DOES THE SOMMELIER HAVE A FUTURE?
The OMvino View
by Andrew Chalk
In the pandemic many states implemented lockdowns for some period of time. That devastated one of the unambiguously sociable things we do -- eating and traveling (aka hospitality). The effect on the number of sommelier (specialist wine waiter) jobs was devastating with positions being abolished or downgraded to general server roles.
Even before the pandemic, the future of the sommelier was uncertain. Wine sales did something they had not done before in most people’s lifetimes -- they stopped growing as fast, even plateauing, in the face of a consumer switch to cocktails and craft beer. Wine ceased, in many circles, to be cool.
One man who worked through this transition was Matt Montrose. Montrose, who holds an Advanced Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, has more than a decade of management experience. During his tenure in hospitality, he worked as a wine director and sommelier alongside numerous celebrity chefs and acclaimed beverage programs, such as Atelier Crenn, Bar Crenn, Michael Mina, Manresa, and Chez TJ, all of which were awarded stars by the Michelin Guide.
In 2018 he pivoted. He joined OMvino LLC, a full-suite marketing and PR company which serves food, wine and lifestyle clients. OMvino is a team exclusively of wine and hospitality experts, providing this niche market with skills, services, and connections that have been nurtured over years of directly working alongside these brands.
When he joined OMvino in 2018, Montrose applied his skills honed by developing restaurants to be profitable and managing complex supply chain systems and people to his new role as Director of Business Development before being promoted to Chief Administration Officer in 2020. As OMvino’s Chief Administrative Officer, Montrose leveraged his varied background of business skills from the restaurant world to double OMvino’s business, year-on-year. His keen passion for customer care translated into providing clients with a customized range of services, bridging branding and marketing strategy, wine education, project management and operations, as well as distribution and supply chain consulting.
In January 2022 he became acting CEO to enable OMvino’s founding partner and CEO Jennifer Estevez to focus on OMvino’s sister company Consciously Planted, which provides business advisory services to plant-based and sustainable food brands.
I spoke with Montrose in a Google Meets interview. I wanted to find out his thoughts on the future of the sommelier and wine in restaurants generally. First, some talking points questions from his company that he had answered in advance.
TALKING POINTS QUESTIONS DISTRIBUTED BY OMvino
What running a wine program at Michelin-rated restaurants taught me about entrepreneurship/running a business:
Running a wine program can teach a person lots of useful skills applicable in other situations. As a sommelier, investing in your team (whether it's a wine team or the service staff) to teach them effective beverage protocol is time well spent. Similarly, investing time in mentoring and teaching others is remarkably helpful in scaling a business. Sharing knowledge and really taking the time to nurture other people's skills can have a big payout. I used to catch myself constantly doing tasks myself rather than investing time into teaching others who could help me with it, but once I started really focusing on sharing knowledge and skills, I found I could really scale up my workload by delegating work to a team. This I feel is applicable in other businesses—I love building a system of competent, eager individuals looking to expand on their own abilities while working together to achieve bigger goals
Which tools and processes are applicable to both service and business?
Investing in technology has been crucial to business growth. Beverage professionals have lots of options for managing their program inventory, the purchasing process, etc., and implementing those technologies made my life easier. In my current role as CEO, this means utilizing technology that prioritizes project management and business operations. My team works with cutting-edge solutions that have helped grow our business significantly: project management software such as Monday.com has been crucial for organization of tasks, delegating work, managing deadlines, and offering our clients transparency into our workflow. Seeking the right kind of technology that will meet your business needs is always a worthwhile investment.
How have hospitality professionals survived the pandemic?
I think if anything, the pandemic really helped individuals in the hospitality business realize how resilient they are and that they have a lot of skills which are applicable in other industries. I heard from lots of friends that they have been able to switch careers, some with hesitation, but most out of need—yet it took the pandemic to help them understand they had a lot of abilities that are useful beyond the restaurant. I remember a few people who told me they thought they would be working in hospitality forever because "it's all they knew how to do” but were able to make a jump into a new profession. Working in hospitality teaches a wealth of expertise that can be used in other industries. I've seen a lot of friends also delve into their creativity establishing their own businesses; lots of really cool art projects have been able to flourish in the last few years and I've loved seeing this new side to people.
What have been the negative impacts of the pandemic on hospitality?
Unfortunately, there has been an extremely visible exodus from the restaurant industry. Many people who were so used to working in hospitality without question and were suddenly forced out of a job had a moment to take a really hard look at their lives and make some serious, difficult decisions regarding what they needed to be happy. If anything, the pandemic allowed for many restaurant workaholics to take a pause and really consider if their jobs were fulfilling them beyond their financial needs—there were many instances where restaurant friends of mine had the time to really sit and think of how their workspace might not have been the healthiest place for them, both mentally and physically. The welfare of restaurant workers and hospitality professionals is a huge point of discussion these days, and we're seeing more and more people use their voice to call out instances of injustice. We know this industry has problems, and finally giving people time to step back and breathe I believe helped some individuals really contemplate what they wanted out of their lives. For some, it means leaving hospitality altogether for work that provides them a better work-life balance.
Positive impacts of the pandemic for the F&B industry?
On the flip side, I think the pandemic has also really helped unite those committed to the world of hospitality even further—it’s an incredible community of passionate and compassionate people, and they've found great ways to stay connected to their guests. Many businesses have prioritized taking care of both their employees and guests in creative ways. There's a resilience to these people that is incredible.
Andrew Chalk (AC): The number of sommeliers. In Dallas there has been a cutback. Even wine-positive restaurants pass the job to servers. Last week, I was in San Antonio, the most rapidly evolving wine and food destination in Texas, dining at a newish (open less than a year) restaurant that clearly aspires to be a top destination, and there is no sommelier - as a policy decision.
If this trend is national, how do we reverse it?
Matt Montrose (MM): No clear answer. San Francisco saw a steady increase in the number of sommeliers, and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) saw an increase in the number of applicants as their celebrity status increased with things like the SOMM film series.
He considers the dedicated role crucial to promote wine. Wine is still seen as snobbish. Wine lists should be made more explanatory. Maybe group by flavor profile rather than geographically. Sommelier demeanor should be engaging. The wine should tell a story and the sommelier will be the raconteur.
AC: Should sommeliers be on the floor?
MM: Yes. He went away from it and missed the table moment.(engagement with customers).
AC:How has being a sommelier changed in his 13 years in the profession?
MM: Technology used back of house for such things as ordering, inventory control, preservation has improved. There have been some major relative price changes. For example, marquee Bordeaux and Napa labels. Third, more diverse personnel.
AC: How has restaurant wine changed in his 13 years in the profession?
MM: More choices that were arcane when he started. For example, Grüner Veltliner. There is more interest now in sustainability.
AC: A few weeks ago I speculated that a sommelier on the floor, versus waitstaff selling wine, would pay for itself. The purpose of the article was polemical, to instigate some natural experiments to test the proposition. Are you aware of this being done in the industry, before or since?
MM: I have not seen one. I would also like to see studies of the effect of the lockdowns on sommelier (and other hospitality staff) mental health.
AC: In the average restaurant, what will the wine list of the future look like?
MM: Smaller wine lists, with the greater explanation and novel arrangement that I mentioned above.
Matt, thank you for your time.
MM: Thank you!