Just over seven years ago, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas was little known in the public sphere. The organization was quietly focused on its membership of wine-focused restaurant professionals, who were dedicated to increasing their knowledge, skills, and reputation by passing a series of increasingly difficult exams focused on wine theory, blind tasting, and service. But with the release of the 2013 documentary film “SOMM,” everything changed. The CMSA and its highest certificate holders, called Master Sommeliers, were elevated from unknowns to celebrities.
This explosion of acclaim has led to increased scrutiny from within and outside of the organization. And in recent weeks, tensions have reached an all-time high. With some Master Sommeliers resigning their membership in protest over the CMSA’s lack of diversity and commitment to social justice, plus the lingering wounds of a devastating cheating scandal in late 2018, the future of the organization suddenly appears tenuous.
Is the Court even capable of reforming itself? Does it remain relevant for wine professionals and the general public alike? What, if any, are the alternatives to rising in its ranks? That’s what VinePair’s Adam Teeter, Erica Duecy, and Zach Geballe dive into on this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast.
Or Check Out Our Conversation Here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Connecticut, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. Guys, before we get into today’s topic, I want to talk about some news stuff. Prior to that, early on in our Covid time, we had a conversation about coffee, and how we’re drinking a lot more of it. I’ve had a new development in my life. It was not planned. We have a friend who became close to Naomi and me right after we got married. She has decided to never let us live down that she wasn’t invited to our wedding. She’s now probably our closest friend. She’s my wife’s closest friend in the same way that Josh is my closest friend, but now we’ve all become friends. She never lets us live it down. All of a sudden last week, it was our anniversary. She said “Please go downstairs. There’s a package for you.” She had bought us an espresso machine.
Z: Oh, wow.
A: To prove that she should have been invited to our wedding. Full disclosure: She’s the number two GC at Urban Group, so Urban Outfitters. She does very well for herself. Let’s be clear.
Z: Does she want to pretend that she should have been invited to my wedding, too? I’ll take an espresso machine.
A: You guys know that I’m a Nespresso fan. To have an espresso machine, it threw me for a loop. We realized we can’t have two machines out. That’s insane. Also we were probably creating a lot of waste with Nespresso. Now I’ve gotten really into making actual espresso. It’s like jet fuel. It’s definitely different than Nespresso by far. I feel the caffeine. If you can hear my voice, I just made one. I also didn’t realize how much fun it is. You can play with it. Dial it up or dial it down. Change the extraction levels. It’s one of those things that I never would have bought for myself. Because it was bought for me, I’m really into it and enjoying it a lot. I want to apologize to everyone because I’m extremely caffeinated.
Z: You’re not listening to this at 1.5 speed. That’s just Adam.
A: I wanted to talk about some news and predictions. As things are starting to move along in our Covid world, we’re seeing a lot of activity in the world of alcohol. We’ve talked a lot about on-premise and off-premise. I thought it would be interesting to talk as well about some things we’re seeing on the business side. One of the things I wanted to bring up is the purchase last week of Empathy Wines by Constellation Brands. For those who aren’t familiar with Empathy, Empathy Wines is a direct-to-consumer winery started by Gary Vaynerchuk. Most people may know Gary as the founder of Wine Library TV. Wine Library was a business that he took over from his parents and grew it into a multi-million dollar wine shop in New Jersey. Then he took that and flipped into an advertising agency that’s very successful called VaynerMedia. He’s also a well-regarded investor in tech. Full disclosure: He is an investor at VinePair. I thought what was interesting is this purchase of Empathy Wines. The amount of sales they’ve done in only a year isn’t that huge. They’ve only done about $3.5 million Three point seven is the exact figure that was used in the article I read, in terms of how many sales directly to consumers they’ve made since launching in 2019. But, the emphasis that Constellation put on this purchase was the strong desire in Covid to move as fast as possible into the direct-to-consumer space and seeing this as one of the quickest ways to do that. I have a few predictions. Any time you have issues of economic downturn, you see a lot of M&A activity. So I think we’re going to see a lot more purchases in the next six to nine months. Whether you’re listening to this and I’ve already called you out or not, I think you are. I think we’re going to see a lot of brands that we know get bought by bigger players. This is one of the key times in economics where it’s really advantageous for people who have capital versus people who may not have as much capital. I think you’re going to see a very active M&A market in the next six to nine months. Also, a lot of that M&A is going to be focused on brands that a lot of these larger alcohol companies see as having the potential to be direct to consumer. On the Empathy Wines front, I have not tried the wines. Have either of you?
A: Were either of you familiar with them before I brought them up?
E: Definitely. I think with Vaynerchuk, you kind of know.
A: Exactly. If anyone listening to the podcast works for Constellation, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me if my hypothesis is right. In all fairness, I don’t ever talk to Gary, so I don’t know for a fact, but I have to assume that a lot of the purchase would be based on just him. He probably is signing on in the same way Clooney signed on to the purchase of Casamigos as the brand personality for the next [X] amount of years, while he gets his earn-out. You’re going to see a lot of people focus even more on investment and purchase in the direct-to-consumer space.
Z: Specifically with Empathy, from what I understand is that it’s not all just direct to consumer, but they’re entirely e-commerce.
A: That’s the whole thing.
Z: It’s not like DTC as a lot of wineries are DTC-focused while also having a tasting room. They have a whole physical presence. Obviously there’s a winery or production in some capacity. What you’re seeing is not just that DTC is alluring to bigger brands or brands in general, but the ability to sell without having to have any physical presence now is more valuable than ever.
A: It’s purely a direct-to-consumer brand. It’s interesting because it’s showing that they’ve built this brand off of no one ever tasting the wine prior to the first purchase, which is kind of insane. Now, maybe if you’d gone over to a friend’s house who had bought one of these wines, and you tasted them and got into them, then you went and bought them as well. That’s a very different business model. The most active direct-to-consumer market that we see in the market in the U.S. right now is people who are in winery tasting clubs, like you talked about.
Z: You’ve seen some of the wine clubs that have popped up. I see them on my Instagram feed all the time. They’re a similar general idea. You sign up and you get wine that you’ve never tried before. In those cases, it’s repackaged bulk wine. It’s the same idea, right? You’re buying branding and some reputation, and you’re buying value that’s perceived there because it’s reasonably affordable wine. It is a different model for sure than the tasting room, signing up for the wine club, and then they send you a case of wine every six months.
E: We’re going to see DTC just blow up. Over the past five years, it’s already been growing so much. I was talking to a consultant in the industry who was telling me that years ago it was in the single digits, i.e., direct-to-consumer sales as part of overall sales. So it was 5 percent, then 8 percent, then 12 percent, then 15 percent. Now last year, it was 25 percent of overall sales in the industry. I’d have to confirm those numbers, as this was from a conversation. Now, it was just announced that the tasting rooms in Napa are going to have to close down again. We’re in this very unpredictable time where you need to be able to sell direct to consumer. I completely agree with you that we’re going to see small wineries banding together to do this sort of thing. I got pitched on that this morning.
E: Yes. A bunch of wineries are banding together to launch this app, and it’ll be very similar to the Empathy model where you’re getting wines that you haven’t tried, but they’re saying that these are the best wines from these wineries, it’s going to be an amazing offering type of thing. Wineries have had to figure out how to regroup and recoup some of the sales that were missing from on-premise. This seems to be the best way.
Z: It’s not even missing sales on-premise. It’s missing sales in the tasting room. For a lot of the brands, the model, the distribution side of it is a little bit of a profit margin, but their big profit is selling wine to consumers directly. If your model is based on someone walking in the door and tasting the wine and subscribing to your wine club or buying six or 12 bottles of wine, and that’s not an option for you, or it’s vastly curtailed, yes: You’ve got to find another way to get your wine into people’s hands. Whether it’s an app, or something else, I don’t know. It’s the acquisition side. People might decide to cash out now while they can.
A: It’s interesting to watch what happens in the DTC scene in the next year, as we see what happens in the merger acquisition market, whether we see any announcements in the coming months of brands that are being purchased. Again, if you want to give us a hot tip, let us know, but I definitely don’t think Constellation’s purchase of Empathy will be the last thing we hear in the coming months. Let’s jump into this week’s story because it was not supposed to be about mergers and acquisitions, it was supposed to be about another huge story in the world of alcohol in the past few weeks, the controversy in the Court of Master Sommeliers. Erica, we just published a big piece on this entire controversy. I thought you, as the editor of that piece, would be the perfect person to summarize what’s going on for us and then kick off the conversation.
E: Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been a reckoning on race in the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas. In late May, protests erupted over George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis police. At that point, people in the wine industry as well as across all industries start talking about either being either on the wrong side of the conversation or the right side of the conversation. The right side of the conversation being anti-racism, how can organizations do more, and how to recognize the issue and address the issue? How can you take proactive steps to making your organizations and companies anti-racist? That’s a huge range of possibilities from staffing and training to recruiting and on and on. What happened in this particular case is, time goes by. The Court of Master Sommeliers is silent on the issue [of anti-racism]. Finally on June 7, the board chairman Devon Broglie, who is the global beverage buyer for Whole Foods, he emails the Master Sommeliers. There’s about 172 of them. These are the members of that organization at its highest level. There’s a statement that’s sent out and that is quietly posted on the website of the organization. It contains very few specifics as to the diversity actions that the leaders of the organization will take. Then, it’s silence again. There’s nothing happening on social media until June 17, when it’s finally announced to members and to the public that the Court of Master Sommeliers is forming a diversity committee. By that time, the damage had been done. In the ensuing period between the end of May and June 17, people are posting. They’re saying, “Why isn’t the Court of Master Sommeliers stepping up?” Tahiirah Habibi, the founder of the Hue Society, had posted a video talking about her experience having gone through the Court, where as a Black woman, she’s told during the exam to address her judge as “Master.” She talked about how the court had added insult to injury by including the Hue Society in its initial anti-racism statement, but that was an unsolicited mention. That looked like the Hue Society was supporting the Court, but that was actually not the case. They had not been in any sort of contact with the Hue Society. At that point, Broglie revises the statements, removes the Hue Society from it, and then outlines the board’s initial steps towards diversity and inclusion. Then, several Master Sommeliers resign. It’s a volley of stalling and missteps that propel people like Richard Betts, the co-owner of An Approach to Relaxation Wines and owner of another wine company; he is a 17-year veteran of the Court. He’s very prominent, and he resigns. Then Brian McClintic, he’s the owner of Viticole Wine Club, he’s one of the stars of the “Somm” films — he resigns. Then Nate Reddy, one of the owners of Oregon’s Hiyu Wine Farm, had been a Master Sommelier for decades — he resigns. At the same time, other people like Dustin Wilson from the “Somm” films, who’s a Master Sommelier, he’s taking the Court to task on social media, talking about how they are botching their response to anti-racism. That’s the framework in which we find ourselves now. There has been a scandal on top of the 2018 scandal. The 2018 scandal was a cheating situation that happened in one of the exams, where one of the judges had slipped the identification of some of the wines that would be included in the tasting to a couple of people. Instead of allowing the situation to be contained, the Court stripped the passes from everyone who took it at that time. That had been a really criticized situation because it’s literally hundreds or thousands of hours, tens of thousands of dollars, a huge investment of time. So to just — across the board — invalidate those tests was really widely criticized. Those two things together have made a lot of people, who are both in the Court and out of the Court, very critical of the organization. Now, the organization has said that it’s going to come out, it will have this diversity committee. A lot of people on online forums in the sommelier community and out are wondering how relevant the Court is, moving forward. Do we even need the Court? There are other certifications like the Master of Wine certification that could take its place. Where do we go from here? That’s the conversation that’s happening throughout the industry right now.
A: It’s pretty insane. I have a lot of thoughts, but I’ve never worked on the floor. I would like to defer to our sommelier amongst us. Zach?
Z: I’m going to start from the beginning as I see it. Erica mentioned this. It has not necessarily been fully internalized by the powers that be within the Court and necessarily the broader wine community, just how devastating the response to the 2018 cheating scandal was in terms of shaking a lot of people’s faith in this institution. It’s important to remember that the Court of Sommeliers is a relatively recent creation. It dates back into the 1970s. Really for the sake of most of us, it doesn’t become prominent until the “Somm” films come out. We’re talking about less than a decade of time in which it’s really something that we would ever be talking about on a podcast like this. Prior to that, it wasn’t unimportant. It mattered. There were people who were very passionate about it, but it was a relatively small-scale endeavor, mostly undertaken by sommeliers at high end restaurants and a few big distribution companies in a few cities. It was not the sort of big deal that it has become. As a result, this huge influx of attention, of money, and of expectation that went along with it, and this is just me personally, I don’t want to generalize too much. It became clear that the more I went along, there was a lot of networking and who you knew that substituted for actual, rigorous assessment of knowledge.
A: I want to jump in because I think you’re making a great point. I want to just further your point before you keep going.
Z: Sure. Please.
A: What you’re saying was also echoed last week by Elizabeth Schneider, who is the creator of the podcast, Wine for Normal People. She wrote a pretty intense blog post about the Court as well. She says basically exactly what you’re saying. I’m going to paraphrase what she said, as a child of professors, her husband is a professor himself. The Court has been taken to mean, what people assume that it means is that it’s a certification test. In actuality, when you look at other high-level careers, the pass rates for these high-level careers is much higher percentages than it is for the Court. Internal medicine has a 91 percent pass rate. Cardiovascular disease, according to her and her research, has a 91 percent pass rate in medical school. Critical care medicine: 92 percent pass rate. Infectious disease: 98 percent pass rate. A certified public accountant on the first time they take the test, has a 50 percent pass rate. People who take the California Bar for the first time, lawyers, have at least a 36 percent pass rate on the first time they take the test. The Court of Master Somms pass rate is 8 percent, which makes you believe what she’s saying, that the only conclusion you can come to is, this isn’t a certification organization. It’s something else. What that something else is, a lot of people will debate. A lot of people will call it an old boys’ club, which it could be. People call it a very exclusive white old boys’ club, which the piece somewhat lays out. Your point to me that’s very clear is that a lot of people who walk away from the Court seem to have the same criticism you do, which is that it doesn’t seem to be just about the knowledge. If it was, I don’t think they would be having this many issues. Now please go on.
Z: Absolutely. You’re right. There’s a couple of things to say here. One of them is that especially as the popularity of the Court took off, and of Master Sommeliers took off, again mostly following the first “Somm” film, you saw that for a lot of the people in the Court, they said, “Great. This is great for us. Now if I’m a Master Sommelier, I can demand a raise, find a higher-paying job, or ask for more speaking and appearance fees. I can take consulting jobs for wineries.” Protecting the reputation of the existing Master Sommeliers and of the Master Sommelier credential became the single most important thing. One way that had to do that was to maintain this extremely low pass rate. Whereas most people in society would say that having more highly qualified internal medicine doctors is good, not bad, having too many Master Sommeliers, in the eyes of the existing Master Sommeliers, is a bad thing, not a good thing. The people who are taking the test are actually qualified. Again, this is only supported by my own anecdotal experience. It’s not meant to be a rigorously researched thing because it’s impossible to. My suspicion is that if you pass the Master Sommelier exam, 15 or 20 years ago, there’s a pretty good chance that your level of knowledge was lower at that point than what was required to pass the advanced exam now, which is what comes before that. It just wasn’t as rigorous. Everything I’ve read and heard from people who’ve been through it is that what was expected of you was less. The blind tasting was less complicated. There were fewer wines. The theory exam was less difficult. The world was smaller, or at least perceived to be smaller. You never have to re-up your certification. If you’ve achieved the Master level, no one comes by and re-tests you, to ensure you still know what you’re talking about or that you’re staying on top of the world of wine. You just have the MS that you can put on after your name. You have the pin. It is what it is. That’s what the organization exists to do. But it’s true that a lot of people, and I’ll include myself in this, who at one point in time felt like this is a really high-minded, noble pursuit of a combination of wine knowledge and wine service. It has some of that, but the more I went into it, the more I saw friends and colleagues of mine attempt to pass the highest-level exams. I’m not totally sure I would quantify what the Court of Master Sommeliers is, but it is decidedly not really dedicated to ensuring that the most highly qualified and skilled wine professionals achieve the Master Sommelier exam. It’s devoted to ensuring that some small number of them do in a controlled way that limits the numbers and that still, frankly, is shrouded in a lot of mystery. It’s that secrecy and mystery that has come back again to bite it. It’s hard not to look at the current gender and racial makeup of the Master Sommelier group and say, “Well, are you really the people who are best equipped to address inequality? You quite honestly probably don’t see it.” It’s not to denigrate any individual person in that group, but it’s an honest fact that if you’re a group of mostly middle-aged and older white men, you probably look at your test, and don’t see your testing to be particularly biased because it wasn’t biased against you. How are you going to see that bias? When people come and tell you that it’s biased in a whole host of ways, it’s not uncommon, we’ve seen this with a lot of organizations, for them to stick their head in the sands and deny it or to create a diversity task force that doesn’t really do much. We’ll see what happens with this one. The structure of the Court and it’s whole system is designed to tightly control the flow-through. The testing itself is so secret, and the criteria and the standards are never made public, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion as someone who’s participated in it that a significant part of who passes and who doesn’t is about who you know, who you’ve been mentored by, at least in the past. I know they’re claiming to make efforts to change that. Until it happens and it’s been evidenced, I don’t see any reason to believe it.
A: Let’s be clear here. The Court of Master Sommeliers has built its reputation based on creating itself as a luxury brand. How do you create luxury brands? You have scarcity and limited access. You look at Celine bags as the perfect example. You can’t just walk into Hermès and buy a Celine bag. You have to know the right person. You have to have a certain net worth. You have to spend enough at Hermès. Then, someone may, if you’re lucky, let you buy the Celine bag. Ivy League education is another great example. Early on in early days, prior to us legislating for requirements to have fairness in admittance practices, it was very hard to get into Ivy League schools unless you had an elite background. They abuse those reputations that they built hundreds of years ago to still be the schools that more students who are excelling in an academic setting, want to go to more than any others. In only about 10 years, based on the “Somm” films, the Court’s been able to capitalize on this one fact. What is it Erica? 200?
A: That is all the organization has. The second that the test becomes more inclusive and more people are able to pass it, the less and less of a luxury brand the Court becomes. When you have a luxury band you’re probably going to be pretty racist. Let’s just be clear. There’s a lot of sh*t that you’re going to run into if you’re trying to be exclusionary in order to protect your brand and this number that is very important.
A: I don’t know how the Court ever does move forward from this unless they make the test something that more people can pass. They have to fix the 8 percent pass rate, or else it’s always going to be the white country club in town, that you don’t know why you didn’t get in when you applied, but you didn’t get in, and you’re pretty sure it has to do with skin color or your religion.
E: Exactly. That’s exactly what it’s like. Devin Broglie has said that the organization is color-blind. His quote from this articles is: “We’ve believed that the organization has been entirely inclusive, that we’ve held to a strict non-discrimination policy, and that the meritocracy of our exams speaks for itself.” And that, I’m sorry, is just not true. The funnel of people to get to take the Master Sommelier exam is so restricted. You have to have mentors within the organization. You have to have worked in a certain restaurant for a certain amount of time. There’s a whole funneling process that winnows out eligible candidates, eligible candidates of color, eligible candidates who are women, across the board. Being color-blind is not the same as being diverse. That is the core misunderstanding of their approach. They’re saying, “We don’t see it.” That’s not diversity.
Z: It’s not even just that you have to have had the right kinds of connections to have been mentored by existing Master Sommeliers, it’s not just that you have to have worked in the right restaurants. It’s also that you have to have the means to buy very expensive wines, to spend a lot of your time focusing on studying and blind tasting. You have to be able to literally afford to get to the exams, to be able to pay for extremely expensive preparatory courses that are mandatory at least in some levels. There’s all this stuff that goes along with it. There’s this huge price tag. And, as mentioned, you have to be prepared to fail the test multiple times and spend that money again. The honest truth is, how many people can afford to do that? Certainly people from marginalized groups in the wine world or society at large, it’s going to be an even smaller percentage. All of these things are not mandatory. They’re not the way this has to be. The Court has the clout to get sponsorships from brands, to get sponsorships from institutions that would gladly foot the bill for this to have some shine from what has been a high-regarded institution. It’s not surprising that when you look at the pictures, there’s not a lot of diversity there. They’re doing a little better on gender these days. That’s been an effort that’s been going on for years. It’s still nowhere near the level of parity it should be. It’s not grossly male-dominated. It’s just really male dominant. More than anything, there’s this whole segment of possible, amazing wine professionals that for a variety of reasons are never going to go down that route. Maybe they don’t need to. Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe it’s fine that they don’t in some sense. If you want to have this high-minded ideal of epitomizing what is the highest level of wine knowledge and wine service, then you should, as an organization, be really keen to bring in people from as many different backgrounds and experiences as possible because it will only make your organization stronger. It baffles me that that does not seem to be any kind of priority.
A: I agree with everything you’re saying. Do we think this is going to be the initial undoing of the Court, first of all? I have to think it could be. I think it will be. We’re focused way too much right now on fixing what we need to fix, and I don’t see the Court as wanting to fix those issues in any really meaningful way. And, is this going to be the WSET’s time to shine? I’ve heard a lot of people in Europe say they’ve never really understood why WSET hasn’t taken off more in the U.S. Usually when I talk to WSET professionals, especially one who runs WSET in England, she says to me their assumption is because the Court is such a behemoth in the U.S. Everyone knows it. It’s famous because of the “Somm” films. The only people that take the WSET in the U.S. are writers, some professionals in off-premise, and also some in the trade who are in sales or marketing. You do see more people on the floor take the WSET in Europe. I didn’t look ahead of time to see how many Masters of Wine there are in the world. It may be just as exclusionary, and therefore is going to have the same issues. I have to think that it’s more democratic.
Z: I can’t speak from personal experience. Everything I know is based on what I’ve read. I do think one fundamental difference is through all levels of the WSET, the standards and even the wines that you taste blind, which are never released publicly in the Court of Master Sommeliers, are made public. At a minimum, you have enough transparency where someone can say, “Wait a second. My passing and my failing doesn’t feel arbitrary.” It often does with the Court, to some extent. With WEST at whatever level, you know, “Here at the exact wines we tasted. If I don’t pass and someone else does, I can probably look at their conclusion and mind and understand why.” It doesn’t mean that there are no issues. Like anything involving wine access, the financial ability to buy these wines is a huge issue. At least the tests lend themselves to a little bit more objectivity. I apologize. I know I’ve been talking a lot. I have one last thought on the idea of whether this is going to be the end of the Court. The real question that I have that goes along with that is, are we at the end of the sommelier craze? Period. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s been a huge conversation in my circles. We don’t know what the hell is going to happen with restaurants in this country. We are going through an unprecedented crisis sparked by Covid, but it’s going to be continued by the economic realities in this country for the foreseeable future. In many places, they’re rolling back the ability of places that are currently open. I had a friend that I was supposed to do an interview with for our conversation series, who 30 minutes before we were supposed to talk had to cancel because where she lives, they’ve shuttered restaurants. She had an emergency meeting she had to go to about this. We’re in this period where the restaurant industry, which is where sommeliers work mostly, is going through a crisis. I don’t know what it’s going to look like coming out on the other end. I know that sommeliers are a luxury item within the restaurant ecosphere in general. They’re at high-end restaurants. They’re the person that you hire when times are good. There’s already a lot of crises that are facing the profession. This one is going to cripple it. Frankly, that’s going to do a lot to hurt the court because if I were looking at going forward, what’s the point? Other than my own satisfaction? Are the jobs that were waiting for me three, four, or five years ago out there? There are already issues with a lot of competition for those jobs as is. Certainly with the state of the industry now, we’re going to look back at this period and realize there was a sommelier bubble.
A: I think we’re done. I think we’re done for a few reasons. It’s not just because you said it, Zach, although you’re making good points. A lot of people are having those conversations. Here’s where I think we’re done. Do I think that the top restaurants in the U.S. will continue to have somms? Yes. I was reading yesterday in The Times that a wealthy group of millionaires from America tried to land on Corsica, and they were turned away. There’s still a lot of wealth in the world and in America. It’s not spread evenly like it should be, but there is wealth. There’s going to be people that will go to find restaurants. There’s not going to be as many of them. Those that are fancy will still have some somms on the floor. Do I think that neighborhood restaurants that until March had somms on the floor will have somms on the floor? Hell no. That is over. This idea that the casual spot that you go to has somms, it’s done. It’s going to go back to what we first saw when I first moved to New York, which is that the manager’s going to run the wine list. We’ll probably walk over if you really want to talk about wine. Mostly the manager-owner will educate the service staff on the wine. That’s going to be it. You’re right. It’s a luxury item. Who’s going to pay for that anymore? Who’s going to have a full-time somm on the floor? It’s interesting. There’s so many restaurants that have popped up, especially in Brooklyn, that are these 20, 30-seat high-end taverns. Or high-end trattorias that have a somm on the floor. In what world is that even at all smart moving forward?
E: Totally. Over the past several years, we’ve seen this democratization of wine already. We’ve seen very casual restaurants but with amazing, cool wines lists. Maybe not hundreds of selections, but really tight, well-curated wine lists, at affordable prices and more luxury prices. That democratization of wine, combined with the crisis we’re seeing now, and this racial reckoning, it’s entirely likely that it could lead to a dismantling of this country club of somms. Who needs that level of expertise, exclusive expertise, that’s coming out of this oppressive structure? I don’t know that moving forward that has a place. This is a do-or-die moment for the CMS. If it’s going to restructure itself, this is the time. You’re going to be outdated unless you make some real, significant changes.
A: Absolutely. If you’re a restaurant going for two or three Michelin stars, you’ll probably have a somm on the floor. If you’re not, which is the majority of restaurants in this country, you probably won’t. That’s going to be okay.
Z: It’s going to have to be.
A: This was a fantastic conversation, guys. It was enjoyable. We’d love to hear what you out there listening to the podcast think, whether you’re pro-, anti-, or agree with all of what we said, or some or what we said. Please shoot us a line at email@example.com. Let us know what you think. Give us your hot take. As always, please drop us a review and rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps everyone discover the show. And Erica, Zach, thanks for another great conversation. Talk to you again next week.
E: Talk to you then
Z: Sounds great.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits: VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy, and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: July 14, 2020