2020 was a very challenging year for all of us.
As the days, weeks and months passed it felt like the year would never end. Now, looking back, they seemed to pass by in a blur.
Fortunately I had taken up the habit of writing a journal to plan and keep track of life.
So what happened in 2020?
NYE 2019. Dinner service. Degustation with matching wines for over 200 guests.
After rereading what I wrote for my 2019 reflections, I see that I wrote “it was the most challenging service” of the year.
That was euphemistic. In reality it was overly ambitious, poorly planned and chaotic. I feel bad for my former colleagues and guests when I think back to that night. Fortunately the fireworks would serve as the makeup to cover up the flaws.
Afterwards we stayed back to clean up, before being unceremoniously dismissed at 3am. Some stayed behind for celebratory beers. I didn’t.
During this month I had also been assigned to a sister venue, let’s call it Venue B, just a few minutes away. Service was much more casual, and I had also been tasked with wine education for the staff here.
I enjoyed my time here. I felt better utilised, more appreciated, and less thinly stretched by the demands of Venue A.
I looked forward to continuing my work and training the staff at Venue B for the rest of the year.
At one point there was a discussion about whether I would like to transition to Venue B full-time, and I made it known that I would be happy to do so. In the meantime, I continued to divide my time between venues A and B.
We had our staff party during this month. Lots of beer, cheese and charcuterie.
Studies and tasting practice recommenced after taking last month off. More tastings and flashcards.
Staff training sessions at Venue B were being received well. Old world wines, new world wines, grape varieties…
This was the month when things began to change.
Between work and studies, a few things stood out that could be considered red flags:
Friday 6th – just over a hundred guests booked for dinner, when we would usually expect over 200.
Thursday 12th – there had been a Krug Champagne tasting scheduled for Monday 16th, but had to be cancelled as the representative couldn’t travel due to COVID-19.
I had also been selected for the Ruinart Sommelier Challenge earlier in the year. Normally this would be an exciting opportunity and friendly competition between a select group of sommeliers. This had also been cancelled, for the same reason.
Saturday 14th – more and more conversation was being taken over by COVID-19, amongst colleagues and even between guests. Still, we served almost 200 guests during dinner service tonight. Surely things could only get better?
Tuesday 17th – venue management finally called together a meeting with the staff specifically to address COVID-19. The venue would continue to trade, but at reduced capacity and with a cleaning schedule enforced to reassure guests.
However, rumours were getting serious. Amongst my friends in the hospitality industry, whispers were spreading that a complete shutdown might be announced soon.
Thinking of my future, I let management know that, while I was going to continue working with them, I would be looking for other jobs due to these uncertain times. I received their full support in this decision.
Thursday 19th – my girlfriend receives a phone call (she also works in hospitality, but at another venue), and is informed that her work will close indefinitely due to fears of COVID-19
A few hours later, I receive a similar call from Venue A. My last working shift would be Saturday 21st.
Everyone is now trapped in their homes. No one wants to catch this virus, or suffer punishment from the government for not following their lockdowns.
No one knows when this will end.
With nothing else to do, I throw myself back into my studies.
I also took up video editing, eventually recording and uploading more than 10 videos on various wine-related topics. I didn’t expect to get many views in any case, but it was a good distraction from this new, warped reality.
Mostly we stayed at home. Movies were watched. Board games were played.
Occasionally we would order takeaway fast food, probably the only business that could continue to operate profitably. We would only go out to buy groceries, one of the few activities not yet forbidden by the government.
I am reminded of this excerpt, from Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis:
In the months following the crash, as restaurants were closing and belts tightening, there were a few ominous signs: sales of candy skyrocketed—as did sales at many fast-food chains. Fear and uncertainty, it appeared, led many to rush for the familiar—an infantile urge to grab some of what one knew: cheap, familiar tastes—in the same old wrapper. At least Twizzlers hadn’t changed. Old Ronald and the Colonel were still there. I wonder, though, how long that will last.
Maybe people will have to start cooking again. To save money, and because the cold reality is that people without jobs have more time for that sort of thing.
Despite the darkness, there were signs of light. Poulos Brothers, a seafood supplier, announced they would donate fresh seafood every Thursday this month to any out-of-work hospitality worker.
Many people took up the offer, myself included. When I cooked up fresh fish or mussels at home, my girlfriend and I felt like civilised people again, instead of frightened, obedient animals. I remain extremely grateful for their generosity.
Finally, the government announced their JobKeeper initiative, which would help those rendered jobless due to COVID-19 continue to receive AU$1500 fortnightly (before tax). A lot less than before everything was shutdown, but would go a long way to assuage any fears of not being able to feed oneself.
Life, or what was left of it, continued.
I continued with my studies as best as I could. Wine tastings were no longer in person, but conducted over video conferencing after collecting samples in plastic bottles from a predetermined collection point.
Restaurants were permitted to operate once more, but limited to 50 guests. As both venues I worked at could seat over 100 guests, it wouldn’t be profitable to reopen just yet, so my situation remained unchanged.
Studies continued, with the occasional tasting being organised in a “COVID-safe” manner.
I also continued to record, edit and publish more wine-related videos.
More studies and occasional tasting.
More filming, editing and publishing of videos.
Finally, closer to the end of the month, I received word that Venue A would reopen, and that I would be working at minimum the hours needed to earn our JobKeeper payments.
For the first few days, it was a matter of mise-en-place – I focused on putting wines back in fridges and on shelves, ready for service and sale.
As there were not yet enough hours at Venue A for me to work, I was occasionally sent to Venue C, a casual restaurant in a quieter area, not too far away.
As the machine seemed to be back in motion, I made the decision to stop making videos for the time being. Surely I would be too busy getting back to work to focus on anything else…
More study and tasting. Then finally came the news that the Advanced Sommelier exam had been postponed until at least next year. While we were offered the option of cancelling and getting a refund (normally you would forfeit at least 50% of your fee), I tentatively informed them that I would like to keep my spot.
Venue A was almost ready to reopen, after days of reorganising wines and furniture.
A staff meeting was called. The front-of-house team would be heavily cut. This was understandable, as we would only be allowed to open at a much reduced capacity, and there wouldn’t be enough hours around for the full original team. Still, it was sad news, and I felt bad for my former colleagues.
There was much emphasis on sanitation, as neighbouring state Victoria had just entered another 6 week lockdown.
In the meantime, I definitely wasn’t getting enough hours at Venue A, or even Venue C. I was sent away to venue D, close to the beach, which was casual and had a fun front-of-house team. However, they had no real wine program to speak of, just a standard list of crowd favourites. I felt underutilised and taken for granted. Weren’t things supposed to get better this month?
Well, I just needed to be a bit more patient.
Remember how I had been job-hunting earlier?
Around this time, one of these prospects, a wine-related role in retail, called back. There were impressed enough with my phone interview that I was invited for the next round.
A week later, I was invited again, for the third round of interviews.
Finally, on Friday 31st July, I got the call saying I passed the final interview and they would formally like to offer me a position.
I was grateful for the opportunity to get some stability in these uncertain times. And yet I was reserved – I had worked in hospitality as a sommelier for almost seven years of my life, and now I was shifting sideways into another industry, retail. Would my experience really matter there?
Friday 7th August – I emailed my resignation to the relevant parties at Venue A, giving them 2 weeks notice.
I continued to work between there and Venue D for the remainder of my time.
My last shift at Venue A was on Friday 14th August. Just a small announcement at the briefing that I was leaving (although I had already informed most of my colleagues through conversations), a small glass of sparkling wine to toast, then time for dinner service.
Two years I worked there, and it seemed to finally end with a whimper. It hadn’t been a long time, but I felt I learned all that I could, given the circumstances.
My final shift with the group proper was actually at Venue D, and it finished after 2.5 hours, given how quiet it was. Still, I enjoyed it, and was given two free beers by the cheerful manager-slash-bartender. I savoured them while watching the waves gently roll onto the beach just nearby.
That was it. I was no longer employed by a hospitality venue.
I was no longer a sommelier.
I went out with my girlfriend and some friends for dinner to celebrate.
The future was uncertain, but there was hope.
Wednesday 19th – my first day in my new job.
For my induction, I was given a tour of the store I would be working at.
I met the rest of the team. I had lunch with the store manager. I went home at 4pm with three free bottles of wine.
Things were off to a good start.
Over the rest of the week I would go to other stores with established “Wine Merchants”, their title for the store’s wine specialist, which I would soon become.
Happily, my job was not going to be all that different. I still get to talk to guests (“customers”) about wine or any other alcoholic beverage. I still handled bottles of wine on a daily basis.
The only difference was that I would not taste the wines before selling them. That, and my work hours were much saner, compared to the usual hospitality schedule of 10am-midnight, or worse.
Life was looking up. I enjoyed my work, I had stability in these strange times, and as we were coming up to Christmas, things would only become busier.
A funny anecdote was shared with me. You might be aware that grocery stores had run out of toilet paper due to panic buying.
At our store, and all other wine stores, Champagne ran out first, followed by almost everything else. Imagine completely empty shelves, with not to drop to drink on them, with only the most expensive wines locked up in security areas left untouched. They called it Black Sunday. I wish I could have seen it.
With stability came regular weekends, which I spent with my girlfriend, going anywhere we could safely for leisure. It felt like long time since we could enjoy ourselves.
At work, I participated in weekly sessions of wine tasting with Wine Merchants across the country, via video conferencing. Each week one of us would present a few wines and guide the rest of us through tasting, sharing interesting facts and stories about the wines in the process.
I had been there barely a month, but already customers were starting to recognise me. Many of them thanked me for suggesting a great wine. I could only nod and smile, not remembering at all what I had recommended.
Work kept getting busier. I was talking to more people about wine and they liked what I had to say. Some interesting conversations included:
- A woman asking for advice for wines to cellar for her newborn son
- A couple talking about board games to enjoy with wine
- Expensive wines for dinner that evening
- Japanese sake with Indian food, yes or no?
- Students from a nearby hospitality school asking about whisky and Armagnac
- An American lady choosing an expensive Champagne, in case the “correct” candidate won the next US Presidential Election
Part of my responsibilities also included training the rest of my team on wines. I had freedom to take a few bottles of the shelves and taste them with my new colleagues one-on-one.
I hadn’t studied in a while. I hadn’t even been tasting with my usual group.
With loosened restrictions, most of my study mates had been thrown back to work. Most of them were Head Sommeliers or Senior Sommeliers, so their responsibilities were greater.
I had never really been allowed to take more responsibilities, which was why my experience was different. I felt fortunate to be able to study among them as equals.
But now it no longer made sense. Though my new job was going well, I was still in a financially precarious situation. I wasn’t able to focus on study. Tastings weren’t happening. And without working on the restaurant floor, I worried I would lose my muscle memory and possibly fail the Service portion of the exam.
I had really wanted to pass this year, after failing two different parts in the previous two years.
It was unfortunate, but I finally made the decision to cancel my enrolment in the Advanced Sommelier Exam.
I’m thankful the the Court of Master Sommeliers Oceania for guiding me in my wine journey. I learned a lot, not just about wine but also about myself. I made many friends through my studies and I will see them again in the future.
Now, it’s time for a new chapter.
For the first week of the month, I went on holiday with my girlfriend.
Of course all overseas and some interstate travel was banned, so we stayed within New South Wales. Fortunately there are such nice places to visit like Port Stephens, and the Hunter Valley wine region.
After holidays, I returned to work to face the Christmas rush.
Much wine was bought, and good time were had by all.
It was a terrible year in general, but I count myself lucky to come out of it better than I had any right to expect.
I will look back fondly on my time as a sommelier, chatting with guests, serving and tasting some of the best wines in the world, against the backdrop of one of the best views in the city.
While I won’t say that I’ll never be a sommelier again, I am enjoying my new career, and excited for the opportunities ahead.
Cheers, see you in 2021.
Read more: Will Sommeliers Go Out Of Fashion?