A year after the pandemic, one sommelier confronts her complicated feelings about returning to the wine industry
It’s spring in New Orleans, the town I’ve been briefly flirting with in my post-DC search for a homebase I could better afford. I decide to treat myself by shooting over to Patron Saint, a super inspired wine shop founded by Leslie Pariseau.
It’s my first local wine buying experience in town and I’m unprepared for all the feels to follow. Immediately, I’m struck by the selection. I want to buy and drink every bottle on the shelf. The wines and producers that I recognize are intermixed with bottles that are unfamiliar and begging to make my acquaintance. “If you’re cool with all of these wines, how come we haven’t met yet?” I think as I reach for a bottle of Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla 82 Florpower.
But other feelings are beginning to surface, too; feelings that will leave me tossing and turning until I surrender to a hearty cry in the middle of the night. More than a year has passed since losing my job at the start of the pandemic—what is all of this I am still trying to unpack?
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I was told to expect plenty of supernatural talk, or even a haunting experience down in NOLA. But who knew the thing that would wake me in the middle of the night was the ghost of my old wine list? There they were—the bottles I had tasted, sold, and educated staff on. I had carefully selected each listing and spent countless hours compiling pages of specs, an exercise akin to any other daily ritual (cup of coffee, vitamin, specs—usually in that order), but for the last year, I had largely forgotten them. These wines were no longer in my daily rotation. I no longer restocked them at the beginning of a new day, and bumping into them again made me smile and remember our connection.
An Honest Reevaluation of Status Quo
It took me 15 years in the service industry to get a serious seat at the fine wine table working as a sommelier at Komi in Washington, DC. Going down a specialized path in wine for the next five years was full of highs (the romance of visiting producers, the frenetic buzz of trade tastings) and lows (constantly dealing with men who didn’t think I could talk my way around a list, even the ones I wrote). There were many times when I felt that the creative side of my job had to happen in the eleventh hour of a management shift.
In the early months of the pandemic—after I lost my job and my entire inventory was liquidated at a 40 percent discount—I had struggled to reconnect to the joy of wine. I attended many online tasting groups and tried to continue my pursuit of knowledge—the thing that had led me down this career path in the first place. But I couldn’t help noticing that as I tried to go through the rituals that used to fuel my joy, I encountered new feelings of pain, confusion, and anxiety. Why did engaging with wine feel so viscerally bittersweet? It was hard to look away from the recent past.
In a restaurant, we somms are entrusted with handling some of the highest ticket items on the menu, but one shouldn’t confuse access with affluence. “The Ferrari salesperson doesn’t always drive a Ferrari. It’s the same for somms,” a spokesperson from the United Sommeliers Foundation (USF) aptly articulated regarding the reality for most wine professionals.
In response to the pandemic, the USF administered thousands of need-based grants totaling more than $700,000 worth of assistance to somms in need. Despite the significant investment of time and money to advance our expertise as wine professionals, somms were the first to be shaved off the payroll last spring.
“How could we have been so blind to the precariousness of our highly specialized roles? Perhaps this is the thing that many of us former somms are still sorting through. We have cause for skepticism knowing that a return to the status quo means more instability and no security.”
When a company eliminates an employee’s position because of its bottom line, it’s a business calculation. But when an industry asks so much of its employees—crazy long work weeks, holidays away from family, punishing physical strain on our bodies, frontline exposure to COVID-19—it is demoralizing to receive so little in return.
Once I was jobless and able to reflect, I wondered: How could we have been so blind to the precariousness of our highly specialized roles? Perhaps this is the thing that many of us former somms are still sorting through. We have cause for skepticism knowing that a return to the status quo means more instability and no security.
And as anyone who has worked in restaurants knows, the pitfalls of hospitality work run far deeper than financial instability. As I ascended into the higher echelons of restaurant leadership, I became more acutely aware of the widespread toxic workplace culture that is systemic across the industry. Safe spaces are scarce—for me as a white, cis woman, but so much more so for my BIPOC and LGBTQ+ colleagues.
Crafting healthy and diverse workspaces was something we in hospitality leadership had been concerned with for years, though even in our attempts to improve restaurant culture, many of us were unknowingly repeating some of the same harmful behavior that had been visited upon us. But the racial reckoning of 2020 brought an important spotlight to our BIPOC colleagues, as they spoke out in an overwhelming chorus about racism embedded in the industry. The call to action was immutable: We couldn’t return to the way things were. Standing in solidarity with these colleagues in the aftermath of the mass shootings in Atlanta, the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo, and the trial of Derek Chauvin, my heart aches for anything but a return to a “normal” that is predicated upon more harm.
Imagining A Different Way Forward
So what does this mean for those of us contemplating a return to wine work? As someone who does feel the pull to return to restaurants, I’m constantly wondering: Are these new jobs going to provide for me and assure my safety? Will I be paid what I’m worth? Does the emerging data on people returning to work mask the reality of what kinds of jobs they’re returning to? How will the industry value BIPOC labor and voices?
I want to imagine a new and improved future for wine and hospitality. The truth is, I don’t know that we can emerge newer and better without examining the uglier parts of our industry and demanding change. Thankfully there is a new generation rising, and these younger professionals could be the changemakers our industry so desperately needs. I’m inspired by DC’s Erica Christian, founder of Empowering the Diner, whose burgeoning wine education platform aims to dismantle gatekeeping practices and eliminate colonizer-led perspectives. To pursue this work, Christian chose to leave the disappointment of working in restaurants behind.
How will you make your return to the world of wine? It really is the best, worst question. If you’re like me, you’re still figuring that out. You’re probably looking for a job that doesn’t expect you to surrender 12 hours a day to the company bottom line; a place where health insurance and paid time off are the rule, not the exception. Or maybe you want a workplace where you’re not constantly dodging racialized microaggression or gender-based harassment.
For many, a race to return to the “norm” that never really served you might not feel true. No matter where you land, I hope you will find new ways to sneak those moments with wine that bring you joy—even if it’s not at the helm of a program you built. And if, like me, the exposed fault lines of our industry have left you unsure of your place within it, don’t be afraid to stand behind the brave new voices emerging. These are the voices of our future, so be sure that you are listening. Currently based in New Orleans, Alaina Dyne is an out-of-work wine nerd and the former Wine Director of Kevin Tien’s now shuttered concept, Emilie’s, in Washington, DC.