By Kristine Cannon

Scottsdale-area sommeliers are avoiding a sour grapes attitude and finding creative ways to stay afloat amid a pandemic that’s crushed the spirits of virtually every industry.

The highly trained wine experts work hourly and for tips and often live paycheck to paycheck.

As they make their way back to restaurants, some sommeliers are also embracing virtual tastings and online workshops.

“The sommelier is even more valuable than before now than ever,” says Scottsdale Maple & Ash Wine Director Jason Caballero.

Since reopening May 21, Maple & Ash has rehired all but one sommelier furloughed in March.

As his sommeliers collected unemployment, Caballero set up virtual workshops where they learned from experts in the field.

“I thought, ‘We don’t have guests in the restaurant, so let’s take care of the bar staff. Let’s make sure they understand Bordeaux and they understand burgundy so when the doors do open again, everyone’s got a leg up,’” he explains.

Scottsdale sommelier Samantha Capaldi also went virtual.

Capaldi is the founder of Samantha Sommelier, which, pre-pandemic, specialized in in-home wine tastings for Scottsdale and Phoenix clients.

Over the last few months, her virtual wine tastings, which she began hosting in 2019, took off.

“I had at least a 50% increase in bookings,” Capaldi says. “I taste every day. Every weekend is booked.”

Capaldi launched her in-home wine-tasting business about four years ago, after working her way through several Scottsdale restaurants and tasting rooms as a sommelier.

Prepandemic, she would host three to four in-home tastings a week.

But while local wineries and tasting rooms scrambled to offer virtual wine tastings and workshops as the pandemic has worn on, Capaldi had already made a name for herself in that space.

“Last year, when I took it virtual, I loved it because I developed a whole other clientele on the East Coast and even internationally,” Capaldi says. “Since COVID, it’s become more of an interactive activity that people think about, which has been great.”

Capaldi’s demographic has also expanded.

At the start, Capaldi’s virtual clients were millennials, people in their 20s and 30s; but now, she’s booking their parents and even grandparents.

“I have done tastings for a group of women in their 70s,” she says. “I never imagined myself catering to that.”

And they’re no longer reserving wine tastings for the weekend or special events; they’re booking tastings on weeknights, too.

“People are getting more of that European mindset. They’re realizing it can be a part of your everyday life,” Capaldi says.

Capaldi is also a brand consultant, a service that’s also taken off for her amid the pandemic.

“I’m working with chefs right now to create online food and wine pairing experiences,” Capaldi says, adding that she tries “to help people who think they can’t take it online.”

“The online world is our future. Even when things get back to normal, there’s going to be people that are going to be more cautious, and it’s always good to have another outlet.”

Caballero also stepped in to help ensure Maple & Ash’s to-go orders maintained a high level of quality by rethinking how food was presented and packaged “just to make sure that the people are getting that value.”

Wine sales were down as much as 50% while the dining room was closed.

Caballero even adjusted Maple & Ash’s wine prices to compete with retailers such as Total Wine and Tarbell’s Wine Store.

“It’s a definitely a difficult time for the wine industry,” says Jonathan Coppins, a winemaker at Su Vino Winery for 10 years, co-owner of the new wine and beer bar Rift in Scottsdale, and a sommelier of about six years.

“You definitely find your core group of people who love your wines—they’ll support you—but getting new clients is really, really, really tough for us,” he says of Su Vino Winery.

Coppins says the most difficult part of the pandemic for tasting rooms like Su Vino is getting people through the door.

“Getting the new guys in and having them try is probably the most difficult thing, especially now. Everybody’s nervous about what they can and cannot do, and they’re afraid of their liquor license getting taken away from them,” he says.

According to United Sommeliers Foundation co-founder and President Cristie Norman, sommeliers are typically the first to be released and the last to be hired back when a major economic downturn hits restaurants.

“A sommelier is not an elitist, glamorous job,” Norman says. “Sommeliers do not work on salary. They work hourly and for tips, often live paycheck to paycheck without benefits such as unemployment or health insurance.”

As of about a month ago, however, Maple & Ash started “stabilizing,” Caballero says.

Maple & Ash is hosting its Fall Wine Dinner on November 10.

This summer, Marcellino Ristorante in Old Town launched a new series of twice-monthly wine dinners that include a four-course dinner with Italian wine pairings by Dario Soldan, sommelier and founder of Classico Wines in Tempe.

“Not only do guests enjoy the warmth of their banter, they learn about the wine characteristics, origins and why they pair so perfectly with each course,” says co-owner Sima Verzino.

Caballero thinks Phoenix and Scottsdale are “on the verge of becoming a more somm-centric town.”

A mentor of sommeliers since 2013, Caballero says, “There’s so many good sommeliers in Arizona. … They really want to make people have the greatest experience they can.”

Sommeliers, samanthasommelier.com, mapleandash.com, suvinowineryaz.com, marcellinoristorante.com.

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