Restaurant wine directors worry about the future

A YEAR ago, all was well in Amanda Smeltz's professional world. She was the wine director at the Manhattan restaurants Estela and Altro Paradiso, where her selection of hard-to-find, often naturally produced wines was a major attraction. She put together the list, educated and oversaw a staff, and was part of the management team.

Everything changed with the pandemic, and her story is similar to those of many other sommeliers around the country. She has been furloughed and rehired - twice - as New York restaurants cycled through closings, reopenings and transitions to outdoor dining.

Perhaps most worrisome, she contracted Covid-19 in May, before many of the symptoms were understood. She lost her sense of smell and taste, alarming to anybody who depends on these for a living. (Luckily, her case was mild, and she recovered quickly.)

Covid-19 has posed daunting challenges for restaurants, which were ordered to close or operate at diminished capacity while still paying their rent, often with little governmental support. When the pandemic struck, wine was one of the few resources that could quickly be turned into cash.

Some restaurants converted themselves into retail operations, offering wine to go. Others, such as Del Posto in Chelsea, auctioned off significant portions of their rare and valuable wine collections to raise money.

During the last 35 years, I have watched wine evolve from largely an afterthought in American restaurants to a central component of both their ethos and their bottom line. In the early 80s, only a handful of the fanciest French restaurants had what were once called "wine stewards". Sommeliers have since became restaurant fixtures. So, as restaurants reckon with their future, it is worth exploring the role wine will take.

Ms Smeltz managed to persuade her bosses to hang on to most of their wine, arguing that a full selection, with the benefit of an added year of ageing, would be a tremendous post-pandemic asset. She is concerned that as restaurants try to cut costs, good wine lists may be the first thing to go.

"More complex programmes mean more education of staff, more training, more attention - it all translates into more cost," she said. "It also translates into more revenue. I'm just not sure how clear that is to people who own businesses. It's a very panicky situation right now. Everybody's afraid."

Starting over

At Pinch Chinese in SoHo, once a bustling haven for wine lovers, wine director Miguel de Leon has overseen the restaurant's conversion into a retail storefront, selling food and wine for takeout and delivery. His wine list was rich with natural wines that paired well with the cuisine. At its peak, it had more than 300 selections. He said he is now down to about 60.

"When we reopen, we're going to have to start over from the beginning," he said. That will give him the opportunity to devise what most likely will have to be a more streamlined selection.

Just as he is appraising what Pinch will look like on the other side, Mr de Leon is pondering what shape a more humane restaurant model could take. Over the last year, he has thought deeply about the restaurant business, and has written passionately about how to diversify his team and the clientele, achieve more equitable pay and rectify the power dynamic that exists when servers depend on tips to make a living wage.

"We want to nourish people, we want to feed people. The fact that faces light up when they taste our food and drink our wines, that's gratifying," he said. "But there's this notion that, 'I'm paying for this, I should be able to do whatever I want'. We want you to understand that you come first, but you're not always right."

When Etinosa Emokpae was hired in August 2019 as the sommelier at Friday Saturday Sunday, an intimate American restaurant in Philadelphia, she felt it was a dream job, with the chance to create her own wine list.

When restaurants closed last March, she was furloughed with the expectation she would be back at work by summer at the latest. Instead, she has been out of a job ever since. The restaurant reopened, but it could not afford to keep on managers like her.

"I don't have healthcare now, and a lot of places never provided me with health care," she said. "I shouldn't not have healthcare, being gainfully employed." She has been living on unemployment benefits, she said, with an occasional side job leading a private tasting. Yet, as difficult as this year has been, she feels optimistic about the future for her and for wine.

Partly, she said, it is because she has had time to reflect on what is most important to her, a luxury that was unavailable when she was working the 70- to 80-hour week that many restaurants demand. She has decided to look for a wine job somewhere other than restaurants.

Matthew Conway has overseen the wine list at Marc Forgione, in Tribeca, since the restaurant opened in 2008, building it to almost 700 selections over the years, including many rare treasures from the Northern Rhône Valley of France. He also put together the list at Peasant, in Nolita, after Forgione bought the restaurant in late 2019. He is a partner in both restaurants, and handles much of the managerial work.

During the pandemic, he had to auction off half the collection at Marc Forgione. "It was painful, but it was necessary," he said.

He and his fiancée, Carissa Hernandez, left their Manhattan apartment for Charleston, South Carolina, where his sister, Tracé Conway, is director of operations for the Butcher & Bee restaurant group. He is not sure if he will ever move back to New York.

As for restaurant wine programmes, he imagines that middle-tier places may gravitate toward smaller lists, but that high-end establishments will build back their inventory as soon as possible.

"There will always be rich people," he said. "And rich people will always want to drink wine."

Before the pandemic, Popina, on the Columbia Street Waterfront in Brooklyn, had finally achieved a comfortable business after three years of struggle, said James O'Brien, an owner with the chef, Chris McDade. Mr O'Brien's wine list had built a following for its hard-to-find gems, which went brilliantly with Mr McDade's singular combination of Italian and Southern American cuisine.

"We had to lay off our staff, and I went into a kind of panic mode," Mr O'Brien said. Quickly, they turned the restaurant into a shop, selling pasta kits, sandwiches and much of the wine collection he had so painstakingly assembled. He estimates that its value fell from US$60,000 to US$25,000 in a week.

When numbers don't add up

The business model now for Popina, Mr O'Brien said, is simply figuring out how to hold on. He remembers the more idealistic days in 2017, when the restaurant opened.

"We wanted to pay a fair wage and give people benefits," he recalled. "You have a grand idea about how you want to make a restaurant better than the places you've worked, but then you do the numbers and find they don't add up."

The pandemic has meant non-stop innovation at King, an intimate restaurant in SoHo where Annie Shi, a partner, supervises the wine list. The restaurant has opened a takeout window, selling snacks and aperitifs. It has sold meal kits and branded olive oils and blankets. It has even started a wine club with Parcelle, a retailer near Hudson Yards, selling subscriptions for three bottles a month, selected by Ms Shi and sent all over the country.

It has all been a matter of survival. "It feels like we've opened six or seven businesses in the last year," she said.

With wine, the pandemic has cast the difference between retail and restaurant pricing in sharp relief.

"If you are a guest, you're more aware than ever you are going to pay twice retail in a restaurant," she said. "What is the value you are giving your guests to make it worth that extra amount?" She would love to reduce that markup, she said, but rents make that extremely difficult. NYTIMES

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