COVID-19 has hit the wine and hospitality industries with unprecedented force, stripping jobs from so many people who, like me, define themselves by what they do for a living.
While the time off has been incredibly difficult and I yearn to return to work, forced time off is not without its perks; it has allowed me enhanced perspective and introspection when it comes to the industry to which I have devoted my life. Without the structure, requirements, and distraction of everyday life, I have had time to reflect on and analyze wine-focused hospitality as it stands and how we as a community can improve it to make it more accessible and inclusive, especially for those who are newer to the world of wine.
There are three major things I see as the most important when it comes to shifting the way in which we connect with guests via wine: one, we must see ourselves as hospitality professionals who choose to connect principally via wine rather than wine professionals who work in hospitality; two, we must examine, understand, and then embrace both the objectivity and subjectivity of wine; and three, we must embrace a more effective way of storytelling as a means to connect with our guests.
The world of wine is incredibly seductive. Temporarily putting aside the inherently intoxicating effects of wine itself, wine has the added appeal of being immersed in the world of gloriously indulgent (and frequently exclusive) world of fine food and wine. For so many years, sommeliers have been seen as gatekeepers of precious information and insight about wine and its long and illustrious history. Between the popularization of wine (from Sideways to Vivino to the Somm movies) and the increasingly insistent (and long overdue) call for inclusivity across the board, gatekeeping is finally being recognized as the unfair and antiquated approach that it is.
There are several issues with being a gatekeeper rather than a travel agent for guests, but they all come down to the same thing. While wine is a massive and inextricable part of the profession, the sommelier profession is deeply rooted in hospitality — restaurants, more specifically. That said, hospitality centers more broadly around welcoming and entertaining guests and, more broadly still, around human connection and interaction.
For wine lovers, a bar or restaurant with a solid list is an important factor in choosing where to spend dollars to imbibe, That said, not everyone chooses a restaurant based on their wine list, nor do they even necessarily have an interest in wine.
People end up in restaurants for a multitude of reasons: a first date, a work meeting, catching up with friends, an anniversary, an odd thirty-minute gap between errands, don’t feel like cooking dinner, a really stressful day and the need to escape reality for a few hours — reasons that range from food and wine options to ambiance to sheer logistical proximity to emotional needs based on the day they’re having. This essay principally focuses on the non-wine experts who come into restaurants.
The most important part of hospitality begins long before the wine conversation. In a matter of seconds and frequently with no verbal cues even yet uttered, a seasoned hospitalitarian assesses the mood / vibe / personality / needs of a guest as they are still settling into their chairs and stealthily and seamlessly shifts into the exact version of themselves that reflects what that guest needs — minute tweaks to body language, facial expression, linguistic register, and approach covertly happen within milliseconds. These micro-adjustments happen almost innately, whether in Michelin-star fine dining or the most casual of establishments...and thank goodness. A wine list plopped down on the table can quickly shatter the sense of comfort established only moments earlier, and the proactivity, approachability, and timing of staff when engaging with a potentially curious or overwhelmed guest are paramount.
Why is wine so difficult?