Wine Service in a Time of Pandemic

In the United States restaurant patrons and staff say goodbye to ‘before Covid,’ adapt to ‘during Covid,’ and wonder if there will ever be an ‘after Covid.’ Roger Morris reports. 

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Wine service (Photo: G. Lombardo/Adobe Stock)
Wine service (Photo: G. Lombardo/Adobe Stock)

 

  • Adjustments restaurants made during the pandemic are the new normal.
  • Customers are becoming more hands-on with their wines.
  • After searching new jobs during lock-downs, many sommeliers have now started to rethink, if the tradeoffs between low pay, long hours and doing something they felt passionate about is still paying off.
  • From QR codes to electronic ordering: digitization helps to cope with staff shortage and the rules of the pandemic.
  • Many customers handle the changes with patients but some are stressed and rude and show that via reduced gratuity and mean interactions.
  • Wine lists were pared down, but are coming back right now. Problems remain because of broken supply chains.
  • To prevent that wine is losing its exclusive status in restaurants, a redesign of the restaurant wine experience is necessary.

 

Like droves of birds settling back into the trees and onto the lawns after a major storm has passed through, customers are flocking back to eat and drink in restaurants that have survived the tempest of Covid-19. And professionals who serve them food and wine are also alighting, even though storm clouds continue to rumble through and even as many members of both flocks have flown off elsewhere.
 

Getting Used to a New Reality

Both customers and restaurant staffs in the United States, it seems, have quit pondering when things will “get back to normal” and are instead finding ways to get back to dining out on a regular basis. After two years, both find themselves fully in the DC era – during Covid while reminiscing about the BC era – before Covid – and wondering if ever they will get to AC – after Covid.

“It’s a brave new world out there,” says industry veteran Evan Goldstein, master sommelier and head of Full Circle Wine Solutions, “and for sommeliers adjusting to protocol has been the biggie – wearing masks full time while tasting, evaluating, pulling that cork past your nose as you remove it from the bottle.”

Diners are also having to make adjustments. “Many guests now refill their own glasses after the initial pour,” Goldstein notes.

After having to adjust, yet again, to a new Covid variant – Omicron – American restaurants and their patrons are getting used to the new reality if not yet a new normal.

Closed restaurant (Photo: Maurizio/Adobe Stock)
Closed restaurant (Photo: Maurizio/Adobe Stock)

Sommelier Shakeout Appears to Be Over

According to U.S. Department of Labor, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs last November, the most recent data and a reflection of a continuing trend. Most sommeliers lost their jobs, at least temporarily, when restaurants were forced to close, so many found jobs elsewhere – often within the hospitality industry as online educators and entertainers, winery staff or in wholesale and retail sales and marketing. Others quit after returning.

“The pandemic gave people a chance to rethink what they were doing,” says Emily Wines, board head of the Court of Master Sommeliers. “Sommeliers are often low-paying jobs, and Covid gave sommeliers an opportunity to consider the tradeoffs between low pay and doing something they felt passionate about.”

“The pandemic gave people a chance to rethink what they were doing.”

Some were asked to assume additional managerial or food service duties, says California sommelier Haley Moore, then “decided they didn’t want to work 70-80 hours weeks anymore.”

As a result, sommeliers – who may in major cities make $90,000 - $120,000 in salaries (no tips allowed) – are actually in demand. “We have Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco looking for sommeliers,” Moore says. And Wines says the Court’s training classes are full, and somms still seek Court certification.

“Less of the ‘dance and dialogue’ with customers than before."

Adapted Table Service

Somms are making changes in the wine ceremony for safety and because of time constraints. Mark Guillaudeu, beverage director at Commis in Oakland, now opens and pours at a side station – “pulling down my mask for just a second” – before taking wine to the table. Tonya Pitts, sommelier at One Market, says she keeps her usual routine, “but I do less of the ‘dance and dialogue’ with customers that I used to do.”

While spending less time with unmasked diners, somms are performing additional tasks. “There are nights where I will take over [serving in] a section, and right now I’m working as opening bartender,” Guillaudeu says, then adds, “But sommeliers should be able to fill in for anyone up to the manager.”

 “Until recently, we were still checking customers’ vaccination cards,” says Stefanie Schwartz, sommelier at Crown Shy in New York City, but diners now have quieter conversations as fewer tables means they are no longer elbow to elbow with other customers. In some places, Moore says, “they may be given a menu “with QR codes so they can order wine from their phones,” part of a continuing trend of automation within restaurants to deal with staff shortages.

“Many restaurants now have guests refill their own glasses after the initial pour,” Goldstein says. They may also have to wait longer for service. That may be why Guillaudeu says more customers are ordering more wine by the bottle, but, “I really haven’t figured out why.”

Some customers handle these changes with grace and patience. Others do not. “I heard from so many restaurant people that customers are stressed, rude, anxious and lacking compassion,” Goldstein says, “taking it out on already strained and stressed service staff via reduced gratuity and mean interactions.”
 

Headaches with Broken Supply Chains Continue

Wine lists are being pared down partly to reduce inventory costs and partly because of a broken supply chain. “All of a sudden a wine I’ve just put on the list is gone,” Pitts says, “and I find it’s stuck somewhere on the boat or at the pier. It’s happened to me multiple times.”

Rob McMillan, who heads Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, says it’s not just an import problem. “American producers are having problems getting corks or bottles and everything else that’s in the supply chain. Some are now ordering supplies for 2023.”

“Restaurants have gone back to buying wines that ‘move.’”

But John Jordan, owner of steak-house-popular Jordan Winery, sees things getting better. “When beverage directors reduced the number of SKUs on their wine lists during the pandemic, they put emphasis on cutting higher-end wines because of the uncertainty of foot traffic,” he says. But now, “We’ve seen a nice comeback because restaurants have gone back to buying wines that ‘move.’”
 

Are Wines Losing their Exclusive Perch as the Preferred Beverage?

“Wine is losing its exclusive status in restaurants,” McMillan warns. “They used to have wine and food pairings and wine dinners. Now many have replaced their wine lists with an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper – and it’s now the ‘beverage list.’ You find $15 cocktails competing with $20 wines by the glass.”

Noting that both wine drinkers and wine producers flocked to virtual wine events during the early days of the pandemic, Pitts thinks that expertise of educating, entertaining and selling the customer all at the same time can be transferred back to restaurants.

“We can again bring in wineries to redesign hospitality programs,” she says. “Overall, we need to redesign the restaurant wine experience.”

 

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