Yesterday at Houston’s first in-person trade tasting since the pandemic began, a young court-track sommelier told me the story of one of her colleagues who had abandoned her apartment in San Francisco after going eight months without working. She recently moved to Texas in search of a job, turning her back on her life in the Bay Area. Her story is just one in a rising tide of top wine professionals who have faced increasingly tough life choices as they navigate the uncharted waters of a pandemic-era career in wine.
In a time when many wine professionals are discovering creative ways to support themselves and further their careers and education, I turned to one of my favorite America sommeliers, Heath Porter, for some insights into how he’s shifted his business model since covid reshaped the way we socialize and dine. For someone like Heath, who had a robust wine tour business before the health crisis began, the new normal has driven him to find new ways to stay afloat. His is a story of survival…
You were operating a highly successful wine tour business when the pandemic struck. How have you shifted your business model?
Holy crap, have I shifted! Understatement of the millennium! I’ve hustled in every direction at 100 mph with no GPS. It’s been insane. Virtual events just like everyone else, some by myself, some straight education, some with chefs and winemakers. I’ve also been able to pick up some consulting gigs and start building really cool wine and food events for high-end resorts around the country. Outdoors gigs with wine tastings, live chefs with smokers, bourbon tastings, you name it. We’ve done Swine & Wine weekends, oyster festivals, dumplings and Riesling, pizza and Champagne. If it’s fun and slightly educational, I’ve dialed it up to 11! And side note: I’m also releasing my own private wine label next month. I’m not very good at having free time.
As you dove into virtual events, what were some of the surprises about the medium?
After 30 years in F&B, if you can’t tap dance with some “snarkasm” and wit, then you’re in the wrong biz. What I quickly realized is that people need to laugh and drink wine more than ever and needed to be transported from their living room to anywhere around the world. So I started planning events with destinations, recommended regional wines and curbside from regional restaurants to support local and pair the wines with local foods. I also stuck with my guns and became more of a wine entertainer, if I can make people laugh and learn in the same sentence, then I’m rockin’ the juice cleanse hardcore!
What makes for a truly memorable virtual wine event? Any highlights from your series you want to share?
Inside stories with winemakers, tricks of the trade with chefs, seeing personalities and telling stories. I had Ken Wright the OG of Oregon wines on. I asked him who his favorite bands were and the next thing you know he was telling stories about eating dinner with Dire Straits and Van Halen. You should hear Nancy Irelan of Red Tail Ridge do her Scooby Doo impersonation with Shaggy. Really just amazing experiences, I could go on for days.
When do you think we’ll be able to start wine touring again and what’s that experience going to feel/look like?
I’m planning some tours in summer and fall to the Finger Lakes, Walla Walla, Sonoma and harvest in Santa Barbara. I’ve got some private groups trying to get to Italy with me in October. I build the bubble. We take over entire bed and breakfasts, have the same bus and driver all week and go to the wineries as the only people there when they’re closed. The trips have always been intimate but now they’re secluded as well.