Why Sommeliers Are Heading for Retail

A growing number of sommeliers have left restaurants behind to take on wine retail, seeking both more fulfilling interactions with customers and to bring their approach to the relatively old-fashioned construct of the wine shop. Megan Krigbaum on what this trend signals about wine's changing retail scene.

The worst person that a sommelier can run into while working a shift on a busy Saturday night has to be the guy who has no idea what he wants to drink, but wants to know everything about every bottle on the list. Immediately, the evening comes to a halt, and the sommelier bears down to try and convey as much knowledge as possible, while attempting not to notice the empty glasses on other tables.

This guy is deadweight in a restaurant, but he’s the complete opposite when he walks into a wine shop. There, he’s a pupil, and the reason that, recently, a number of sommeliers—sommeliers who have held some of the top wine director jobs in the country—have left restaurants to take on wine retail in the hopes of bringing their culture to the more old-fashioned construct of the wine shop. At a time when there’s a tremendous influx of talented sommeliers all vying for well-paying restaurant jobs, the opportunity to carve out one’s own corner of the wine business can be alluring.

One such sommelier is Dustin Wilson, the former wine director of New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, a position that quite possibly holds the most buying power in the city. Last summer, Wilson left this coveted role to embark on a retail project with Eric Railsback, a sommelier in Santa Barbara. Having reached what he saw as the pinnacle of his sommelier career, the retail sphere offered the opportunity to have a bigger conversation. “In a restaurant, you’re limited to the guests who come to that specific place, whittled down to your section, whittled down to the people who actually want to talk to you,” he says. “Retail offers the potential to touch so many more people.” 

Wilson and Railsback only just signed a lease in Manhattan, but they’re already shaping the store concept. At its heart is an intention to help wine buyers get a handle on their palate, by offering one-on-one tastings and consultations geared toward regular customer and serious collectors alike. 

Perhaps the first real high-profile New York sommelier to defect to retail was Jean-Luc Le Dû. Le Dû opened his store, Le Dû’s Wines in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2005, following a ten-year career as the sommelier at New York City’s Daniel. His departure, made for both personal and professional reasons, came as a huge surprise to his guests—and to Daniel.

When he left the restaurant, he took with him connections that allowed him to offer wines that were rarely seen on wine shop shelves—something Wilson and Railsback hope to leverage as well—to a neighborhood that was seeing tremendous development and an influx of residents, an assumed captive audience.

That audience has changed along with the retail game in general, calling more on the skills that Le Dû developed in his years in restaurants. Shelf-talkers are no longer a smart way to sell wine; people are looking for more from the retail experience today, whether it’s advice, education or a relevant narrative. “The evolution of a wine shop has been tremendous,” says Le Dû. “Wine was sold based on Parker reviews ten years ago, but now you have to tell a story.”

Education plays a big role at Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino’s year-old Bay Grape in Oakland, California. Every Monday night, the farm table in the front of the store is full of customers participating in blind tastings. The owners, who have both worked as sommeliers, use the class to not only help customers hone their tasting skills, but also to find out what they like and don’t like and how to articulate it.

This discourse on preference is constant—in classes, as well as one-on-one—resulting in an impressively astute customer base. “I always tell people to let me know what they think about the wines they buy—and they do,” says Stacionis. “They’ll come back in and say, ‘I see where you were going with that, but I didn’t love it.'”

Clearly, not every customer is down for a lengthy discourse about the flavors of Brettanomyces or the grapes of the Canary Islands, and that’s cool, too. Part of the allure of the move to retail is the want to shed some of the pomp and circumstance that comes along with fine dining and some of the ego and pretension that still forms an undercurrent of that world. “Being a sommelier gave me more of an edge in being able to talk about wine and also made me a little bit of a detective. I know which questions to ask,” says Baldivino. “But I just want people to feel comfortable.”

Jill Roberts, who worked in the New York City restaurant scene for 16 years creating wine programs for places like the Harrison and the Marrow, was looking for a more extreme change of scenery. Last year, Roberts decided to move home to Helena, Montana, a town of about 30,000 people. There, she opened the Hawthorn, a wine shop and wine bar in a defunct department store. Helena has other wine shops, but they’re mostly heavy on wines from the States, while Roberts focuses primarily on international wines, inspiring fervent followers of everything from riesling to southern Italian bottles and even wines from the Republic of Macedonia.

While her life is more balanced than it ever was while working in restaurants, there’s one vestige of restaurant life that Roberts finds herself longing for: pairing wine with food. In her shop, people are purely looking for something for dinner—and it’s rare that they tell her what they’re making. But Le Dû says he’s had a different experience. “I can still work in a sommelier capacity in my business,” he says.

While the inherent high that accompanies springing into action during a rush at a Michelin-starred restaurant on a Friday night probably can’t be replicated in a wine shop, Wilson, for his part, is looking forward to something much humbler. “I think I’ll miss the energy of being on the floor, pulling corks, schmoozing, making friends, but the hours definitely sucked,” he says. “It will be nice to be able to cook at home.”

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