What was it like being a sommelier at one of Seattle’s most prestigious restaurants as the pandemic started to unfold? How have restaurants and wine lists changed to re-emerge in a post-pandemic world? How are sommeliers pivoting in the wake of the pandemic?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Zach Geballe, co-host and producer of the VinePair podcast as well as the founder of Disgorged Wine.
You can find the wines we discussed here.
Join me for the debut Watch Party of the video of this conversation that I’ll be live-streaming for the very first time on Zoom on Wednesday, June 2nd at 7 pm eastern.
You can save your spot for free right here. I’ll be jumping into the comments as we watch it together so that I can answer your questions in real-time.
I want to hear from you! What’s your opinion of what we’re discussing? What takeaways or tips do you love most from this chat? What questions do you have that we didn’t answer?
- Why was Zach fascinated with restaurants and food as a child?
- What was Zach’s experience with Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge?
- How does Zach see restaurants and wine lists changing in a post-pandemic world?
- Which types of restaurant customers does Zach expect to decline because of the pandemic?
- When did Zach first realize that it wouldn’t be business as usual for 2020?
- How did Zach combine his twin loves of journalism and the restaurant industry?
- How did the Disgorged and Vinepair podcasts get started?
- Why has Zach’s multi-passionate nature been especially important in the past year?
- How are sommeliers pivoting in the wake of the pandemic?
- Why are wine jobs often the first to go in hard times?
- I also agree that we’ll see far fewer restaurants in the downtown cores and big cities that relied heavily on customers from business travel. I wonder what eateries will replace them, if any?
- I agree with Zach that counter-service is going to be a big part of the post-pandemic dining landscape. And maybe that’s the answer for the downtown cores.
- While this will help keep wine prices more reasonable and more restaurants above water financially, I’m concerned about what that means not only for servers and other staff, but also for sommeliers. Will we lose many of these experts who can help us discover so many terrific, new wines and new pairings? I hope that they’ll be able to pivot to new jobs in the hospitality world.
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I think that the counter-service restaurant is going to be a huge part of the post-pandemic landscape. - Zach Geballe Click to tweet
One way for restaurants to get around this problem of keeping wine prices approachable is to cut the service component. - Zach Geballe Click to tweet
The reality is that a lot of restaurants, especially in downtown cores and big cities, rely heavily on customers from business travel. - Zach Geballe Click to tweet
I’ve never been just a one-job-at-a-time person. And certainly with a pandemic. And with the restaurants closing, that’s been good. - Zach Geballe Click to tweet
I think one of the big casualties of this pandemic on the hospitality industry is going to be a tremendous talent drain, probably both front and back of the house. - Zach Geballe Click to tweet
About Zach Geballe
Zach Geballe is a Seattle-based journalist and educator focused on the beverage alcohol industry. He is the co-host and producer of the VinePair podcast as well as the founder of Disgorged Wine, a wine education and events company in Seattle. He is a Certified Sommelier and has over 15 years of restaurant industry experience, most recently as the wine director for Tom Douglas Restaurants in Seattle, Washington.
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Zach Geballe 0:00
The counter service restaurant is going to be a huge part of the post pandemic landscape. You walk in, you sit on a table and you scan a QR code on your phone and you place your order. You’re cutting out a couple of jobs, you’re taking the server, the host, maybe even the busser. You still need people to prepare food in restaurants. But how much do you really need people to take orders and serve food? So one way for restaurants to get around this problem of keeping wine prices approachable is to cut the service component. That’s the thing that I anticipate being different.
Natalie MacLean 0:38
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? That’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean and each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please! And let’s get started.
Welcome to Episode 130. What was it like being the sommelier at one of Seattle’s most prestigious restaurants as the pandemic started to unfold? How have restaurants and wine lists changed over the lockdown to re-emerge after the pandemic? And how are sommeliers pivoting in the wake of all of these changes? That’s exactly what you’ll learn in this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast.
I’m chatting with Zach Geballe, the host and producer of the VinePair podcast. Zach is a wine writer, educator, and certified sommelier based in Seattle and he has some terrific tasting tips to share with you. In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, and where you can find me on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/130.
Now on a personal note, before we dive into the show, I’ve been taking online courses about writing a memoir as I continue to slog through my own. And you know, the biggest challenge is not chronicling what happened but how I felt about what happened. My default and my defence is to slip into reporting mode as though I’m telling you why Orange wines are trendy. But that’s not why we read memoirs. We read them to see if our life story connects with theirs, to find out more about ourselves through their journey. Wines are like that, too. We drink them to discover our own tastes, and sometimes our memories. So I’m binge listening to memoirs as well right now on audiobooks. Do you have a favourite memoir? Let me know. Okay, on with the show.
Natalie MacLean 3:36
Zach Geballe is a Seattle based journalist and educator focused on the beverage alcohol industry. He’s the co-host for the very popular podcast from VinePair, as well as the founder of Disgorged Wine, a wine education and events company based in Seattle. He’s a certified sommelier with 15 years experience in the wine industry. And he joins us now from his home in Seattle. Hey, Zach, how are you?
Zach Geballe 4:03
I’m great, Natalie, thanks so much for having me.
Natalie MacLean 4:05
Oh, my pleasure. I had such fun chatting with you on your podcast. We just had to do it again. Let’s get started first with some of your most memorable wine experiences. Tell us about the time or your first experience at the Seattle restaurant Dahlia Lounge?
Zach Geballe 4:21
Well, it’s funny, you know, I served as the wine director, and sommelier at Dahlia Lounge for a number of years. And honestly my first real wine experience there probably didn’t come until I was an employee, but I was a very strange child in a lot of ways. And one of the ways I was strange was, was that I was really fascinated by restaurants and food.
Natalie MacLean 4:45
What do you think that was, as a child? Usually kids don’t want to have anything to do with the parents, like accompanying them to a restaurant.
Zach Geballe 4:52
I think it was two parts. One is my father worked as a cook at times before I was born, so certainly not something I was aware of. Then hearing a little bit about it, and then briefly as a cook kind of when he was in between other jobs, but it’s not to say that I had, oh, you know, I went with him to, you know, it was his job. And, and I didn’t really know a lot about it. But I think I just, I’ve always loved food, even as a kid, before I was interested in drinks of anything sort of beyond juice or whatever.
And I love restaurants. There was something to me, I think, as a child, and I think maybe it just kind of came from how I grew up, where the rules for both of my parents and their houses was basically, you know, what we are making is what is available, and you will eat it or you won’t eat anything. I was always a good eater, and so, you know, mostly I ate it. And I was always pretty willing to try new things and like most things, but there was something about the times that I did get to go to restaurants as a kid, where I could order whatever I wanted, you know, I could decide that I could eat something different than what my sister was eating, or my parents were eating or whatever. And so I think that was part of the appeal when I was a kid.
But also, I think it was just Seattle at the time, which is where I grew up, was going through the very, very beginning stages of a restaurant kind of revolution. And Tom Douglas, who was the owner and operator of Dahlia Lounge from when it opened in 1989, was at the forefront of that. And so I found restaurants, and especially restaurant reviews, as someone who always loved writing and all that as well and reading, to be fascinating. I was interested in movie reviews a little bit but I was never as big into movies as I was into food. And I would read the reviews.
And I would be captivated by the whole notion of going to these restaurants, you know, many of which were not places, you know, that I was going to go with my family. They were the nicest restaurants in Seattle, which was not a big part of our dining experience. We did a lot of dining in diners and stuff like that. And so I kept reading about for years, you know, probably the Dahlia Lounge as sort of the iconic or one of the iconic restaurants in Seattle, and I badgered my dad to take me, and he eventually did take me for my 11th birthday. And it was great.
Natalie MacLean 6:57
Most kids are going to McDonald’s for the Happy Meal, you’re going to the Dahlia Lounge.
Zach Geballe 7:01
Yeah, you know, they’re these things in my life that are looking backwards are clues to what I would end up doing professionally and being interested in. I wish I remembered more about the meal other than just sort of being like, wow, this is kind of the nicest, like, you know, it’s a big deal. It’s just me and my dad. And you know, he was very, as I recall, relatively indulgent of me, and I think it kind of tickled our server that you know, here was a kid whose birthday wish was to go to, you know, as you said, you know, most people expect that, you know, an 11 year old wants a pizza party or something for his birthday. And that was not me. I mean, I’m sure I had a party as well. But that dinner is what I remember.
So I had these very fond memories of the restaurant and eventually then getting to work there; initially starting out as a busser, then eventually server and then as a wine director eventually. It felt like a quite an accomplishment. I held similar roles in other restaurants, which I’d certainly also took great pride in. But doing that at a place that I had, you know, sort of been captivated by since childhood was a cool experience.
Natalie MacLean 7:56
Interesting, a sort of coming home of sorts. And so for those of us who are not familiar with Dahlia Lounge, I take it it’s one of Seattle’s top restaurants?
Zach Geballe 8:05
Well, I hate to say this, but it was. Actually the company recently announced that it will not be reopening after the pandemic. Yeah, it was a bummer. not totally a shock. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us and had many, many lasting effects. And this is one of them.
Prior to the pandemic, yes, I mean, it was, I think, this is a big topic and hard to kind of say, but the restaurant was open for just over 30 years. And in its time, it went from being kind of almost the first of its kind restaurant in Seattle to really emphasise a lot of fresh local ingredients, to kind of look at combining culinary techniques from different parts of the world and in a way, I mean, I think, you know, fusion would be kind of the, the way it was probably referred to in the late 80s, early 90s, to being more of an institution.
And that’s always an interesting transition for a restaurant to go from being cutting edge to kind of the place that has always been there. But yeah, I was, you know, it was always considered as sort of one of the pillars of the dining scene in Seattle. And so obviously, you know, the news that it was closing or not reopening, I should say, was certainly sad for a lot of people. But obviously, for those of us who work there, particularly, you know, sad.
Natalie MacLean 9:19
Absolutely. While we’re on that topic, obviously, a lot of restaurants are closing, sadly, people are losing their jobs. Well, how do you think restaurant lists will change as a result of the pandemic? Hopefully, we get to a place of everyone vaccinated, herd immunity and places reopened. But what do you think of the permanent ramifications of how restaurant lists will look in the future?
Zach Geballe 9:41
Oh, now that’s a fascinating question and one I think a lot about. So I will give you my informed speculation let’s put it that way. I think there’s two big changes that we will see. One is going to be that restaurants are going to have to strongly reconsider and here I’m speaking, I think, for me here in the United States. I think that this format is largely the same in Canada. Other parts of the world, this is not going to apply to as much because I don’t know as much about how these things work. But traditionally, in restaurants, the profit driver for restaurants is the beverage alcohol programme; it’s wine, cocktails, beer,
Natalie MacLean 10:17
and they say customers will eat you poor and drink you rich. I don’t know if that still applies. But yeah
Zach Geballe 10:22
But if you compare that to some other parts of the world, like in Europe, for example, the model for restaurants is a little different. The wine in general, beverage alcohol more probably, is not marked up the same way that it is here. There’s also a lot less intermediaries, especially in Europe, between winery and restaurant. You know, in many cases, restaurants can buy directly from the winery, which keeps costs down. Here in the US, if you’re in Washington State, you can buy direct from some Washington wineries if you’re a restaurant, but the point is that there’s so much in the past of the revenue of the restaurant came through the beverage alcohol programme. And I think that some of that just kind of came to be naturally, and I think the sort of consistent theme was, well, drinking is an option for people, we don’t want everyone to feel priced out, because they don’t want to spend money on alcohol, they can still come in and have a meal.
But what we found in restaurants, this was all happening before the pandemic. The pandemic has just caused a reset and a chance to re-evaluate a lot of these things. What we found is that the real problem with that model is, Well, for one, obviously, if people don’t drink, that’s a problem for you. And it starts as prices of everything creep up. And in alcohol, as with everything else, you start to run into this problem where either you are putting a lot of your programme, your list, out of almost everyone’s price point. And if you have a very wealthy clientele, maybe that’s okay. But for the most part, what restaurants are finding, what I was finding, is the wine I was excited about, that I wanted to share with guests, not all of it, but a lot of it was starting to kind of creep up into a price point where it was harder and harder to do that. And why? Because well, typically, we were marking up, you know, that’s our standard markup in the US of, you know, three times a wholesale price for a bottle of wine, four times the wholesale price for a glass of wine, like that was the very standard format, obviously deviate from that in certain places.
And what I wonder if what will happen is, restaurants will say, bars will say, etc, wine inventory is costly, you know, wine is expensive to store, it’s big, it’s expensive to buy. So having a large programme, most of which doesn’t sell very regularly, just so that you have a full looking list or just so that you have expensive bottles on hand when that guest does come in, is that our most efficient use of resources? Or does it make sense to have a smaller list with less expensive offerings, maybe we charge less markup, and we rely on volume and we rely maybe on making up that loss of revenue in other ways. And one of them I think, unfortunately, is going to be much less full service in restaurants, you know, I think that the counter service restaurant is going to be a huge part of that post pandemic landscape.
Natalie MacLean 12:53
And what does that mean that counter service restaurant? Are you talking about fast food
Zach Geballe 12:56
like not exactly I think when I define counter service, what I envision is a sort of model. And it’s kind of a catch all phrase. But what I envision is not what we typically think of as full service where you walk into a restaurant, someone greets you at the door, they take you to a table, you sit down a server comes over, takes your order brings your food, you never have to get up, right, there’s no part of the meal where I mean, obviously you can but there’s no part of the meal where anything you need will be brought to you. And counter service in my eyes means more like you walk in, there’s a line or there’s counter, or you have a app on your phone or something, you sit on a table and you scan a QR code on your phone and you place your order through your phone. In other words, you’re cutting out a couple of jobs, basically, you’re taking the server or the host, maybe even the bus or maybe you when you’re done. If someone brings your food to you probably maybe you go pick it up at a counter, but maybe they bring it to you. But then when you’re done you bus, your own table to bus stop, train, whatever. And we’ve already seen that in Seattle and a lot of other places pre pandemic. And what we’re seeing, what I think we’ll see post pandemic is that labour is such an incredibly high cost for restaurants. And it’s become more and more so and for a lot of good reasons. Because people are paying minimum wage in the United States for skilled labour. It’s a hard job, you know, all parts of it are hard. Cooking is very hard, long hours. It’s intense work, and paying people essentially minimum wage or just above it to do that, you know, you’re not going to keep talent. People don’t want to do that job. And I don’t blame them. It’s hard work. And it’s skilled work, and it should be paid as such. But the reality is, you still need generally people to prepare food and restaurants and most of them. But how much do you really need people to take orders and serve food? Well, you know, I don’t know. So one way for restaurants to get around this problem of keeping wine prices approachable to people is to cut the service component. That’s the thing that I anticipate being different. The other thing that I’m not sure about, but I think that we were seeing in a lot of restaurants all over the US were a lot of wine lists that were very, very, very narrowly focused. And I don’t know yet whether there will be the same appetite. For those things going forward, at least in the next couple of years,
Natalie MacLean 15:03
In what way might they be narrowly focused, like, give us an example.
Zach Geballe 15:06
So we’re gonna only serve wine from, you know, Burgundy, or we’re only going to serve wine from northern Italy, or we’re only going to serve natural wine. And all those places may still survive in some context. But I think what you often found, and what surprised me too, is that you would see restaurants with please one thing, if you have a restaurant who specialises in Piedmontese cuisine serving Piedmontese wines. Fine; right? That makes a certain kind of sense.
But what I was seeing a lot of were restaurants that had a little more of a, not as clear a geographic origin for their cuisine, but sort of making these choices about a very narrow set of wines, whether regionally, or stylistically, or whatever. And just, you know, again, like you kind of create this programme, where you tell a lot of would be wine drinkers, hey, we know we don’t have anything for you. I have always thought that it’s bad business. But in a world where you’re just not sure what the landscape is going to look like, as people start to kind of fully re-emerge into the world post vaccination and stuff like that my inclination, my instinct as a service professional would be to be as accommodating as possible. And that means giving people options when you can and not being quite as narrow. Some people might have a lot of success going the other way, I don’t know, just speculating.
Natalie MacLean 16:18
That’s interesting observation. So perhaps less risky, or less niche and more recognisable wines, higher rotation, that sort of thing, the things that you’ve written about previously, do you think also contributing to this; I was reading something you were writing, that perhaps the type of diners who will come out to restaurants post pandemic will also change? In that maybe two specific groups, those with expense accounts, business types, with expense accounts, and maybe large event traffic or sporting event traffic, I’m not sure what it was. But do you think those two groups will diminish considerably and have a big impact on restaurant lists?
Zach Geballe 16:55
Yes, I think one of the big unknown questions for not just the restaurant industry, but the travel industry, hotel industry, things like that is, business travel has largely ground to a halt during the pandemic, some small amount of quote unquote, essential travel, but the kinds of things whether it’s an individual or a small group, from a company travelling to some other part of the country, or the world for business, large conventions, like all those things are not really happening right now.
What I suspect is being found and my wife works for a big four accounting firm, so I have a certain insight into how that all works, just in terms of hearing what she and the partners of her firm are discussing about all of that, in some way, is that, you know, what’s been clear is, like, so much of business can be conducted like this, you know, virtually in a way that now that everyone basically has spent a year or more adapting to it, is not going to go away. That the idea of getting on a plane and flying for X number of hours in business class, staying in an expensive hotel, and paying for meals, if it doesn’t go away entirely, is going to be greatly diminished.
And the reality is that a lot of restaurants, especially in downtown cores, and big cities, rely heavily on that kind of business. That is the bread and butter of a lot of restaurants. I think about many big steak houses and steakhouse chains, that are built around the premise in part that like, we are going to have a core level of business that is that someone who’s going to walk in and who in the end of it isn’t paying so they don’t really care. I mean, maybe they have a budget they have to keep under but it’s not their money. So yeah, they’ll buy $100 steak and a $300 bottle of wine, and not even think about it. And if it’s their own money, well, maybe they don’t do that. Maybe they get the burger and maybe they get a beer, right?
Natalie MacLean 18:32
Or maybe they’re tourists visiting a big city, and they’re gonna splurge a little bit, you know?
Zach Geballe 18:36
Yes. And that piece of it, the tourism side, we will see. But you know, underpinning a lot of these industries is business travel, because business travel, you know, it’s changed a lot. It used to be even more of a free for all, because within the US the tax laws were different and you could sort of write off on your taxes, larger amounts of business, entertaining expenses, but even so it’s been relatively permissive. And it’s just been a thing that is done. But again, so many things after this pandemic, we’re going to say, well, just because we did it that way, doesn’t mean we should continue to do it that way. It’s unclear.
So I think you have that piece of that where a lot of businesses that depended on business travel, and to some extent, maybe just overall business traffic. So even if it’s not travel, but if people working in office buildings, again, unclear how much of that is going to resume at full capacity. I think, for all foreseeable future, I think there’s going to be half occupancies, some people are going to be given the option to kind of permanently work from home if they choose to. So you’re just gonna have a lot of fewer people in these downtown areas for the next couple of years, which creates real pressure on restaurants that are in those areas. Obviously, not all restaurants are in those areas.
And then the other piece of it is, you know, in terms of these large events that I think we’re seeing coming back, I mean, you already see sporting events in the United States, certainly and depending on where you are with very different sets of rules and regulations, but with some number of fans in attendance. I imagine that as the year wears on, you might see large outdoor concerts, those kinds of things that do bring people in, will probably come back quicker, they’ve been more of an issue for restaurants that were dependent on them during the pandemic, when they’ve been shut down. I think that will come back. Because people are so desperate to have things to do and to be in community with one another. But it’s the business travel piece that I’m dubious will return to anything like its pre-pandemic level, at least for a number of years.
Natalie MacLean 20:17
That’s interesting. So you had been a wine director and sommelier at Dahlia Lounge, pre pandemic. Can you remember the day you first thought your job might be in jeopardy?
Zach Geballe 20:27
I can. I’ll tell you there are two. So the first day that really stands out to me in memory, it was February 29. Got the date? I do? Well, it was a leap year day; so it’s a sort of a not a lot of February 29ths. And the reason for it is that was a Saturday night. And I showed up to the restaurant as I usually do, you know, between noon and one, kind of getting ready for the day and for the service and the news have come out earlier that morning. The Seattle area was one of the initial epicentres for COVID-19 outbreaks in the US and in particular, in a care facility in Kirkland, which is a nearby city. And the first person at one of those care facilities had died that morning or had been that may have died the night before and it was announced that morning. And I noticed, you know, just being in the restaurant and being around taking some phone calls that probably 20 to 25% of our reservations cancelled for that night.
And it was the first time that we really had seen like, any of that every person said, Oh, this is because of COVID or Coronavirus. I think at time no one was calling it COVID; no one really said that at the time. I mean, one or two people maybe said it, but it was clear, you know, we don’t just get a quarter of our reservations cancelling, without anything besides like a big weather event, or in this case, a disease. And so that was the first moment where I was like, oh, wow, you know, the restaurant was not empty or anything, you know, we still did a reasonable amount of covers, but it was less than a typical Saturday. And again, you know, you get those people calling in cancelling, you notice that, and then that subsequent week was pretty slow, which can sometimes happen in early March.
And then it was really the next weekend and the following week,so sort of like that seventh, eighth, ninth of March, where suddenly we were doing 25 to 35 covers in 175 seat restaurant. And you know, by Monday of that week, Tuesday, that week, it was clear, this just can’t go on. Right, you know, we cannot be open; there’s no level of staffing, you know, you have to have a few cooks, because, you know, you have to have a menu and it was clear, like people are not going to be you know, even before anything had been announced from the government side, it was clear, people were taking it upon themselves to stay home.
I mean, the big employers in downtown Seattle had by this point, a lot of them had sort of issued work from home orders, or encouraging people to work from home. It was clear, there was less and less traffic. And actually, I had been gifted from the company well before, like a night, so that one of our restaurants is in a hotel in downtown Seattle, I had been sort of been gifted a dinner for two and then sort of a fancy date night. And so my wife and I, on March 10, went to dinner, you know, there were like two other tables in the restaurant. And we stayed at the hotel, and you know, kind of like, is this a good idea? But we again, you know, we all look back in that period of time, but most of us I think, can think like, wow, I did some really dumb things I didn’t really realise. And so the next morning, woke up and like, we had breakfast and my wife went to work. And I went up to the restaurant.
And I was like, I don’t know, if I’m gonna have a meal in a restaurant again for a while. I mean, whether or not I was comfortable with it, it was also just, you know, no one is going to operate. And later that day, the company announced that we were intending to close all the restaurants for service that Sunday. And by the time we actually got to Sunday, the governor of Washington announced that all restaurants had to close that day, like it was the news came on Wednesday, the 11th. They felt like wow, we’re like out in front of this. And four days later it was like, everyone is doing that. Yeah, it’s I’m sure everyone remembers that period of time was just like, everything was accelerating. It was really crazy to live through. And we’ll all remember it in one way or another. So yeah, that was like it was strange.
Natalie MacLean 23:55
Oh, my goodness. I mean, you’ve made quite the pivot. Or perhaps you are always doing content creation, you’re writing. I know, you had the Disgorged podcast, which do you still host that as well,
Zach Geballe 24:06
Goodish question. I mean, I’ll sort of give a very brief background. So I went to college, I’ve got a degree in broadcast journalism. And actually, I’d always interested in food and drink. But I thought if I was going to have a career in that it was going to be in restaurants, I thought about doing that. But I also was really interested in journalism, and especially sports journalism, and that was really what I did in college. And so at the time of graduation, I was looking at options career wise, and had a few job offers. I went to college in New York City, and I had a few job offers there.
But the reality is that those jobs were, how would I describe it? They were not intended for people who had to actually like pay to live in New York City, like most of the people who took them were people who were from the area and lived at home. You know, I had a couple of friends who were from the New York City area and took jobs like that and they lived with their parents for years until they could actually like make enough money to rent an apartment. And I’m from Seattle, I didn’t have parents to stay with there so that salary they paid; it was just like I did the math and it was like, essentially, even if I got the cheapest apartment, I could reasonably see, I would essentially have no money.Enough to pay my rent, and my student loans and I would have like $100 a month for food. And it just like, you just can’t,
Natalie MacLean 25:15
You can’t survive on that.
Zach Geballe 25:16
No. And I, you know, I liked what I was doing all right, but I wasn’t so passionate about it, that the years of kind of barely getting by weren’t appealing to me. And so I moved back to Seattle and started working in restaurants instead. And all that to say, you know, for a while the journalism side of things kind of laid dormant for me but then I got into writing about the restaurant industry in Seattle. I wrote for a publication here for a number of years called Seattle Weekly, I ended up eventually having a weekly drinks column, kind of talking about things going on in the beverage alcohol world here.
And in that period, at some point when I had sort of been doing a lot of writing, and I had done a podcast way back in the early days of podcasting in the mid 2000s, a sports podcast with some college friends, and we did it for a while. But this was an era when you recorded a podcast and you uploaded it to a website, and no one had iPhones. I mean, he told people, if you want to listen to it, you know, you can go to this URL and sit at your computer and listen to it or something. It was just not a thing that people did at the time, including me, I listened to maybe one podcast occasionally.
What happened was I was doing some writing and then I was invited to be on a radio show talking about wine by someone, you know, a colleague. And I was like, I miss that. So I miss talking about wine and beverage alcohol. I enjoy writing about it as well. But there’s something about talking about it that fits me in a lot of ways. And so I said, you know, whatever, I’m gonna go start my own podcast. And I’m just going to interview people that I like, and or that I’m interested in what they have to say. And so that was Disgorged and I recorded a number of episodes, and just was sort of like, you know, some combination of people that I knew and people I was interested in and just sent them emails and said, Hey, would you do this?
And one of those people was Adam Teeter, who’s the co founder of VinePair, and my co-host on the podcast. And he and I had a really interesting conversation on my podcast. And I sort of afterwards after a little while, was like, hey, VinePair doesn’t have a podcast, our conversation was great. Do you want to do this? And he said, Oh, that’s interesting idea. You know, we’ve sort of been thinking about it. Let me get back to you. So like two months later, I emailed him, Hey, what do you think about doing a podcast and this went on for about a year before we finally actually like, got to the point where we’re actually clearly going to do it.
And so we started recording, when we really started doing the VinePair podcast, I kind of put Disgorged on hold. But actually, very recently, in the last little while, I’ve been doing these through Disgorged, because I like to have different things going on. I’ve never been just a one job at a time person. And certainly with the pandemic and with the restaurants closing, that’s been good because I had at the time other things lined up, and I’ve been able to focus on them more. I’ve been doing classes and events online through Disgorged and then have been turning the salons which are conversational, kind of like this, into podcasts. So actually, there are some new things under the Disgorged feed as of like this last week, which is cool. So that’ll be every other week for as long as I do the salons, we’ll just put the audio up. So yeah,
Natalie MacLean 28:02
So you had that to return to like after the pandemic hit and you are no longer the wine director, that was no longer a possibility. But what do you think other sommeliers are doing these days? I mean, you were fortunate, you have the skills, content creation, journalism background, but what are some of these doing who have been laid off and don’t have those skills?
Zach Geballe 28:25
I think that’s a really good question and a hard one to answer because I think there are very few good answers. I mean, in terms of ones that are supportive and positive for them. I know some people who have, frankly, tried to create content in one form or another, you know, who have turned into social media, who have started podcasts and things like that, you know, trying to get that connection, that rolling. I think the hard part is, you know, if you don’t already have a following, it can be hard to generate one generally.
You know, one of the things that we saw earlier in the pandemic was a lot of restaurants that had elaborate or extensive wine programmes looking to clear out inventory. So maybe they kept the sommelier on, or the wine director on, or brought them back in a limited capacity to try and facilitate either retail sales of wine or maybe sales to collectors or things like that. But again, you know, that was more like, April, May, June, not so much a year later. Some of them have undoubtedly, either left the hospitality industry, they’ve maybe been able to find some kind of jobs within other parts of the wine industry, but I know a lot of them have, at least for the time being, had to leave wine or beverage alcohol because so much of what people are doing now in terms of purchasing wine is either online, which doesn’t typically require a lot of human labour, especially skilled labour, or they are buying it from grocery stores or retail shops, many of which are already fully staffed.
So I don’t know, I think one of the big casualties or one of the big impacts of this pandemic on the hospitality industry is going to be a tremendous talent drain, probably both front and back of the house because people have had to find other lines of work. They’ve had to do something besides restaurant work, because it’s just not there or, and even if you’re working in a restaurant that is open in some capacity again, you know, I think wine professionals have been always in hard times, they’ve been some of the first jobs to go, the owner, whether it’s an individual owner, you know, a company, whatever, figures, and maybe rightly so, yeah, you know, great, it’s nice to have a sommelier or a wine director or you know, whatever, when times are good. But when times are bad, or when they’re harder, we’re just unsure.
We can pick a manager who has already been paid a salary, they can handle the wine, right? They can order it, they can just reorder wine, they can stock the wine, they can, you know, whatever. And we’ll just make it do. And so I think that we’re going to see that there’s going to be a real dearth of jobs for people like me, frankly, when restaurants do fully reopen. And I hope I’m wrong. I mean, I hope that there is a recognition that there is a place for skilled professionals in these niche areas. But it requires, you know, I’ve seen the argument put out there, and I don’t know that I can totally endorse it, which is that, you know, oh, wine directors and sommeliers, pay for themselves, and I think they can for sure, if they’re good. But there are also the reality is like, we were having a glut of people of my general skill set. It’s certainly in the United States, as wine education and wine accreditation became more and more popular, we had more and more people floating around with the accreditation at a minimum, whether they had relevant experience, harder to say. How many restaurants really need a dedicated wine professional? I think the answer pre-pandemic was maybe fewer than had them and certainly post pandemic for a while, I think it’s going to be fine dining restaurants will want them, maybe some places that have for one reason or another, an extensive wine programme will have them. But I think it’s going to be slow to come back, unfortunately.
Natalie MacLean 31:55
I agree. Yeah. Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Zach.
Here are my takeaways. I agree that we’re going to see far fewer restaurants in the downtown cores of big cities that previously relied heavily on customers from business travel. It makes me wonder what kind of eateries will replace them, if any.
I also agree with Zach that counter service is going to be a big part of the post pandemic dining landscape. And you know, maybe that’s the answer for those downtown cores.
And finally, while this will help keep wine prices more reasonable and more restaurants above water financially, I am concerned what this means not only for servers and other staff, but also for sommeliers. Will we lose many of these experts who can help us discover so many terrific new wines and pairings? My hope is that they’ll be able to pivot to new jobs in the hospitality world.
In the show notes, you’ll find a link to the full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, and where you can find me on Zoom, Insta Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm including this evening and next week. That’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/130. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Zach.
In the meantime, if you missed Episode 47 go back and take a listen. I take you behind the scenes in a wine writers life. Not exactly memoir, but I’ll give you a sneak peek. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
When I attend a social event that’s outside the wine industry, and I’m asked about my job, I often joke that I drink for a living. But after I clarify that I write about wine, I usually get questions about what exactly does that involve and some misconceptions about drinking Champagne all day in between planning Luxe trips to Tuscany and Napa Valley. However, it’s not all beer and Skittles, rainbows and unicorns. Since there’s always been quite a bit of curiosity about what I do, I’d like to take you behind the scenes in this episode, with a day in the life of a wine writer, seven days in fact. I’m going to record a short update each day and let you know what I do that’s related to my job, plus a few personal details so that we can get to know each other better.
If you like this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the tips and insights that Zach shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a wine that brings back more memories for you.
Natalie MacLean 35:10
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Nataliemaclean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers!