Have Los Angeles and New York overtaken the San Francisco Bay Area in wine culture? Are San Francisco wine lists in decline?
On March 6, Jon Bonné, the soon to be former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote what some consider an FU to the City's wine scene.
Alder Yarrow of Vinography quickly followed with his own opinion and rebuttal on March 10, saying
". . . While I have not done anything resembling a comprehensive survey, I'd say that the number of San Francisco restaurants who employ full-time sommeliers is probably at its highest point in the city's history. And that's not even including the trained sommeliers who Bonné points out are frequently playing not just wine directors but also general managers or even restaurant owners.
Not coincidentally the quality and diversity of wine lists in San Francisco has never been better in my 20 years of residence in this city. I'm not sure what city Bonné has been dining in for the past five years. . ."
Today Geoff Labitzke, Master of Wine, posted his own critique as a letter to Bonne' on Facebook. Geoff's given permission to publish his text.
"Dear Jon Bonné:
I am one of the hundreds – perhaps thousands – irritated by your article about the San Francisco Sommeliers. I have read the article several times to digest its content and purpose. For the life of me I can’t see why this article was even necessary. San Francisco has a vibrant and active sommelier population. These folks are some of the most disciplined and tireless students of wine you will find. This is not a community that needs to be attacked or insulted. I am honored to connect with these folks any time they will have me. Furthermore, making fun of sommeliers because they wear suits and ties is downright juvenile. To quote that comment in your article added no value whatsoever. It was insulting to say the least.
Perhaps it is your tagline that evokes such an emotional reaction. To state that Yoon Ha is the last sommelier standing is more than just an exaggeration-it is flat out wrong. Even Yoon almost appears to be rolling his eyes in the photograph. I find it perplexing that Yoon thinks there is a shortage of mentors when he himself is a mentor to Bobby Conroy-one of the best sommeliers in the country. I cannot believe your wrote this article without doing more thorough fact checking. Did Fox News buy the Chronicle and forget to tell anyone? From what I can gather, you called a few friends and they confirmed what you thought was true and you drew an erroneous conclusion. Your straw polling of wine directors is the same kind of biased research that predicted Dewey would defeat Truman in the fifties.
To say that there are no sommeliers on the floor is extremely disrespectful and not at all true. John Wight and Suzanne Sellers Chowla have posted exhaustive lists of active floor sommeliers in San Francisco so I don’t need to be redundant. Alder Yarrow also has an exhaustive list of restaurants on his blog post. I know that the restaurants on his list not only have floor sommeliers but have well-informed and knowledgeable servers.
“Where wine is concerned, San Francisco is in the midst of a major brain drain.” Really Jon? “Perhaps San Francisco lacks a cadre of young, eager servers willing to endure grunt work and hard study.” How could you? These statements are such blatant disrespectful lies it makes your article laughable. Here are some facts you can check. There are currently 225 subscribers in San Francisco on GuildSomm who are Master Sommeliers or are studying for some level with the Court of Master Sommeliers. San Francisco represents 16% of the California subscribers. Los Angeles represents 6% of the California subscribers. There are 7 advanced sommeliers in Los Angeles 21 in New York and 24 in San Francisco. San Francisco has 118 Certified Sommeliers compared to New York’s 101 and the 32 who reside in Los Angeles. I admit that true research would require looking at suburb’s of Los Angeles and the greater San Francisco bay area. The New York numbers more likely reflect a complete and accurate count. Not only are these subscribers pursuing the Master Sommelier credential, many are also in the WSET program and have completed the Cicerone program as well.
Jon you should check out Guildsomm and subscribe. It will be the best $100 you will ever spend. It is the single best wine reference in the country. You can not only use it for fact checking articles about sommeliers but you can check wine facts as well. Yes Matt Stamp is no longer on the floor at The French Laundry and Geoff Kruth is no longer at Farmhouse but their current roles are even more impactful. Electronically Geoff and Matt are mentoring almost 10,000 sommeliers nationally. They also host regular educational seminars at very affordable prices and develop enrichment trips to wine regions all over the world.
What you are missing is the fact that talent pool in San Francisco is so strong we no longer need the Yoda-like mentorship that Larry Lawrence Stone provided in the 90s. We have plenty of Jedis. When Larry came to town in the early 90s there were very few Master Sommeliers in America. In fact, before 1990 there were only 14. You can check this fact on the Court of Master Sommelier website. Since 2000, one hundred Americans have achieved the MS credential. Many of these newly minted masters are in San Francisco or at least in Northern California.
You only see traces of the lineage? Maybe because you are not in touch or maybe the sommelier world is moving too fast. There are more opportunities for talented sommeliers today than ever and people change jobs as a result. The fact that Haley Guild Moore no longer works for Andrew Greenis not the end of the story, it is almost the beginning. When Haley left Spruce, Andrew did not miss a step. Christopher B Gaitherwas there to lead the charge. When Chris left to take over at Gary Danko, Spruce was left in Lauren Kemp's capable hands. Both Spruce and Village Pub employ 3 sommeliers who work the floor and there are many knowledgeable servers waiting in the wings to join the wine team. Andrew maintains a deep bullpen of sommelier talent. Andrew Green is also a fantastic mentor. He conducts regular wine educational seminars and leads frequent trips with his sommeliers to the great wine regions of Europe. This is far more impactful instruction for sommeliers than was even possible in the days of Rubicon. On a similar note, when Petra Polakovicova left Epic Roadhouse she left the wine program in good hands with Gordana Josovic and Jenifer Estevez. Jennifer is now at Michael Mina.
If sommeliers are exiting San Francisco like lemmings, quite frankly I am not seeing it. Yes I miss Nicole Burke but she is in a good place working for Krug. Amy Goldberger and Skye LaTorre relocated to New York. But what about Mark Mendoza who came back. What about Marie-Louise Friedland who came here from Texas. What about Ashley Broshious who left her own program in the Cayman Islands to be in the San Francisco wine community.If I dig deeper I know I can list several more transplants in San Francisco proper.
The fact that many talented sommeliers have left the floor or have taken more lucrative corporate positions is not a local phenomenon- It is a National one. The Spire Group has hired several Master Sommeliers and Advanced Sommeliers. Southern Wines and Spirits and Young’s Market Company also employ several people who were very talented sommeliers such as Amy Currens and Kim Beto.I think that is fantastic. There has been a disconnect between large wine corporations and knowledgeable sommeliers for decades These folks are filling the voids. I can say definitively that Jay Fletcher MS, Damon Ornowski, Fred Dame Reggie Narito, Patric Okubu and Sur Luceroare doing more mentoring than ever and their reach has extended far beyond the four walls of any restaurant. With their corporate resources, they have national influence.
Am I upset that Peter Granoff and Debbie Zachareas are no longer floor sommeliers? Not at all. They deserve all the success they have had in retail. The world needs more stores like Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants and fewer internet retailers churning out pallets of 95 point wines at cost in hopes of landing a whale of a wine collector as a customer. I do miss Square One and Bacar however.
I also think it is fantastic that Chappellet Winery has Jay James MS at the helm and Emily Papich on the team. Larry Stone is a great ambassador for Quintessa. Paul Roberts MS is a huge asset for Colgin as he was once for the French Laundry. The brilliance is that these folks were hired for both their wine knowledge and their business acumen. The fact that they are no longer mentoring sommeliers on the floor of the restaurant is not a bad thing at all. They have all paid their dues and deserve to advance their careers.
“San Francisco runs the risk of being spammed with rubber-stamp wine lists.” Jon go work the street with a wine salesman. The sommeliers in San Francisco taste everything before buying. Some even say they don’t want to have a list that looks like everyone else’s.
I agree with your point of the bistroization of restaurants. Again this is happening everywhere in the country. This is because wine has become more significant in all restaurants. These restaurants are not being dumbed down. Their wine programs are becoming more sophisticated despite the casual environment. The sommeliers at these places might not be wearing suits but they are there. When you enjoyed the cheerful wine selections at SPQR did you happen to say hello to Jeremiah Morehouse? Maybe you blinked. You might have missed him because he is now with Chris at Gary Danko. Jeremiah is one of the most talented young somms in the country.
Perhaps you should have started your article talking about cocktails and beer. Cocktails and craft beer are popping up everywhere – Even New York. Nomad has a beer sommelier! But here you really are getting into a story that needs to be told. It is extremely difficult to fund a strong wine program in San Francisco with high minimum wages, very high rent. Compounding the problem is the fact that retail wine prices are transparent. Many retailers work on very lean margins. Cocktail prices are not easily compared. There is no “Beer Searcher” or if there is consumers don’t care about increased restaurant prices. Never mind that the discount wine retailer likely has a higher net margin than the restaurant and is often collecting money long before he pays for the product. You start to get into these important issues but only after way too much sommelier bashing.
The fact that sommeliers are now doing double duty is a good thing. Financially it is hard for many properties to pay what these folks deserve. By adding management duties, a restaurateur can justify a higher salary – sometimes. I also like the fact that sommeliers have fiscal responsibility. I too have read my share of esoteric wine lists. Sometimes it is like watching a French film with Turkish subtitles. Yes Raj Rajat Parr I am in pursuit of balance on wine lists. Just kidding Raj! But recently I have seen a much more balanced approach to wine programs from the likes of Chris Gaither and Troy Smith. Some more familiar wine selections will add comfort to guests who are less comfortable with wine.
Jon you will likely experience backlash and not only from San Francisco. You have not endeared yourself with somms in New York and Los Angeles in your article. The somm community is national and very tight. These sommeliers travel together, party together and study together electronically. In fact they mentor each other. Anthony Muellerhas an electronic study group with advanced and certified sommeliers in all corners of the country. By the way, Anthony moved to Northern California from Arizona to be part of the wine community that you say doesn’t exist. I consider Anthony to be a role model for me as I continue my wine education. Ironically, many of these sommeliers would be likely purchasers of your book but I fear they might hesitate now. They might not have time to do the necessary fact checking of your work as they are spending too much time studying."