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Trends That Could Have Killed Fine Dining Ended Up Helping New York's Sommeliers

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The trends people said were killing fine dining are the reasons why New York sommeliers are on top today.

Shutterstock/Andrey Bayda

New York City has long held a strong culture of sommeliers and restaurant wine professionals, but now more than ever The Big Apple dominates as the top place in the country to work in wine. New York restaurants routinely recruit sommeliers from around the world on an unprecedented scale, and no other city in the country can match the depth of the wine staffs working in Manhattan today. But what has given rise to New York’s ascendancy in wine? Strangely enough, the trends that threatened to sink fine diningbigger restaurants, mega groups, tip fights and big costs set the stage for more and better sommeliers and have ultimately helped raised New York’s position in the wine world today.

Las Vegas' Collapse of High-End Fine Dining

... Las Vegas may have been Manhattan’s biggest competitor for sommeliers, and many sommeliers did, in the past, leave New York for Nevada.

Before the recession of 2008, Las Vegas provided significant opportunities for wine professionals in high-end restaurants. In fact, Las Vegas may have been Manhattan’s biggest competitor for sommeliers, and many sommeliers did, in the past, leave New York for Nevada. Now, in a different economic era, Las Vegas restaurants have refocused toward the middle end of the market rather than the high end of fine dining.

No other city in the world today is drawing sommeliers away from New York in the way that Las Vegas once did. The kinds of opportunities that have been made available for sommeliers in Asia have proved less appealing to those in New York because of language barriers and concerns over working conditions. And you'd be hard pressed to name a sommelier who has left New York to work in London. Perfect example, top sommelier and recent New York transplant Arvid Rosengren. He turned down offers in London and Scandinavia to pursue an opportunity in the West Village.

Bigger Restaurants

It wasn’t long ago that critics worried about "Big Box" restaurant openings encroaching on fine dining standards in New York, as restaurateurs trying to use scale to increase profitability introduced restaurants with 150 and more seats. The common wisdom among operators was that it was hard to make money on a standalone 50-seat restaurant given Manhattan's real estate fundamentals. Commentators wondered whether the minute details of good service would still be attended to in these larger rooms. But, as it turns out, bigger New York restaurants have proved a boon to wine stewards since it's more likely that a 150-seat eatery will have the budget to hire a wine professional as opposed to a 50-seater.

... as it turns out, bigger New York restaurants have proved a boon to wine stewards ...

The logistics of reordering, restocking, and staff training at a larger restaurant, as well as the increased probability that there will be customer questions about wine during service, almost guarantee that a manager or bartender overseeing wine part-time won’t be able to keep up. The increased number of wine sales in a single, larger outlet also allows for the salary of someone dedicated to wine. In markets around the country where there’s less development of large scaled fine dining restaurants, one also encounters fewer sommeliers.

Restaurant Groups

Increasingly, the fine dining landscape of New York City has been dominated by multiple outlet restaurant groups.  Operators have looked at this kind of scaling up as a way to increase profits over the slim margins available at single venues by integrating resources for the group. While some onlookers complain about a decrease of individuality within New York's restaurant scene, the upshot has been more opportunities for wine professionals. While one restaurant might have a wine list overseen by one person, a restaurant group of three small restaurants might also be overseen by just one person. The cost savings to operators are obvious, and this is a large part of the reason why New York has so many full-time wine buyers, instead of part-time wine consultants. After the financial downturn of 2008, restaurants in many cities hired more beverage consultants, whereas in New York restaurant groups often held on to their full-time wine directors.

The Court of Master Sommeliers

The common knock against the Court of Master Sommeliers (the organization that gives accreditation to sommeliers on the basis of standardized testing and service exams, with the title of Master Sommelier being their top honor), which has persisted for years, is that once a wine professional receives the Master Sommelier (M.S.) title, he/she leaves the restaurant floor. The presumption is that there is a brain drain of talent from restaurants. But, in the New York City context of restaurant group wine directors, it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, wine professionals have used the Court by attending its events and meeting prospective upcoming sommelier talent. The Court is an efficient structure to scout from since it regularly bring candidates from all across the country to one location to be tested. This has effectively turned the entire rest of the country into a farm team for future Manhattan wine talent. There is no more clear example of this than Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which has two Master Sommeliers at the corporate level in charge of developing wine programs for its collection of restaurants. USHG has recruited sommeliers from all over the country and even as far away as Australia to populate its dining rooms. Those sommeliers are, in turn, working in an expanding restaurant group. This is a fundamental change from how the New York sommelier scene operated in the past, before restaurant groups began to dominate fine dining. Previously, the first point of contact for a potential sommelier might be a restaurant manager, headhunter, or human resources staffer, but now it is another sommelier. As restaurants groups have grown in New York, wine director positions have flourished, and that has allowed for more sophisticated recruitment of other sommeliers.

Five, six, seven person wine teams were unheard of until recently, and now they are commonplace.

Tip Lawsuits

Have the numerous lawsuits over tips been the scourge of fine dining restaurants or the secret savior of New York City sommeliers? A survey of Manhattan dining rooms reveals a trend: more sommeliers on the floor, fewer service managers, assistant managers, or floor maître d’s. In fact, sommelier teams have never been bigger. Five, six, seven person wine teams were unheard of until recently, and now they are commonplace. If you talk to the staff of those wine group-heavy restaurants, you will hear a similar refrain: "the sommeliers lead the service." The sommeliers are the ones on the floor who best remember dishes' ingredients, who pay extra attention to regulars, who help bail out the server in the weeds, and who generally set the example for the rest of the front of house staff.  Setting the bar would previously have been the domain of the restaurant's assistant manager or the captain, but there often seem to be fewer of those positions around today. One reason for this change might be the numerous lawsuits over tips that rocked the industry in the last few years. Whereas a manager cannot partake in the spoils of the tip pool, a sommelier often can. And it is less of a sure stance today to declare that a captain is entitled to a larger share of the tip pool than an assistant captain, which is otherwise known as a waiter. As restaurateurs look at what is feasible within their own payroll limits, the role played by sommeliers may seem more and more appealing.

Expensive Wines

Wholesale prices for the wines that were once fine dining staples have shot through the roof. One might think this would cripple the restaurant wine scene in New York but, in fact, that hasn’t happened. Instead, sommeliers adjusted their lists to feature different wines and other regions, while at the same time taking on private clients and consulting with them about the wines that became priced out of their restaurant's reach. The rise in private consumer consulting has been a boon to sommeliers, and the financial rewards significant. The consumer benefits from an informed opinion about back vintages and the knowledge that sommeliers have about the mechanics of the wine market, while the sommelier benefits from a significant side income. Naturally, the sommelier is able to meet potential private clients through the restaurant in which he/she works. And in the collector’s mind, some of the prestige of the venue carries over to the sommelier’s selections even when purchasing in a private capacity. This phenomenon of double dipping is helped along by a wine market where high pricing has meant making an error can be a costly mistake, and where only private collectors now have the wherewithal to purchase certain wines.  Many of these private collectors also reside in New York, which has further proven a major incentive for sommeliers thinking about making Manhattan their home.