The atmosphere and wine selections at this year’s closing dinner for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers reflected the commercial path that many of the 12 Master Sommeliers in attendance chose to follow after achieving the diploma. No longer as familiar with the restaurant floor and patrons as they are with the wine wholesalers, producers and marketing teams that employ them, the Sommeliers who paired the evening’s courses turned away from the semi-oxidized, organically fermented selections of years past in favor of more commercial choices.
It’s clear that this new generation of Master Sommeliers is charting its own path, chasing the ‘corporate dollar’ rather than the choicest wines. The question is why.
According to Chris Blanchard, the former Sommelier at Napa Valley restaurant REDD, after achieving the Master Sommelier diploma, it is difficult to resist the siren call of the larger paycheck and regular schedule offered by the corporate wine world as opposed to the demanding hours, uncertain pay and insufficient personal time that goes along with working in the food and beverage service.
However, for some Master Sommeliers, the plan all along was to leave the stress of a restaurant career behind by going corporate.
While a Sommelier who has no other commitments beyond the restaurant doors may tolerate the long hours, low pay and poor work-life balance, those with families tend to grow tired of constantly chasing the most profitable positions at all costs.
Jay James, going from Director of Wine at Bellagio Las Vegas’ wine program to Brand Ambassador of Chappellet Winery, can relate to this sentiment. As he explains, “One must typically go to where the best jobs are for maximum income potential, and that can be inconvenient or the location undesirable.”
For Doug Frost, a managing partner of the Beverage Alcohol Resource program and one of only four people in the world to currently hold both the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine diplomas, the move away from restaurant life had more to do with what he was doing than what he was not.
In fact, Frost says that if the job had only been about working the restaurant floor, he’d still be there.
But that was not the case. In addition to the work he did as the restaurant’s Sommelier, he also, “spent a lot of time worrying about the POS program […] and fussing about the price of Pepsi.”
Still, for all of the benefits that the corporate wine world has to offer over restaurant work, some think of going corporate as selling out. According to Blanchard, Master Sommeliers that enter the commercial sphere are playing straight into the dubious hands of the corporation.
“They hire an MS because it adds some kind of legitimacy to wines they produce […] these are the same kinds of wines that many of the new Masters would never have even considered for their wine programs when they were working the floor.”
Whether the new class of Master Sommeliers will bring a touch of art to the commercial wine world or become absorbed by it remains to be seen, but what is evident is that the ‘corporate dollar’ is not the only reason for shifting career paths. However, the way the wine trend is progressing, with an increasing demand for accessible wines, more may take the commercial path than would ever have considered doing so before.