Highly trained restaurant sommeliers have long viewed their natural performance stage as being “on the floor,” shuttling between wine cellars that often cradle thousands of rare and expensive bottles of wine and the dining room customers ready to drink them, often on the somm’s personal recommendation. But in March 2020, that stage came crashing down, and their careers were either put on hold or ended altogether.
Jienna Basaldu had just been promoted to beverage manager at a major San Francisco restaurant, and today she is back to being a sommelier, this time at another major restaurant across town. Jason Wagner was wine director at New York’s famous Union Square Cafe, yet he recently turned down lucrative offers to return to the floor. Instead, he is now operating his own business, providing tastings online, often for corporate groups, while enjoying the pleasure of picking up his son each afternoon from school. Chappy Cottrell stayed in the wine business, but, as many somms did, switched arenas, forsaking the floor for a steady day job heading marketing for a winery.
Today, as American restaurants are fully reopening, those venues that survived are still struggling to find enough employees to serve their returning customers, and sommeliers are revaluating whether to return to service or seek employment elsewhere. Sommeliers Basaldu, Wagner and Cottrell are representative of all those facing these difficult decisions. Here are their stories, edited and condensed for space.
Jason Wagner – NYC Sommelier, Virtual with Us
“I was offered a general manager’s job at a restaurant in the West Village on March 17, 2020, the Friday before the city started shutting down. At Union Square Café, we had a wine cellar worth $4 million with 17,000 different selections and a 400,000-bottle inventory. We were especially deep in classic American wineries such as Heitz and Ridge. During the pandemic, I started working with online tasting with Supper Share as well as having private clients such as Google, Sony, The New York Times and eBay.
“I interviewed with some people, but I really relish being with my son. Although I’m doing some consulting events, I can usually pick him up after school. So far, business has been good. I had my second best month in May, I’m developing my website and I’m not working as much as I was when I was doing 60 hours on the floor. It was a grind. Unless something extraordinary appears on the radar, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. What I’m doing is worth the risk.”
Jienna Basaldu – Sommelier, The Angler, San Francisco
“I was wine director at The Morris [in San Francisco] where I had been the assistant since May 2018. It was a huge wine destination. I had just been given the program the month before. I had flown to Portland, OR, in early March for an advanced sommelier exam, and, on the way back, the plane and the airport were empty. The next day Governor Newsom announced the state was shutting down, and we were all laid off. The Morris [partially] reopened in June, but I left in October. It was very stressful. I was afraid during the pandemic that I would lose my sense of smell, which for 12 years had been my most important tool. I know it happened to other sommeliers. So I free-lanced and taught at the San Francisco Wine School.
“In May, I started as a sommelier at The Angler, a Michelin-star restaurant on the Embarcadero, and we’re all going at 120%. I’m working with a larger wine cellar at The Angler – it’s huge. And yesterday, we all got to take our masks off! Fortunately, I was one of the somms who stayed busy during the shutdown. For most of them, returning to normal is going to be a huge hurdle.”
Chappy Cottrell – Director of Sales & Marketing, Joseph Jewell Wines, Forestville, CA
“I had been at Barndiva [in Healdsburg, CA] for about two years and was director of the wine program and helping out some with the bar. We were on a trajectory for $1 million in wine sales for 2020, and we had a great inventory of Pinot Noirs, not just from California, but around the world, plus a great collection of Champagnes. When the pandemic hit, we pivoted to “to go” sales but never completely shut down. I decided in July to quit.
“Now I run sales and marketing for Joseph Jewell, everything from DTC to the tasting room to wholesale sales. It’s something I wanted to do, and I enjoy not having those 16-hour days. Restaurants are now having a hard time attracting talent. I would estimate that 40-50% of my sommelier colleagues have left the restaurant business. Personally, I eventually hope to own a winery of my own.”
A different view
Not all restaurant owners are concerned with rehiring sommeliers. Gianfranco Sorrentino, managing partner of Il Gattopardo and The Leopard at des Artistes in New York, says, “Are we going to hire back sommeliers? I don’t think so, at least not for now. We are spending lots of time and energy to educate all our staff about wines. We think that once you initiate their passion for wines, they will go on their own to learn more about wines.”