I am going to dive in on the crisis of the vanishing Wine Director below; a phenomenon that has shaped the last decade in NYC and has been challenging to keep track of…
Dude, where’s my Somm? The Revolving Door
Every year we in the industry we lament the revolving door in wine director positions, but I have never seen it like this. Wine Directors are vanishing like Keyser Söze. There have been dramatically shorter stints in high profile wine director positions and even faster exits in the last few years hint at some fundamental changes at the buyer level across the city. There is now a precedent for shorter stints in higher level positions, and who can say what that really means?
One thing is clear: the velocity of turnover in buying positions overall seems to be trending up.
Is this volatility new? Why has the velocity of turnover in these positions sped up?
Setting the scene
We are on a multi-year upward trend in the overall number of Wine Director positions in the city. In the past, there were many more hybrid positions like General Manager/Wine Director and only a few Wine Directors with Sommelier teams. Now there are numerous Sommelier teams and few GM/Wine Directors.
Consider this: It is exceedingly rare that a new restaurant opening is announced and there isn’t a noted Wine Director in the by-line.
This has been gaining steadily with the rise of the #Sommelebrity, and the rising interest in wine as a viable career path. Since there are so many new stand-alone Wine Director positions, now there are more positions to be filled by young and up and coming Somms. The quantity of jobs is up and volume of Sommeliers in the pipeline is up.
If the above is true, why is filling the Wine Director position more difficult now?
A Lack of Talent?
I don’t buy the argument that there are less talented Somms for a second. There is not a lack of talent in this pool, there is a lack of understanding. I know firsthand that there many talented wine directors out there, and some in the most unlikely of places in the City. You don’t have to go out of the market to Montreal or San Fran or Chicago to find suitable candidates, one just needs to get to know the broader landscape in NYC.
Some talented wine directors don’t fit the mold of the current Somm squad. They aren’t on the Court track, they don’t work in the sexiest of places, they don’t have a following on Instagram, but – they are there. I know this because I know them.
The chances that restaurants are harder to work in today compared to a few years ago is highly unlikely. The top positions are prime for a reason and restaurants are what they have always been: challenging to work in.
Today, there are many more tools available to the Wine Director that were not available before. Can you imagine what it would be like without Sevenfifty or Binwise or Compeat or Bevager, right now? It wasn’t that long ago that these tools just didn’t exist.
So talent lacking, and the jobs still aren’t easy…clearly, these aren’t viable reasons for the velocity of turnover.
“ ...the rising role (and BRAND) of the Sommelier has confused those that hire, and probably the rest of us, too.
Do the people hiring know the difference between a Sommelier and a Wine Director? Ask me late night after a Chartreuse or two and I would say no. I think the rising role (and BRAND) of the Sommelier has confused those that hire, and probably the rest of us, too. Often, I believe they conflate the wine knowledge of top sommeliers and the know-how of experienced and/or intuitive Wine Directors. #Sommelebrity* is clouding the judgment of some people in hiring positions.
I have written about this before: these jobs require two different sets of skills. They can absolutely exist in the same person, but it is a rare bird that has the wine director position all figured out without experience. I think this is a primary driver of the velocity of turnover in high profile positions.
It is hard to give the football in the big game to a rookie and to get the savvy veteran, and in turn, you may have to pay a bit more.
Also, as of this moment, I know of only one group where the wine director is actively trying to create more wine directors within the Group. This is an exceedingly rare thing. In fact, I have rarely heard a wine director say that they learned to be a wine director from working under another wine director. Most often, the best wine directors learned on the job.
I am rarely bearish on much, but we have a bloated situation on our hands with regard to Sommelier positions and teams. There may just be too many Somms on staff for restaurants to bear the overhead. If we get a little correction in the market I could see the GM/Wine Director role come back.
Clearly, the intelligent restaurant groups that want to support the large percentage of their business that comes from wine will want to create a reliable pipeline of Wine Director candidates that can bring some stability to an otherwise volatile marketplace.
I challenge the whole market to go out and execute on this concept. Don’t just create more Somms, create more future Wine Directors and you will win huge. Devote resources and time on the front end and the resulting consistency will bring gifts you can’t imagine today.