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Wine on Wheels is back for its 7th annual edition, and the wine world can hardly wait for the event of spring. On Saturday, April 28, consumers, sommeliers, and wine industry professionals will gather at New York’s City Winery for a grand tasting and a live and silent auction—swirling, sipping, and tasting—all for a great cause. The event benefits Wheeling Forward, an organization cofounded by sommelier Yannick Benjamin that is dedicated to bettering the lives of people with disabilities.
More than 75 of New York’s top sommeliers will pour at the event, giving attendees a chance to taste acclaimed wines from around the globe. “Not only has Yannick created one of the best events for wine lovers in the city,” says Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, a sommelier at Racines NY, a natural-wine bar and restaurant, “[but] the event is also really helping to change life for people whose disabilities are often not properly taken care of. One should go just to see the passion, the energy, the drive of Yannick, to be refueled with a will to do better, be better every day.” She describes the wine selection as “incredible,” ranging from iconic producers to up-and-coming vignerons from throughout the world.
Creating a Network for a Community in Need
Born into a family of restaurateurs, Benjamin knew from a young age that hospitality was his calling. He held front-of-house positions at several renowned New York restaurants, including Bryant Park Grill, Jean-Georges, and Oceana, before taking a sommelier job at The Atelier at The Ritz-Carlton Central Park. “I was constantly stimulated by really great people and really great wines,” he recalls. “There was so much to learn.”
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Everything changed for Benjamin in October 2003. He sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident that left him paralyzed. A long road to recovery awaited, including several surgeries and months of rehabilitation as he learned to navigate New York City in a wheelchair. Benjamin eventually returned to work at The Ritz-Carlton, handling the administrative duties rather than working in a service capacity. “It was a way to get my work stamina and confidence back up,” he recalls. “They were very supportive.”
But Benjamin had bigger dreams—of going on to college and becoming a world-class sommelier. He prevailed and is now an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. He works the floor at The University Club in New York. He is also a para-athlete who has competed as a cyclist in several marathons, including the New York Marathon.
The path to achieving Benjamin’s dreams wasn’t easy. Health complications led to hospitalizations along the way, where he and a hospital roommate, Alex Elegudin, came up with the idea for Wheeling Forward. “We had this incredible network of support, while other people on our floor never had anyone visiting them,” Benjamin remembers. The two knew they’d be able to go home and adapt to their new condition, thanks to financial resources and family support. But others would be going to nursing homes. “It made us guilty—why were we so fortunate and not them?” Benjamin says. “That’s where the basis of Wheeling Forward came about.”
Founded in 2011, Wheeling Forward provides advocacy, mentorship, and support services for recently disabled people, helping them learn to live independently, pursue education, and attain a higher quality of life. Says Benjamin, “It’s a hospitality-driven nonprofit, offering a service where people root for others, love them, and want them to succeed.”
Since its founding, Wheeling Forward has opened two fully adaptive community fitness centers, in Harlem and Brooklyn, which offer adaptive spin classes, yoga, and other recreational activities. The organization also provides educational scholarships and wheelchairs for those in need, among other services.
The 7th Annual Wine on Wheels
Wheeling Forward’s flagship fundraiser is Wine on Wheels, and it’s one of the industry’s most visible charitable events. “It’s not just the sommeliers, bartenders, and mixologists,” says Benjamin, “but also the people in distribution and importing, donating a generous amount of wine to make this event possible.”
Longtime volunteer Thomas Pastuszak, the wine director of The NoMad, calls the event a highlight of his year. “I love how the New York City sommelier community comes together and donates their time to pour wine,” he says, “and meet some of the city’s most excited and passionate wine lovers, all for a terrific cause.”
Natalie Grindstaff, the director of beverage programs for Tom Colicchio’s Crafted Hospitality, considers the event—and the team behind it—a source of inspiration. “I always look forward to participating in Wine on Wheels events,” she says. “It can be very easy to think that life is full of challenges and sometimes feel overwhelmed; then I see Yannick and his team, who overcome so many of the same challenges, but must additionally navigate everyday things we take for granted.”
This year’s highly anticipated event kicks off with a Memorial Dinner for Jean-Luc Le Dû, one of Benjamin’s wine mentors, on April 26 at Racines. All proceeds from the dinner go to the Le Dû scholarship fund, helping people with disabilities go back to school and pursue their education.
The Grand Tasting will be held on Saturday, April 28, at City Winery. Professionals and consumers taste alongside renowned sommeliers, with reserve tastings available and “fast track” seminars scheduled throughout the day. Also available are cocktails crafted by some of New York’s premier mixologists, along with snacks, beer, and sake. A live and silent auction will take place, kicked off by a ballroom dance performance by a duo in wheelchairs.
For more information, visit Wine on Wheels. Also, stay tuned: Wheeling Forward is working to bring Wine on Wheels to Washington, D.C., and Chicago in 2018. All the events’ proceeds go to Wheeling Forward and such local charities as Backbones in Chicago and Diveheart in D.C. that empower and support people with disabilities who are working to lead active, meaningful lives.