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Six leading sommeliers in Russia share their plans for survival

Six leading sommeliers in Russia discuss their plans for survival as restaurants across the country face a collapsing Ruble and the coronavirus outbreak with no government support. Anton Moiseenko reports from Moscow.

Russian wine bars and restaurants have already been closed for more than two consecutive weeks, giving sommeliers and the whole HoReCa segment a deadly punch in the stomach: a collapsing Ruble coinciding with the coronavirus outbreak, sending restaurants to their knees.

The absence of any government support measures for SMEs is making it hard to survive for many of the currently suspended venues.

Most businesses were told to go on paid vacation, meaning that they have to bear the burden of full wages during this period. As a reaction, the majority of professionals in the HoReCa sector have been laid off until May-June, at best.

What should sommeliers do in this situation? Is it possible to minimise the losses?

Here are the views of six Russian somms on their plans of survival.

Alexander Andreyev, Probka, Moscow

Until the last moment there were many guests in the restaurant, we adopted all the sanitary measures according to the Ministry of Health even before the Moscow mayor told us to do so. And now, that’s it, a “vacation”. The term is not clear, at best.

I am prepared to think about myself, my family, about how to survive all this and get back with the new energy.
After this turmoil ends the public support will go to those favourite places who survive the mishap. I think Probka will be even stronger: as a team, and as a restaurant. Changes in salaries are unavoidable, though, and we are looking at the upcoming enormous competition in the market.

The situation also shows that a sommelier as a “bridge” between the wine and the end-consumer might disappear entirely, it might well be transformed into a call center voice. The skyrocketed currency exchange rate doesn’t help. We will have to rebuild what we had or start all over again.

This will probably won’t end till June. All the May events has been cancelled. And the situation is probably worse than we perceive: a zero can be safely added to the numbers of infected. I am also worried about the problems this for small artisanal producers, they might not be able to survive this.

On the positive side, we have more free time. For the family, and for wine-related training, for learning languages. We must use this time to the fullest. I have got books about Champagne, but no Champagne at home.

Dmitry Frolov, Mansarda, St. Petersburg

I am involved in several educational projects and also thinking about an online project, but this is still at an early stage. Private clients and private sales help out, but this, of course, is not every day. People drank wine and will continue to do so; they don’t want to limit themselves to the supermarket selection. It’s more difficult to work for the mass consumer, direct sales are highly regulated. There are ideas for private dinners with wine, at people’s homes, but, again, it all depends on social interaction. Wine is not something that works offline.

It’s much more difficult for those who have recently worked in the industry: imagine how it hits the restaurant staff, the waiters, hundreds of thousands of people in the sector. The salaries of waiters are, mostly, tips. No guests — no tips, and their monthly pay is always very symbolic.

Of course, there are some personal savings, I don’t have to pay the rent, there is some investment into wines in my cellar. But the nature of our business is offline, here you need to think something, somehow try to change the approach. I don’t really know how to deal with the job situation, especially for younger people with less gravitas.

And yet, there is no reason to despair, one needs to keep developing and looking for new opportunities.

Anton Panasenko, Twins Group, Moscow

I can’t imagine what sommeliers can do during self-isolation. In this situation it’s best to do things you didn’t have enough time for while working — self-development, books, boosting a foreign language. Of all the alternatives I only see one: working in a delivery service.

I don’t sell wine to private clients, and this activity is not entirely legal, I deal with wine consulting and slowly doing other things: reading, learning French. I’m working on my new project (a guide to wine venues), but who knows if anyone needs it in six months. I hope for the best, but I perfectly understand that when everything re-opens, it will be a completely different market.

Indeed, most establishments have a “safety net” of no more than a month, at best! All these deferrals of payments on taxes and on rent (if any) won’t help much. Salary loans, even interest-free, will still need to be paid back, and this is a huge negative cash flow, which is not affordable for the vast majority of non-chain venues. Many food products stored in restaurants will go bad. In fact, no one knows when the restaurants will . The wine, of course, doesn’t spoil and it does not deteriorate if stored properly, but wine cabinets still burn electricity, contributing to the demise of a closed down restaurant.

The competition in the market will be much higher than it was in recent years – it’s essential to use this self-isolation regime in order to become a better specialist. This will help a lot when it’s all over.

Sergey Podporin, Leo Wine & Kitchen, Rostov-on-Don (Southern Russia)

We are developing ways of sales over the Internet, working out delivery schemes, thinking about how to more or less painlessly deliver alcohol to more or less known people. It’s clear that this will last for 2-3 months at the the very least, so this is the possible lifespan of our idleness. If you recall how much time a full training course in the wine school takes, you can seriously raise your professional level even staying at home. In this sense, this is a unique opportunity — provided that you have a supply of food and wine and don’t have any significant payments sinking you down. I still see this period as an opportunity for self-development for those who really work on the floor.

Wine trading companies are still open, so the opportunity to buy and sell wine remains. Any decent sommelier is always a trendsetter in certain circles, including private clients. We need to spin our heads, do wine selections and recommendations. The technical aspects of wine delivery can, in theory, be handled; sommeliers know how to do it.

A very good exercise is to imagine that people who have money and who want to drink wine are locked at their homes. It’s time for them to pay attention to things they’ve never paid any attention to. It’s clear that when such people are in the “normal mode”, they don’t have time to be interested in some aspects of wine, they choose wines they’ve been drinking all their lives, but this situation is completely different. There is time to learn something. Customers will get new emotions, each consumed bottle will be like a new consumed book.

It’s a good idea to use this time to increase one’s “market capitalization” and knowledge. One needs to be prepared for the moment when it all ends and be ready to quickly find a job in this new environment. We need to think about how the sommelier’s work will be useful in the future. We must look for new wines now, find smart alternatives to the classic wines that are rapidly growing in price. There will be a new quest to find “alternative” wines and we need to start looking for them right now.

Vladislav Markin, Sartoria Lamberti, Moscow

It’s the second week we are outside the city, focused on our health, life, and home. Professionally, everything is put on hold: I’m mainly dealing with private clients and consultations, the restaurant was closed down two weeks ago, one of the first ones to do so. Everyone is actively going online, some lectures, videos, but I do it for fun, mostly.

I hope that we soon may be able to return to the working conditions and the usual routines. This will last for 2-3 months, but it will be very painful for some people in the business. I’ve set myself mid-April to see how the situation is developing and make further decisions.

Alina Mikhaleva, Ugolёk, Moscow

We “canned” all five of our restaurants for at least a month. It seems to me that even if restaurants open in May, my work will begin no earlier than June. So I am looking at two months without work, at least. I am more afraid of the financial situation than the virus, but these things are well connected. Personally I have some private clients — some of them have a cellar to fill, others own wine cabinets. This is the way to manage at the moment. And… read books.

Anton Moiseenko is a wine journalist based in Moscow who has been covering the Russian wine market for many years. His work is published widely by the international wine press, and he runs his own website called the Wine Report, which can be viewed by clicking here.

He was a winner in the Millésima Blog Awards 2019.

You can follow Anton on Twitter and read more about him here.

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