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Sommelier’s view: How Covid-19 has changed my world

Matthew Luczy talks frankly from his home in Los Angeles, California, about how the Coronavirus pandemic has altered both the working and social lives of sommeliers like him and other hospitality professionals all around the world...

I am a sommelier based in Los Angeles, California. Of the core group of people I interact with on a daily basis, and whom I consider my closest friends, 90% have filed for unemployment. I know this is the same for sommeliers in most other cities in the US, the UK and across the world.

‘This pandemic has pushed over what now looks like a final domino of a prior era’

As anyone that has worked in the restaurant industry can attest, our social and work lives are inextricably linked. Service, connection and giving to others propel us through life and feed our mental wellbeing. An entire industry based on these values found itself completely shut down in just one week, and we’ve now passed the one month mark since the mandatory closure of our workplaces.

While this near-complete severing of social interactions is something far from specific to the restaurant world at the moment, the ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling ironically seems to be binding much of the planet together, albeit from a distance.

The Covid-19 pandemic is altering the very framework of the entire hospitality industry, and those who are able to pull through will find themselves in a completely different world. There will be massive haemorrhaging in the job market, leading to restructuring of establishments that can make it to the other side.

A different world

Workers currently employed as managers, wine directors or sommeliers are going to see their jobs redefined and/or aggregated. The same goes for back-of-house positions as restaurants slash at their overheads and navigate the reduced hours and capacity limits that will surely accompany the transition out of this crisis.

The classic restaurant industry model was one that had been on shaky ground from some time, with an ever-rising minimum wage eating away at an already shrinking bottom line. It won’t be as simple as plugging back in to the same old socket when the power comes back on post Coronavirus; the current will be different, the consumption altered, and the numbers of outlets as a whole dramatically lessened.

Sommeliers uniquely find themselves at the meeting point of several separate but linked industries. The need for wineries, importers and distributors to keep some sort of cashflow moving has brought up touchy and uncomfortable situations. It’s hard to make a Burgundy or cult Napa Cab allocation sit well for anyone at the moment.

What about wineries that proudly tout that their wines are sold exclusively through restaurants? While some eateries have been able to transition to a temporary retail model for survival, this rug being more or less completely ripped out from the cash flow of a winery is maybe sustainable for a month, perhaps two, but beyond that?

And it goes without saying that one can’t hit the pause button on winemaking and viticulture itself. Nor the financial logistics that accompany it both now and in autumn when harvest comes.

Economic ramifications

The largest stimulus packaged ever enacted in the US (and in the UK, like many other countries) is certainly a start and a step in the right direction, but the sluggish rollout of the benefits and payments keeps businesses in a precarious position.

The restaurant industry is a nexus between myriad others, and without further government aid the spread of this collapse will be too widespread to recover from. Relief from the government in dealing with payments to vendors and suppliers is an absolutely mandatory further step that needs be taken, and swiftly.

Donation funds are being set up for workers in the hospitality industry, but the scale of the economic ramifications of this crisis is so massive that these citizen-to-citizen acts, while appreciated and commended, aren’t close to enough.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the master reset button for not only the hospitality industry, but also our society as a whole. The interconnectedness of our work and our play has never been as clearly in focus, nor in as stark a light. Things will not be the same once we are through this, and the timeline for that is nebulous at best.

Adaptive skills involved in pivoting out of an old world and adjusting to a new one will be mandatory for the planet we will soon find ourselves in. This pandemic has pushed over what now looks like a final domino of a prior era, and we all find ourselves planning, redesigning and setting the game back up with less pieces and altered rules.

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