Sommelier Roundtable: ‘Everybody Deals with This in Their Own Way’

6 restaurant wine pros share their shutdown stories, from serving meals to the needy instead of DRC to patrons, to discovering odd jobs and surprising hobbies during furlough

Sommelier Roundtable: ‘Everybody Deals with This in Their Own Way’
At Jaleo, Andy Myers has traded a bow tie for a Slayer mask and wine decanter for stainless-steel coffee carafe, as the José Andrés restaurant has become a community kitchen for those in need. (Courtesy of Andy Myers)
May 4, 2020

“Holy crap, I spent 11 years working to become a Master Sommelier, and I can’t think of anything more useless right now than a Master Sommelier,” is what Andy Myers thought in the early weeks after ThinkFoodGroup, the restaurant group owned by José Andrés where Myers is the beverage director, shut down all its locations during the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. “Everybody’s like, ‘No everyone still needs to drink!’ But yeah ain’t nobody talking about DRC with me anymore,” he added with a laugh.

From wine directors of national chains to somms working the floor, the past two months have twisted into a strange and often scary new reality. Many lost their jobs, with little idea when they’ll return to work and even less certainty about what fine dining will look like in the future. But the time has provided opportunity as well—to discover new wines and interests, to mobilize support for their peers and others in need, and to reevaluate what’s important, both in restaurant work and in life. We asked six wine pros, currently or formerly of Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners:

Wine Spectator: What has your shutdown experience been?

Andy Myers, wine director for José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, including nationwide locations of Jaleo and other José Andrés restaurants

At the moment, I’m like a 6-foot-4, tattooed Mary Poppins in the rain on the way to Jaleo. José being José, his first thought is always, “How can I be of service to others?” So the first thing we did was turn all of our restaurants into community kitchens. That’s where my team, the beverage team, has been jumping in to help out. We are providing meals to those who need them. Yesterday at Jaleo, I think we gave out 120, 130 meals. We start serving food at noon, and by 11:45 we have 25, 30 people lining up down the block. The people that come by are the people that need it the most—you can just see it. The thought of even asking people for money was just ridiculous.

The work in the community kitchens has been ridiculously rewarding. They don’t actually let me cook; we have people who know how to do that way better [laughs]. What I’m doing is basically, we’ve got a side door to the restaurant and we’ve got a table blocking it off, and we take turns: People come up, and we say, "This is what we’ve got today, what do you want?" Yesterday was fried chicken with mac ‘n’ cheese or roasted veggies with mac ‘n’ cheese. So we tell people what we have, I package it up, make a note of what we got rid of, what went out, and then we go from there. Then at 4:30, we pull it down, sanitize the stuff.

Then it’s back to doing all the admin stuff. Cocktails [to-go] we’re still trying to do at a high level, so we have to batch them, we have to taste them, we have to look over recipes, but using only what’s in-house. It’s been a very dynamic several weeks!

My wife and I, we got married, like, two weeks ago. Our wedding was supposed to be April 19—that didn’t work out! We had a drive-by wedding at the end of March; our officiant parked at the end of the driveway and married us; it was great. She’s a bartender at a large concert venue, 6,000 seats. On March 6 of 7, they just said, we’re not doing concerts anymore, and that was it. It wasn’t even that they were fired, it was just, there is no work. Thankfully she’s on my insurance, and I’m still getting paid, so we’re OK. It’s still scary. She’s doing a lot of soul-searching about, maybe it’s time to reinvent. In our industry, restaurants won’t be the same, but restaurant work won’t be the same either.

My wife and I have a standing Sunday supper, so that’s when we open a nice bottle. So she bought two Cornish game hens, and we fell into a little bit of foie gras—it happens! She and I both, we love Chateau Musar; I have a bottle of ‘01 at home. I was thinking I might pop that for Sunday supper. We’re drinking Sherry like it’s our job right now. I bought a couple cases of half-bottles of Manzanilla. And we’re literally now just chilling them and then just drinking them from the bottle like Budweisers. I feel so Spanish, it’s awesome.

Brian Phillips, national wine director for Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, which holds Restaurant Awards for 57 locations of the Capital Grille, 20 of Eddie V's and 44 of Seasons 52

I’m still in Orlando, I’m still somewhat supporting the Capital Grille and Darden, but it’s just kind of a weird structure and format [having been furloughed]. So I’m just kind of, like a lot of people in my position, waiting to see what happens next and hoping things get back to normal and we can ramp back up to what we normally do.

It’s been really [just] trying to figure out work-life balance with being at home and still trying to take care of your people in the field. I’m trying to understand what they’re all going through as well. Schools are closed, so people that have children, and they’re going to restaurants and so forth, they don’t have anything during the day that they can rely upon, they have to cover it all.

What I’m seeing out there for all of us that are in the same boat, the first people to go are people that run beverage programs, sommeliers. Often [they are] the last people to come back are them as well.

Right now I feel like I’m running a diner. It’s like, cook breakfast, taking turns with the wife, and you’ve gotta keep the kid happy, and then you’re cleaning, and it’s just this constant cycle that just seems to never end. I think people are just so ready to get out and do something. As much as people think they’re a great cook, it’s just not quite the same as when you get it in a restaurant.

For me, I just have to stay busy, and I think that’s the main thing. I don’t want to get complacent, too comfortable with it, because I know sooner or later we’re going to get back to it. So I’m taking this free time to do some things I normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do: to really focus on studying a lot about wine, and maybe get hands-on with some winemakers out in their world, is kind of a cool opportunity. So I’m just taking advantage of it while I can.

Gretchen Thomas, vice president of food and beverage innovations at Barcelona Wine Bar, with 15 Restaurant Award winners

I’m lucky to still be working right now, and everything I was working on eight weeks ago came to a screeching halt, and I began working on an entirely new side of the business. We never really put much focus on takeout and truthfully, we never intended to, because we don’t think that our dining room experience translates to boxed food at home. We’re restaurants; we put on that show. So we learned a whole new segment of the business. It’s been challenging and humbling. We ask ourselves so many questions, and we think that we’ve answered those questions, and the next day it changes.

We’ve got about four to six people in each restaurant right now operating our takeout programs. We had to furlough 1,200 people, so that was my hardest week ever. But I think our spirits are good, and we have a lot of hope that we’re gonna get around this at some point.

Barcelona Wine Bar team on Zoom
The Barcelona Wine Bar creative and beverage team at work, at home. Clockwise from top left: Gretchen Thomas, senior brand manager Drew McConnell, marketing coordinator Emily Barr and beverage director Emily Nevin-Giannini (Courtesy of Barcelona Wine Bar)

We’re offering wine to-go at every restaurant. It keeps the staff happy too, honestly, if they’re able to still talk to people about interesting things and not just “pandemic.” Even if it’s just someone calling on the phone and saying, “Hey, I’m interested in trying some new things. Tell me about Rioja, and what do you have that would be cool?”

I’ve been definitely living my best quarantine life I think. I’ve had the opportunity to jump in on a few different Zoom calls with winemakers, and then of course opening my own bottles and enjoying, and cooking some good food as well. I’m very drawn to not only comfort food, but comfort wine. I’m drinking more Burgundy than I’ve ever drunk in my life. I don’t mean like, expensive Burgundy—Bougogone level, but good ones. That seems to be what my brain wants! I think it’s just because it’s so easy to love and I don’t have to think about it. It’s not really asking too much of me on an intellectual level, but I know it’s super delicious, and I can have that bottle open for three or four days and it just continues to sing.

Robby Younes, beverage director and chief operating officer at Crystal Springs Resort, including Grand Award winner Restaurant Latour, in Hamburg, N.J.

I’m drinking a lot, eating a lot! At the resort, obviously we have laid off a very big amount of staff due to this, and it’s been devastating. And some I was able to keep, including the key player to upkeep the wine cellar, to start cleaning up and opening up cases that we were not able to get to, being a busy resort.

I come from [Lebanon,] a country of war, 25 years. In between the war we have diseases. In between that we have cholera. Anything, you name it, from being bombed or being diseased. I believe that in war and the coronavirus, people are united. It’s a wake-up call to teach us to appreciate others. Money is only a small thing in life. To enjoy life in a different way. I have lost three of my friends; it is life. But I’m very optimistic that [hospitality] will come back.

The PPP loan given by the government, I’m thankful for that. But that doesn’t work for us long-term. How many restaurants will not be able to reopen? I opened the Heart to Harvest charity to be a major help to restaurateurs to be able to reopen and to give a forgivable fund to get these restaurants opened. Because without restaurants we have no social life. If life is about going to the supermarket or ordering a bottle of wine on Amazon and eating at home—if this is life, I don’t want that. Life is about socializing, creating memories, going to restaurants, the ability to share a glass of wine with others.

Whatever the reason is, I am reconnecting myself with the wines of Lebanon. I had stopped drinking that wine for a while; it was too harsh for my palate, too aggressive and oaky. Lately I’ve been exploring more. I’ve been exploring a lot more of the wines of Georgia, Greece, Serbia and Croatia.

Of course, being home, you sometimes pick up bad habits. I’ve been reading a lot on hash, which also connects me to my country. And I am so shocked and fascinated that I believe hash is going to follow the wine industry one day, specifically aged hash. And how aged hash, 20 years or 10 years, is funkier and different. I’ve been cooking a lot, I’ve been baking a lot, introducing myself to new cuisines, to new styles of cooking.

Jake Lewis, beverage director of the New York–based Momofuku Group, with seven Restaurant Award winners

I’m one of the fortunate ones for sure. Half of this household is still working at full pay and we’ve been together for a long time, so we have good savings and we’ll be able to skate by without hurting ourselves too bad. We shut down early at Momofuku, March 14, and since then, it’s been mostly waiting and seeing as far as work is concerned. My last day's actually today [May 1], so I spent a lot of this month putting together massive documents of everything that I do, so that’s a weird thing to do. Hopefully it’s temporary and there’s a place for me when things start to reopen, but nothing will be the same.

I’ve spent a lot of my time joining various wine webinars and things, which has been great. Lots of the trade organizations have been putting on little discussions and some of them are even sending out wines, so that’s been good. Trying to keep up to date with my team. They don’t work for me anymore, but they’re still my people, so I’ve been trying to catch up with them every few weeks or go for walks with those that are in my neighborhood still.

I think one of the things that this [shutdown] highlighted is some of the issues in the hospitality business, like how close everybody is to not being able to pay rent, the differences in pay between front-of-house and back-of-house, all these things. I’m hoping that it kind of makes people realize, both in the industry and out of the industry, that we need to put some more work into making sure that our people are as whole as possible, and that will make the way we operate much different.

I feel like beverage people specifically need to make sure that when we get to the other side, that they’re not being super-specialist. Like, if somebody needs a front-of-house person, I think you’ve gotta look at taking it. I’ve always been preaching to my team, “Your job is the best front-of-house person,” and this is where we show that we are the best front-of-house people, by bucking up and doing it.

Cristie Norman, sommelier at Grand Award winner Spago, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Spago started getting really slow probably at the end of February, honestly. I’ve been at Spago for four years, but I’m the fourth somm. So I’m kind of the lowest on the totem pole. So all my shifts started getting cut. There’s nothing wrong with that, it was just what needed to happen. Spago has a lot of tourists—a lot of Chinese tourists will come—and also the wealthier Beverly Hills population, which tends to be above the age of 40. People became really, really afraid to go out.

I became furloughed just a couple days after the shutdown; they had a meeting with us. Wolfgang [Puck] is actually still paying us a wage which is very nice. They’re providing a couple hundred dollars a week to everybody I think. I kind of went through it earlier than everyone else. I’m in a tasting group with like 250 somms and it was horrible because all of my friends were losing their jobs. It was just really a scary time. [Others] didn’t get laid off until a couple of weeks ago, so people are kind of at different stages of grief, almost.

Cristie Norman Online Wine Course
Cristie Norman created the beginner-level Online Wine Course; she has made it free to hospitality professionals during the COVID crisis, but also saw her highest level of sales yet in April. (Courtesy of Criste Norman)

I’ve gotten the most interesting jobs. I was interviewed by a fridge company looking to make wine fridges, for market research. I’ve had, like, nut companies reach out to me for wine pairing collaborations. A lot of producers are making an effort to do some virtual happy hours, things that feature somms and use our skills in a way that helps us in some way.

I think everybody deals with this in their own way. I definitely have been depressed, I’ve been upset, or drank too much. I’ve gone through all of these phases, but ultimately, it’s really cool to see who is deciding to use this time to grow or start a new business or adapt in some other way. I love seeing people innovating.

Honestly I think that this is going to be going on for a really long time. And there’s going to be a lot of somms out of work. I don’t know that I’ll be hired back. We just have to emotionally prepare for that and financially prepare and just hang in there.

[Founding the United Sommeliers Foundation hospitality relief charity] is just to do what we can and create something impactful during this time. People are trying to buy diapers and food. A lot of our applicants are not even paying their rent and they just need money for food, medical supplies. The support has gotten larger and larger every week. It’s only been about five weeks, and we’ve raised 200 grand cash, and $100,000 [in value of pledged lots] for the auction [scheduled to go live May 25]. I think this organization is about taking care of our people as humans and not just as somms.

Ultimately, I want people to be able to have [broader] resources for sexual violence, for mental health, alcohol abuse, obviously; we don’t talk about that enough. That’s my vision.

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