Despite San Francisco's close proximity to America's premier winegrowing region, the city is experiencing an unprecedented dearth of sommeliers, according to the Chronicle's wine critic, Jon Bonné. He writes that the traditional role of sommelier is in the midst of a "major brain drain" in the Bay Area, an unusual fact given that the profession is thriving in other big cities like New York and L.A.
Bonné notes that SF restaurants are increasingly turning over their wine lists to consultants to save money, or giving managers the duty of wine buying as a "perk," rather than a full-time, dedicated task. As a result, there is less opportunity for eager young sommeliers to actually work the floor or learn from an experienced professional."I think there is a shortage of mentors," Yoon Ha, master sommelier and wine director at Benu, told the Chron. While passing sommelier examinations certainly helps, Ha believes that "there's no substitute for being on the floor."
So why is sommelier culture dying in San Francisco? Bonné surmises that, in a dining scene increasingly supported by young tech money, "Team Cocktail and Team Beer are winning," and a sleek, suit-wearing sommelier can appear old-fashioned and incongruous with the increasingly casual style of service that can be found in restaurants across the city. What's more, cocktails offer faster turnover and higher markups than bottles of wine, which have to be purchased in advance and often stored for years before a profit is made. In an environment of rising rents and wages, that can be enough to put wine on the back burner.
The fact remains, however, that when a guest buys wine at a restaurant, they're buying the entire experience. At a restaurant like Benu, where the tasting menu costs $228 per diner, a professional like Ha provides up to 12 beverages to accompany that menu and spends a significant amount of time with the table. Bar Tartine's Vinny Eng agrees that "a big part of the job is delighting diners with what they don't know."
Though the current situation might appear grim, Bonné isn't "counting wine out quite yet." He believes mixology is reaching peak saturation, and the tasting-crazed beer fans of today are poised to cross over to wine. "When today's deep-pocketed duogenarian diners turn the corner on 30," he says, he's betting that "wine — and sommeliers — will rebound."
But in the meantime, sommeliers who want to stay in the business are facing the specter of doing double duty, as can be seen with The Progress' wine director, Jason Alexander. He held that title exclusively in his days at Cyrus and Gary Danko, but at The Progress, he's being asked to hold the much more demanding simultaneous role of GM. Nonetheless, Alexander is confident that San Francisco can still provide high-quality wine service, even hiring a second sommelier for more support on the dining room floor and a third to serve wine at sister restaurant State Bird Provisions. But whether the phenomenon can extend beyond restaurants with State Bird and The Progress' mega-popularity remains to be seen. "Maybe that was my throwback naivete trying to reconstruct an earlier era," Alexander says. "I don’t know. I’ll tell you in two years."