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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

St. Louis Sommeliers Adapt to a Changing Landscape Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2020 at 4:49 PM

Alisha Blackwell-Calvert and her fellow sommelier colleagues face a changed dining landscape. - HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • Alisha Blackwell-Calvert and her fellow sommelier colleagues face a changed dining landscape.

Juliette Dottle has caught herself more than a few times listening in on the conversations of fellow customers in the grocery store wine aisle. Until this spring, Dottle was a sommelier at Vicia, spending her working life going from table to table curating beverage selections for the guests at the acclaimed Cortex restaurant. Now, unable to do the job that she loves due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she can't help but still feel the urge to guide people in their wine decisions.

"When I'm at the store and I see people standing in the wine aisle looking confused, I want to go up and help them," Dottle says. "I feel like I should ask, 'What are you looking for?' But then I realize they'd probably think I was a crazy person."

Like most — if not all — of her peers in the sommelier community, Dottle finds herself in a time of great uncertainty. If the COVID-19 outbreak has upended the restaurant industry in general, it has utterly decimated the sommelier profession, a job that all but relies on the in-person dining model.

While upscale dining establishments like Vicia have been forced to transition to a carryout format and cut excess amenities as revenues plummet, sommeliers find themselves in a tough spot. Viewed as a luxury that is much more relational than transactional, many wine professionals have been left unable to do their jobs — if they have them at all.

"There are so many sommeliers right now that don't have jobs," wine consultant Alisha Blackwell-Calvert says. "It's the first job to get cut, because it's the cherry on top. Unless you are a sommelier and have another job in the restaurant like GM, you are the first to go."

Blackwell-Calvert, who has worked as a sommelier at some of the city's top restaurants, was well on her way in the wine business. After leaving Elaia at the beginning of the year, she took some time off in preparation for starting her own wine consulting business, figuring she'd launch her project in March. Once COVID-19 hit, her plans were turned upside-down as several events and projects she had in the work were cancelled.

It's forced her to hustle, doing virtual wine tastings here and there as she tosses around the idea of offering online wine classes. She feels fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Katie's Pizza & Pasta as a wine consultant, where's she's been doing everything from helping to curate the wine list to conducting online staff training sessions.

Still, she wonders about the future not just of her profession, but of the restaurant business as a whole now that is has to deal with the loss of vital beverage sales.

"In restaurants, especially in fine-dining, the margins on food are so slim," Blackwell-Calvert explains. "The margin for alcohol is what is keeping the lights on, so if people aren't drinking and are just getting to-go food, how are you making a profit? It's not a sustainable way of running a business. Unless you are a sandwich shop and your business is set up that way, the overhead and small margins mean that you need those beverage sales to sustain the business."

However, it's not just the loss of their jobs that many sommeliers are mourning. As Dottle explains, the current transactional nature of the business means there is little opportunity for the relational nature of the job — what she loves most about being a sommelier.

"As sommeliers, we love the stories," Dottle says. "Wine has all of these beautiful stories, and a lot of that gets lost when you are just doing curbside or counter service. It's been really hard; we've lost a lot of people [to different jobs outside the industry] because of the stress of balancing safety with the job you wanted to do. We honed the craft of telling stories and being in touch with farmers and how the food and wine makes its way to your plate. It's hard once you switch to this model. It's not what you want to do anymore."

Zac Adcox, beverage director at the James Beard Award-nominated Indo, has been trying to figure out ways to keep alive the joy of what brought him to the business in the first place. Though he admits there is a challenge in making guests see the value in the carryout experience — something that is inherent in an in-person, fine-dining experience — he feels the restaurants that will survive are the ones who adapt in every aspect of the way they do business.

"What I respect most is the ingenuity and creativity of people like [Bulrush's] Rob Connoley or [Vicia's] Michael and Tara Gallina — the people who are thinking outside the box and figuring out how to keep the passion for what they do and make things convenient for guests," Adcox says. "The people who are pushing to do something new — those people will come out of this because they worked hard, and also because they treated their employees well all along. Some will go away, but you will be left with the best of the best, and there's something a little exciting in that."

Adcox, Blackwell-Calvert and Dottle all see the havoc wreaked on the industry by the COVID-19 pandemic as a stressor, but one that revealed — not created — its cracks. Adcox and Dottle, in particular, believe that the current situation is forcing restaurants to reevaluate the way they do business with respect to things like wage distribution among staff, healthcare benefits and more.

"The best thing to come out of this is the recognition that the model we've been living off of is not correct," Adcox says. "Getting hit by something as big as this pandemic is a real eye-opener."

Adcox is putting his money where his mouth is, recognizing the need to adapt in his own role. Even as the pandemic has shuttered Indo's dining room, he's been able to continue to offer a world-class wine experience to his guests thanks to a retail program he started. Instead of selling bottles table side, Adcox sells curated wine packs that he hand-delivers to customers, together with wine education sheets — and often a few freebies like an extra bottle of wine or a few beers.

Blackwell-Calvert also believes that this sort of creativity is key in sustaining the profession. In place of table side sales, she believe that sommeliers have to seize upon every opportunity to sell wine with carryout food, offer to-go cocktails and even do things like virtual wine dinners so that guests can feel the experience of hospitality in a changed dining landscape.

Or, they can be like Dottle and jump in at every opportunity that comes their way — everything short of approaching strangers at the grocery store, anyway.

"It's the little things," Dottle explains. "Sometimes, I am on the phone all day for my job and it feels like I work at a call center. But if you have a conversation with a guest who is excited to talk about wine, you feel the spark again. You have to find the small moments to rediscover your craft. Whether it's having a great conversation or writing a personal note on a bottle of wine with a carryout order, that smile from the guest helps us remember why we got into what we are doing in the first place."

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