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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Living the 16-Hour Work Day of a Sommelier

Senior Digital Editor Jameson Fink tags along with Victoria James of New York City’s Piora as she navigates the ins and outs of a restaurant on a Friday from morning to night.

Listen to other episodes of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast


Read the full transcript of “Living the 16-Hour Work Day of a Sommelier”:

Jameson Fink: Jameson Fink, senior digital editor.

What’s it like to be a sommelier in a bustling restaurant in New York City’s West Village neighborhood? I decided to spend the day visiting a sommelier at a restaurant there, and find out if it’s all tasting wine, sniffing and swirling, or, if there’s a lot more to it. And a lot more unglamorous things that you wouldn’t expect to be part of a job working at a really well known prestigious restaurant and New York. I’m sitting here with …

Victoria James: My name is Victoria James, we are here at Piora restaurant in the West Village and I am now the Corporate Beverage Director.

JF: It’s two o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, this place is gonna be bustling soon. But I’m wondering, Victoria, what do you do now? It’s two o’clock, you’re getting ready for a Friday dinner service. What are things that you as a sommelier are doing and thinking about right now?

VJ: Yeah so right now it’s a little bit of crunch time. So I came in this morning around nine AM, and did sort of the basics. Inventory. Basic inventory, crunching margins, see what I need to order for next week. In addition to that we’re opening a new restaurant, so I was interviewing a couple of people and prepping for this afternoon in terms of the staff coming in we have a wine tasting with some wine makers that are visiting and also preparing for this evening’s service. So that means stocking wine, making sure that guests who have called ahead for specific requests are accommodated and the list goes on.

JF: I feel like such a jerk. I just got here at two and I assumed you arrived when I did. You’ve been here since nine AM. So on a Friday night, how long will you be here normally?

VJ: Well tonight especially is pretty busy. Therefore, I’ll probably be here until one AM.

JF: Wow, that is an incredibly long day. It’s not even a day, that’s like a day an afternoon and an evening.

VJ: I know it seems that I’ve been getting a lot less sleep as this job has progressed. But I don’t mind. It goes by very quickly.

JF: So tell me more about some of the specifics of what you’re doing when you’re here in the morning as far as inventory. Just all the tasks. I think a lot of us might think, “oh you’re a sommelier,” you’re just coming in and you’re helping people with wine and then you come out. But it’s really there’s a lot of sort of, the non-glamorous side of it, the business side of it. Wonder if you could talk a little more about that?

VJ: Yeah absolutely. So, the nitty gritty underbelly of the sommelier’s role, especially if they are buying wine and they are in a purchasing position, does not stop on the floor of the restaurant. So in the morning I come in and the first thing I do is check the wine cellar, make sure everything looks as it should, and in addition to that I do a lot of stocking. So, for example, today we got in ten cases of wine. So bringing those all down to the cellar, lot’s of manual labor, it’s good you don’t need a gym membership, and unpacking those boxes making sure they are accounted for. Making sure the people that sent them get paid.

And then in addition to that you have to categorize them on the list. You have to price them. You have to put them in your own inventory. And then once you’re done physically putting them away, you look again at your inventory and what holes there might be. And projecting sales for the following week and placing more orders.

JF: Yeah so it’s really, I’d think that’s a lot of people when you think about “oh I’d like to be a sommelier, I’ll write a wine list and help with wine.” But really there’s a lot of that service and business side to it. Do you think that’s something that people that getting into the business kind of underestimate?

VJ: Definitely. I was not fortunate to graduate with a degree in business. So when I first got into this industry, I thought it was very glamorous and you could just travel, and sell wine, and taste wine, and that sounded pretty great. And luckily I also fell in love with he business side of things and I love spreadsheets and crunching numbers and being cost efficient. So it was fortunate in that respect. But I think a lot of people are usually scared by the numbers and that’s not good.

JF: Yeah, but I will say that there is, if anyone is concerned, there is travel and there is wine dinners and wine tasting. It’s not just all spread sheets. Being a sommelier, more than just spreadsheets.

VJ: That should be the motto, ‘More than just spreadsheets but … there are a lot of spreadsheets.’

Christopher Cipollone: Hi my name is Christopher Cipollone. I’m the Executive Chef here at Peoria.

JF: I talked to the head chef to understand the importance of Family Meal and what you might have if you’re working at a restaurant, to eat right before the restaurant opens. Chris can you tell me what Family Meal is for people who don’t know what it is?

CC: So Family Mean is the staff meal that we all enjoy before service. It’s one of the most important kind of, as far as nourishment, and a little bit of a bonding experience for the staff before a service.

JF: So are there certain things that you like to cook for Family Meal that maybe you wouldn’t do for the restaurant, for an individual dish? Are there certain favorite things that you like to make or the staff enjoys?

CC: Oh well yeah it’s obviously totally different food. It’s … what we do for the restaurant … fun, filling, nutritious, we try to balance out the healthy and unhealthy kind of food. Like for instance today we have … it’s fried chicken but next to kale salad. So yeah things like that. Just fun easy stuff that people like to enjoy and eat quick and move on.

JF: And tell me about the bonging experience and how important that is right before the doors open to sit down and share a meal.

CC: It’s actually really important. I would like it to be more prevalent that we actually all sit down together. The kitchen kinds at their station and eats and keeps going. But we do take that five to ten minutes to kind of eat while we’re standing there and do a little bit of bonding and crack a smile or two before service.

JF: All right so let’s head down to the kitchen and find out how the progress of Family Meal is going. So this is the fried chicken for tonight.

CC: This is the fried chicken for tonight. It’s simply breaded … it’s chicken fingers. People like that. Our staff likes it. When it’s chicken finger day it’s a reason to be celebrated.

JF: And balanced with the kale salad.

CC: And balanced with the kale salad of course.

JF: It’s like a yin and yang.

CC: Exactly.

VJ: So wine notes for tonight we are a bit low on …

JF: I also talked to a sales manager for a very well known wine importer who has two wine making guests from France with him to get an idea of what it’s like into a restaurant and try and taste wine for a staff and hopefully sell some wine and get some placements.

Lyle Railsback: My name is Lyle Railsback. I work for Kermit Lynch. I do national sales. I’m based in New York.

JF: Lyle, so when you’re visiting a restaurant and you have wine makers with you, what is the goal as far as, like what do you want a staff to understand about the people behind the wines and the company and just a general sense of besides just tasting the wines?

LR: I think that a story really helps people sell wine. The wines are delicious and that’s one part of it, but, if the servers or the sommeliers have something they can pass on to their guests to make it more of an exciting experience, that’s our goal. So these guys have lots of great stories and their parents before them have good stories. And we’ve got a lot of history with Kermit and these guys so … yeah I guess just something that’s an interesting hook.

Lionel Faury: So I am Lionel Faury from Domaine Faury winery located in the Northern Rhône Valley. We are here to share some story about our winery, our philosophy of making the wine and ask them to understand the family history and how we make the wines. It’s also to help them to sell the wine and to have this transmission of distillery to customers.

Ghislaine Dupeuble: Hello, I’m Ghislaine Dupeuble from Beaujolais Dupeuble. My family is a family wine maker since 1512 and our vineyard is located in the South of Beaujolias in a famous area called Pierre Dorées, Golden Stone. And we produce white, rosé and red Beaujolais. We have some different soil and the philosophy of the vineyard is to have some just pleasure wine. Wine just to taste. To open the bottle, to serve a glass, and finish the bottle and say, ‘Oh just finish? We want a second bottle.’

I want to explain our philosophy, how we work in the vineyard, how we produce the wine, how make the vinification. I think if the customer knows how we want to work, he can understand more the philosophy of the wine that we produce. And it’s, for me it’s really interesting to speak with this customer. To know that if my philosophy is in agreement with his mind on it on it, and to understand if I produce a new couvet I can have the choice to know they agree with me or not, and if I must continue or not. I think the story of the family is more than five hundred years old. And if we want to continue we must know what thinks the customer. So that’s why.

JF: So we just tasted a bunch of really cool wines from Bojole and the and Victoria, when you have wine makers here pouring wines, I mean obviously you’re thinking about getting new wines possibly for the restaurant or just familiarizing yourself and the staff. But what’s the goal for you, and the staff, and yourself when you have wine makers here and a tasting like that?

VJ: So for tasting like that the main goal this time is just sort of make sure the staff is exposed to different wines. And styles and techniques and to learn a bit. But in addition to that we are tasting the wines to see if they’ll fit with our program and the list and learning a bit about the history of the estates and how they make the wine so that you can translate that to the guests.

On that note too, I wanted to show you guys stones I brought back from on the elevated plateau. These are called…

JF: I also want to about, so we’re sitting here in this lovely restaurant and it’s, but I want to talk about something else that you’re interested in. A passion of yours is amaro. And can you talk about your making an amaro will it be released shortly? Or what is the status of that? Tell me more about that project.

VJ: Yeah so it’s very exciting. It’s the first ever amaro that’s been made from completely forged ingredients and I got into forging at a previous restaurant called… and Central Park South. We worked with the forger there and I thought it was just really cool. So I just followed him around and then trailed under a bunch of different forgers. And then after a while I realized I had all of these extra material and there’s only so many summer salads you can eat before you get sick of them. And so I started just making them… in my kitchen and in-wood. And then I gave them away as Christmas gifts and a few people, especially a friend of mine, really encouraged me to kind of go commercial with it. So I explored my options and settled on a green hook  and Steven DeAngelo in Green Point. He’s been wonderful, so what I do essentially is I, in the spring go forging, ask friends to help ’cause it’s a lot of picking. And then those ingredients in a neutral grain New York spirit. So it’s all local. And then by the end of the summer, it’s ready to go into barrel, and then it’s sweetened and diluted. It’s based on plants in the aster family. So it’s called aster amaro. And hopefully it will be out soon, right now there’s a little bit of snafus with the TTB and SLA in terms of recipe approval you kind of submit all of these obscure things they’ve never heard of and they say wait I don’t know what that is. And I say don’t worry it’s completely edible.

And so you have to submit more and more explanations. So, but it all looks good and it should be out in a few months time.

JF: Awesome and when you talk about forging and I hear your super long day, how do you, you know working a job like this that requires long hours you’re on your feet you’re lifting cases up and down stairs I’m sure it’s like mentally and physically taxing just being alert in you know looking at spreadsheets, helping customers. How do you find time to do things like forge? And how do you manage to have that kind of work-life balance in a job that demands so much of your time?

VJ:  That’s a good question I’m still figuring it out to a certain extent. But luckily forging for me started as just a past time and way to really relax. You get to escaped into the woods. The opposite of Manhattan and just kind of go on a treasure hunt. So it’s really a way for me to relax and then it just so happened that I made a product from it. And I’m starting to get a little busier too. I also wrote a book that’s coming out soon. So I’m learning more and more everyday how to balance everything.

JF: All right you have to plug your book. Tell me about it.

VJ:  Okay. It is a book on Rose wine. And it will be out officially on May 2nd. And we haven’t really talked much about it yet. So this is kind of the first press I suppose in some way. So there’s that but yeah it will be wonderful, it’s coinciding with the opening of the new restaurant as well. So we’re just, we have a lot of things to celebrate.

JF: What is that so it’s a February and it’s like yesterday we had like almost a foot of snow and today it’s kind of gloppy and cold although sunny outside so it’s February. Are people drinking rose in in February?

VJ:  Absolutely I make sure we have rose at the restaurant all year long. And one of the things I cover in the book in addition to this history of rose regions producers, recipes and such, is stressing the importance of drinking rose all year long. It is a category just like white and red and even orange wine now and if orange wine can find a place on the table in many [inaudible 00:15:33] restaurants, I think rose wine can too.

JF: What are some of the things on the menu right now that, like if I ordered, you’d be like oh you should really have a glass of rose?

VJ:  Well right now our chef Chris Cipollone is incredibly talented. And one of the things he does very well is pasta. And also twist on that is he does these Korean dumplings so kind of pasta if you think about it, called mandu. And one we have on the menu seared halibut mandu. So a dumpling with halibut and all these Mediterranean flavors it just goes so well with rose. You literally have a bite and you have a sip of rose and it’s like you’re in Provence but I guess with a Korean twist.

JF: And you mentioned Provence and I think for a lot of people that’s sort of like the touchstone of rose, romantically and like the vision of it that kind of like pale colored rose. But I also want to talk about like, sometimes I have a you know, like I’m like I only want a lighter colored rose I look at a dark one I think it’s gonna be heavy or sweet or just not as refreshing. Are you seeing people sort of experimenting with the whole spectrum of rose? And do you have to kind of explain like, look not all of roses are just like super pale?

VJ:  Yeah definitely. Last week we were pouring with our tasting menu here, we do a la carte, but we also have a tasting menu which is great. I was pouring a heavier richer style of rosé from Italy and a lot of people actually didn’t even notice that it was rose. They thought it was actually a light red like a peniore trousseau. And once they tasted it and realized it was chilled as a rose would be they sort of kind of it changed their perspective quite a bit and I think that people are open to many different styles of rose they might just not know it yet.

JF: And what’s the name of the new restaurant? And where is going to be located? Do you know yet?

VJ:  Yes. So the new restaurant they’re starting, or they started construction about a month ago. It’ll be on Broadway and 21st street. So just south of the Flat Iron. Much larger restaurant. It will be Korean barbecue really fun cooking on the tables. But you know you can also have magnums of … Champagne and Sojou. So that’s a really fun program to build now and we’re you know looking for somms for that place and bartenders and that’s been a fun journey and the new restaurant will be called Coat. So Piora in Korean means to blossom. And Coat means flower.

JF: So it’s a new restaurant it’s totally being built from scratch. How do you start building a wine list or a beverage program for that like when its there’s like no space and how do you even wrap your head around that or what’s the first step?

VJ:  Yeah so the first step was I talked to the architects and the designers to see what they were envisioning in terms of space for the wine cellar. And then with those limited measurements I don’t know if you’re to familiar with Manhattan wine cellars but they’re usually not very generous in terms of size. You know, trying to figure out a way to squeeze as many wine racks in there as possible. So we worked with a designer as well to do that. And once you get a final … or an estimate of a bottle count then you work on consolidating that with the budget. And filling in wine that you think would be appropriate for the cuisine, the place. The price point. The guests. And then also throwing in a few of your favorites.

JF: So it’s like fifteen minutes until opening Victoria, what is like the final push before you open? What are you doing right now?

VJ:  Just last minute stocking of wines, going over some VIP or … important guests. Making sure menus are prepared for tasting menus and wine parings. And just kind of jumping in there tasting some wine and getting ready for guests.

JF: Awesome okay so what I want to do is give you a call tomorrow and I want to hear about how tonight went.

VJ: Awesome. Yeah what time?

JF: Not early.

VJ:  Okay all right. Well I will be up at eight so call me any time after that.

JF: Okay.

JF: Hello?

VJ:  Hey Jameson how are you?

JF: Good. Good morning to you.

VJ:  Good morning to you as well.

JF: Although you’ve been up for a while.

VJ:  Yeah I just got to Peoria about forty five minutes ago and settling in answering some emails.

JF: So ow did service go last night? Did anything particularly noteworthy happen?

VJ:  Yeah I mean every night here is just a lot of fun. Last night was crazy busy. We had some awesome guests. A lot of people participated in our half bottle program so they chose some bottles off the list to do buy the half bottle like older coat [inaudible 00:20:24] and white burgundy, some really really cool stuff and then I was able to pour that for tasting menus as well. It was a busy night, I was out by 12:30/1:00AM and there was even a guest that asked me to source their birth year of wine for them for a special occasion and they absolutely loved it. It was a 1990…

JF: Excellent.

VJ:  And it was really special. It was a fun night.

JF: So what do you like normally maybe this wasn’t last night, but what’s the kind of like beverage that you crave when you’re finally done and maybe you walk out the door? What are you in the mood for drinking?

VJ:  Well usually after tasting you know upwards of a hundred wines during service and throughout the day, I really kind of just a negrone or a cold beer.

JF: Nice. And finally just one last question. From the time I spent with you yesterday, and you telling me about what you do and me getting to witness that first hand, what do you want people to know about your job and your profession that maybe doesn’t get enough publicity or notoriety?

VJ:  I think that the role of the sommelier or the wine director is often misunderstood and that it’s all glamour and parties and wine and traveling and I think that people don’t know all the hard work and planning and long hours on your feet and running around that really go into it. But the most important thing that people should know is that sommeliers like people and they like hospitality. Or at least they should. So we’re doing this because we love this and it’s not just a job.

JF: Awesome. Okay and one more thing, it’s not even a question, but people want to visit you and order some great wine and have some food, what’s the website for the restaurant?

VJ:  Yeah the website is and they can always visit me usually Tuesday through Saturday there or at our new restaurant opening soon.

JF: Cool all right well thanks for letting me hang out with you yesterday and catch up on the phone today Victoria. Great to speak with you.

VJ:  It was such a pleasure Jameson. Take care.

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