The Double (Sweet) Life of the Seasonal Sommelier

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
April 2014

Restaurant

Ask anyone who knows, loves, or is one: restaurant pros tend to live on bizarre schedules. Not only do most of them suit up just as nine-to-fivers are officially checking out, there’s also that willing surrender of weekends, holidays—the kind of free time the rest of us fiercely guard.

Ah, and let’s not forget the hours, punishingly defiant of natural circadian rhythms. Now imagine taking a year’s worth of those 80-plus hour work weeks—the training, the volumes of product, and every single guest—and cramming it into a season that’s less than five months long and filled with sun-tanned, thirsty vacationers. That’s a taste of the life of the seasonal sommelier.

Sommelier Tanya McDonough of Straight Wharf -  Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Tanya McDonough of Straight Wharf - Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Brent Jones of Galley Beach -  Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Brent Jones of Galley Beach - Nantucket, MA

Sommelier John Clift of Atria †Martha’s Vineyard, MA

Sommelier John Clift of Atria â€" Martha’s Vineyard, MA

Sommelier Jenny Benzie of Cru - Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Jenny Benzie of Cru - Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Stephen Bowler of The Pearl - Nantucket, MA

Sommelier Stephen Bowler of The Pearl - Nantucket, MA

“It’s like starting a new restaurant every year,” says Tanya McDonough, Rising Star Sommelier at Nantucket restaurants Ventuno and Straight Wharf. “We break everything down and store it away until the spring, when we set it all up again.” McDonough’s describing the backbone of any successful seasonal operation: the ability to hibernate and revive on a yearly basis.

First, there’s “hiring and training a new staff, every season,” she says. Fortunately, and it’s probably no coincidence, most seasonal personnel end up coming back year after year. Brent Jones has been a seasonal sommelier for 15 years, while Atria’s John Clift is finishing 11 years. Jenny Benzie may only be on her third season as sommelier at Nantucket’s Cru, but she’s coming off four years at Café Boulud Palm Beach, not to mention seasonal college gigs in places like Montana and the Virgin Islands. And then there are guys like Stephen Bowler, of the Pearl, who’s been surrounded by the odd rhythms of Nantucket since he was 13, working at his family’s seasonal clothing store. “The seasons are pretty dramatic over here,” he says.

Whether it’s in the genes or the personality, something in these five sommeliers says “yes” to the high-volume, high-variation intensity of a collapsed professional life. “Going to work every single day for 14 hours a day is a lot,” says Clift. “But I absolutely love it.” It’s easy to see that as a kind of joyful masochism, the half-mad choice of the kind of person who thrives on stress. The New England vacation season even has its own secondary micro season, with a major uptick in July; and it takes a certain kind of person to look forward to that, repeatedly. Bowler estimates “something like 75,000 people here in July and August and 10,000 people here from November to April, with the transitions occurring quite rapidly.” Clift sees much the same from the perch of Atria in Martha’s Vineyard. “Even though we open in May, 80 percent of our total business is July and August.”

So how does a somm hope to keep up? Prepare. And, ideally, learn to love it. "It's kind of exciting in some ways," says Benzie. "You get to almost rebuild your list every year." It allows for agility, experimentation, fresh flavors, and new bottles—often culled from the vineyards and producers you met in your time off. It also means pressure to buy lean and sell aggressively. "You have to be aware of when to bulk up on particular wines and when to start paring down," says McDonough. "Planning ahead is the most crucial thing," says Jones. "Looking at reports from years past can always be helpful." And surprising, it turns out. While the bulk of a warm weather sommelier's list will include rosés, Champagne, white Burgundies, etc., there's also a healthy, even predominant demand for red. "We sell more red wine than we do white," says Clift. "Even in Martha's Vineyard, in the summer, we sell a ton of Pinot Noir."

So how does a somm hope to keep up? Prepare. And, ideally, learn to love it. “It’s kind of exciting in some ways,” says Benzie. “You get to almost rebuild your list every year.” It allows for agility, experimentation, fresh flavors, and new bottles—often culled from the vineyards and producers you met in your time off. It also means pressure to buy lean and sell aggressively.

“You have to be aware of when to bulk up on particular wines and when to start paring down,” says McDonough, who oversees two wine lists during the busy season.

“Planning ahead is the most crucial thing,” says Jones. “Looking at reports from years past can always be helpful.” And surprising, it turns out. While the bulk of a sommelier’s warm weather list will include rosés, Champagne, white Burgundies, etc., there’s also a healthy, even predominant demand for red. “We sell more red wine than we do white,” says Clift. “Even in Martha’s Vineyard, in the summer, we sell a ton of Pinot Noir.”

Seasonal wine choices—and quantities—are a little different off the mainland. “People are on vacation, coming to Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate. They’re not that interested in buying a white Rhone.” Whether a red or a white is more celebratory is subjective, but what seems common across the board is quantity—it’s almost always a bit higher. “Everybody’s on vacation, so people spend money,” says Benzie, a self-professed “huge fan” of warm weather wines and chaser of high temps from summertime Nantucket to wintertime South Florida. “Instead of one bottle of rose, they buy two.”

Taking this kind of vacation psychology into account is just part of the job. And it’s a job that can, at times, drain even the most well-seasoned. “I will openly admit that, on Nantucket, by late August, the ‘crush’ of summer is totally overwhelming and completely exhausting,” says Bowler. “It’s like working a Saturday night in a busy restaurant, seven nights a week,” says McDonough. And it shows no signs of slowing. “The last two summer seasons here have seen record highs in seasonal rentals.” But that’s part of the risk-reward dichotomy of the system. “Working 60 to 80 hours a week for 10 to 12 consecutive weeks can take its toll,” says Jones. “Keeping in mind that I’ll have months of downtime in November makes it all worthwhile.”

And that’s where the icing on the cake comes in. Working seasonal buys something no year-round salary can pay for: time—typically lots of it. “It gets challenging, being seasonal, relocating, packing up your car,” says Benzie. But it’s rewarding. Recently, she decided to make Nantucket her home base and bought a wine store. Now, she only travels for shorter spans to stay with friends and family and for consulting gigs. McDonough also travels for work. “The past few years I’ve gone back to Boston to work part-time in various restaurants,” she says. She’s also gone to Italy “to research wine for Ventuno,” among other things.

“I’m very, very lucky,” says Clift, who also owns a wine store on Martha’s Vineyard. “I have this amazing quality of life over the last years. I pretty much travel the world, go back to Italy every year, go to France, try to hit a new winery that I haven’t been to … I don’t need to be at a job.”

And that’s maybe the most important aspect of time off—having an open space in which to imagine anything, even another professional path. Sure, doing “the business of 12 months in basically four months’ time” as McDonough puts it, might be exhausting. But the potential rewards, both personal and professional can be sweet. “[It] provides a forced opportunity to pursue something new if you want,” says Bowler. “I’m starting my own restaurant this season, and definitely believe I would never have had the ambition, inclination, time, or what have you to actually go and do it if I was in a full time year-round setting.