right now, though she continues to take on wine consulting jobs. “And the quality of life outside of the restaurant industry is actually livable.”
The plus-side: All of these sommelier openings make room for candidates that traditionally have been shut out of coveted restaurant positions. “I think you will see a lot more diversity in our industry—diversity meaning BIPOC, LGBTQ, and women,” says Tonya Pitts, the sommelier and wine director for One Market Restaurant and owner of Tonya Pitts Consultancy. “That is the upside of 2020—everyone became more conscious of the disparity in our world.”
Rise of the Hybrid “Sommager” Role
Though the Biden administration allocated $28.6 billion to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, operators worry this will fall far short of what the industry needs to get back on its feet; during the first two days of applications, 186,200 food businesses applied for relief.
“People are going to have to make tough decisions with their money,” says Kaner, who thinks that many restaurants will likely contract their wine programs and not necessarily need floor sommeliers. “But ultimately, it depends on the ethos of the restaurant. It’s not exactly a necessity, but it’s the epitome of luxury hospitality.”
In St. Louis, Blackwell-Calvert only knows of one restaurant hiring a floor sommelier; most establishments are hiring sommeliers in hybrid roles, where they take on management or server responsibilities in addition to selling wine or managing a program.
“Sommeliers are generally highly trained or experienced and are needed as assistant and general managers, where they will perform a hybrid version as a sommelier and manager,” says Barcelona’s Thomas.
It was a trend already in place, accelerated by cash-strapped restaurants needing to keep labor costs low. “In the last five years, I think we’ve seen more of that hybrid job anyways—the ‘sommager,’” notes Kaner. “Restaurants with just a floor sommelier are exceptions to the rule. There’s an expectation that they are also a captain or run food, for instance. There was an attitude somms would have of, ‘that’s not my job.’ Everything is your job now.”
Blackwell-Calvert advises sommelier job candidates to focus on emphasizing flexibility, teamwork, and leadership, rather than relying largely on their knowledge of wine. “Now more than ever, sommeliers need to learn how to be flexible.We know you’re good at wine, but you need to be a good server, manager, host,” she says. “Employers will be looking for other skill sets,” adds Pitts. “Can you run a bar program, or help manage or support the private dining program, for instance?”
“Sommeliers need to have solid restaurant experience, period. I think experience will outweigh the need for certifications.” – Gretchen Thomas
Sommeliers who can think like entrepreneurs will find more doors open, believes Porter. “Sommeliers are inherently nerdy, so they’re always thinking outside the box,” he says. “If you’re coming into a restaurant where things are reopening and come up with ideas that help drive revenue, a somm can really be a jack of all trades for a restaurant outside of wine.”
And of course, job candidates with experience running a profitable beverage program will be extremely valuable to operators. “A lot of restaurants just needed sommeliers and people didn’t have the business acumen of running a program,” says Stuckey. “No way can a restaurant afford that now.”
Wine Education? Experience? Salesmanship? What Matters Most
As certification programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers have become more popular over the past decade, many aspiring sommeliers have placed studying and testing above on-the-job experience. That begs the question: Is formal education now more important, or less?
“Sommeliers need to have solid restaurant experience, period,” says Thomas. “I think experience will outweigh the need for certifications, but certainly having those certifications and wine education makes you that much more hirable.”
“Previously, it was all about who had the biggest pin,” says Blackwell-Calvert. “But now I think a skill that will be crucial is salesmanship. Restaurants need someone who can make an impact and sell what you have in inventory.” Van de Water adds that selling skills are much more difficult to teach than academic knowledge.
Yet certifications provide proof that a candidate has the necessary wine knowledge for the job, she adds (Van de Water is on the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas). “As an employer, certifications provide an easy shorthand for how much I can expect you to know, and for exams with a service component, how skillful I can expect you to be tableside,” she says. “That being said, your work in a restaurant will speak for itself, and a glowing recommendation from a former employer will speak louder than any pin.”
The Return of Hospitality
Some see this moment as an opportunity to get back to the hospitality component of the sommelier’s role. “There are so many people who can be an encyclopedia but don’t have warmth,” says Porter. “Harken back to the idea of what being a somm is, which is truly about being in hospitality. Wine isn’t the primary focus—it’s the service of the guest.”
Above all, it’s likely that the sommeliers who return to the floor in a post-pandemic role will have a real passion for working the floor of a restaurant and building relationships with guests through wine. “I chose wine a long time ago because I love wine, and I still love doing it today,” Porter notes. “I think everybody has to truly want to do this—because you give up a lot to work in restaurants.”
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Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the executive editor for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.