Culture: Can a Sommelier Be Sober?
Sommeliers have the opportunity to sample and savor the finest vintages from around the world. But as more people reevaluate their relationships with alcohol, so, too, is a growing contingent of wine industry professionals. Many of them—including sommeliers—are choosing sobriety.
The idea of a sober sommelier may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, wine is at the heart of the sommelier’s craft. But as the industry evolves, the role of the somm has, too.
“I think being a sober sommelier challenges the traditional stereotype of what a sommelier should be,” says France-based sober somm Laura Vidal. “It’s important for us to show that you don’t have to drink to appreciate wine, and that there are many different ways to enjoy it.”
What does being a sober sommelier look like in practice, though? We queried several about their experiences and the challenges of abstaining from alcohol while working in a booze-soaked industry.
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Laura Vidal, Four Years Sober
Born in Montreal, Vidal is an award-winning sommelier and restaurateur whose love of wine took her to France. In 2011, she became the first sommelier of the noted Parisian bistro Frenchie. Today, Vidal and her former partner run The Small Group, a company that hosts events around Paris inspired by local products and natural wine. They’re also the forces behind food and drink spots around the country, including Chardon in Arles as well as La Mercerie, Livingston and Pétrin Couchette in Marseille. In 2021, Vidal was the first woman named sommelier of the year by the French restaurant magazine Gault & Millau.
Vidal’s decision to embrace sobriety started as a brief pause from alcohol. The day after her 35th birthday, she considered the busy months ahead. “I had a huge year of events, pop-ups and big openings ahead of me in 2019 and I couldn’t fathom being hungover for one single day of it,” she says. “I decided to take a break, and it stuck.”
While she never considered her relationship with alcohol problematic, Vidal cites personal health and wellness as her primary motivation to stop drinking. “I wanted to be in control of my body and mind,” she says. “I wanted to be healthier and more present in my life.”
Sobriety for Vidal means something different than what it might for others. She still tastes the wines she serves to her clients and customers, although she spits. She finds that not drinking has surprisingly improved her skills.
“I definitely feel like I can smell better, taste more precisely and get more deepness in texture [since going sober],” she says. Still, she understands why the concept of a sober sommelier might throw some for a loop.
“Most people are curious, impressed, surprised and ask a million questions,” she says. “They think about their own relationship with alcohol, and it triggers them. But it’s important to be honest and transparent about your decision and to show that it doesn’t affect your ability to do your job.”
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Sam Anderson, 8 Years Semi-Sober
Sam Anderson is a sommelier and wine director based in Delaware. He came up in the restaurant business as a bartender and mixologist before going on to design beverage programs at some of New York City’s top restaurants, including Contra and Wild Air. He describes himself as “semi-sober.”
“For some folks, sober/non-sober is binary,” he says. “In my case, it’s a bit more nuanced. I do drink occasionally, but it’s quite rare.”
Anderson lives with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), which influences his desire “to be in control of my body and mind,” he says. “I didn’t want to be dependent on alcohol to do my job or enjoy my life.”
That hasn’t meant cutting out alcohol entirely. Anderson says he’s gone nine months at a time without drinking, but has found that with time and therapy, he’s been able to regulate his habits in a way that works for him.
“I have a pretty strong history of addiction in my family, and in my 20s I had a lot of problems with addiction, including some narcotics,” he says. “I think [drinking] was just my process of working through a lot of the trauma from my childhood.” After becoming a father, however, Anderson found his relationship with alcohol did not suit his new family dynamic. “A hangover is bad, but a hangover when your two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is pulling your hair at 5:45 in the morning—that’s even worse,” he says.
Cutting back on drinking has given Anderson more energy and focus, while also setting a positive example for his family, he says. But it also presented issues with clients who did not understand or respect his decision not to drink. For that reason, Anderson moved away from sommelier jobs that put him on the floor of a restaurant. These days, most of his work concerns wine importing and distribution.
“I literally have a 1200-square-foot warehouse full of wine,” he says. “I am constantly faced with the option to drink if I choose—but I [usually] don’t.”
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Timothy Hanni, 30 Years Sober
Timothy Hanni is a master of wine with a successful drinks career that’s spanned four decades. He’s been sober for three of them.
Hanni’s interest in wine goes back to childhood, when his father introduced him to red Burgundy. He eventually worked as a professional chef for 10 years before transitioning to the wine industry. Over the course of his career, he worked as a retail wine buyer, manager and broker. But by 1993, Hanni’s drinking habits had spun out of control.
“I [had] married the woman of my dreams—the singer in a band I played in at the time. This was my second marriage, and I was on the fast track to another train wreck of a failed relationship,” he says of that period. “I knew I needed help and checked into Crutcher’s Serenity Center on Howell Mountain in Napa for a 28-day recovery program. I knew that if I did not, I would be single again and in general my life was not working.” The two recently celebrated their 30th anniversary of both their marriage and his sobriety, which Hanni says is “no coincidence.”
Today, Hanni teaches wine business courses at universities, consults around the world and conducts his own wine research, which has been incorporated into the Wine & Spirits Education Trust curriculum. Advocacy of and education about moderate drinking are major focuses.
“I think the wine industry has a responsibility to promote moderation and responsible drinking,” he says. “As wine professionals, we can play a positive role in changing the culture around alcohol and encouraging healthier lifestyles.”
The hardest part of being sober in the wine business? For Hanni, it’s not “ignorant people” and their preconceptions of sobriety get to him. “The subject of wine seems to bring out the arrogance, defensiveness and need to intimidate others,” he says. “This becomes really exaggerated as they drink more. I just don’t have time or inclination for that anymore.”
“I can be seen as a threat to people who need to seriously consider their own relationship with alcohol and/or drugs,” Hanni continues. “At an industry-wide level, education is sorely lacking and part of the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ covenant that keeps the stigma alive and deprives alcoholics from the help of others.”
These things drive Hanni to be open about his recovery. “This is a critical part of my giving back,” he says.
Looking to the Future
The market for non-alcoholic beverages surpassed $11 billion in 2022, according to Forbes, and it’s only growing. The sober sommeliers interviewed for this story are uniformly intrigued by the changes in the industry.
“I think there’s a growing awareness of the negative impacts of excessive alcohol consumption, and people are starting to look for more low-alcohol and non-alcoholic options,” says Vidal, who stocks her menu with many no-abv offerings. “As sommeliers, it’s our job to provide those options and to promote responsible drinking practices.”
Hanni, on the other hand, believes that opening a bottle can be triggering for many sober individuals. He encourages avoiding anything that is alcohol-like—even trendy zero-proof wines and spirits.
“It is a very personal disease as well and I cannot over-emphasize the need to take recovery seriously and work with a recovery professional on-going,” he says. “Most experts dislike non-alcoholic alternatives and, combined with the ritual, can be a fast track to relapse.”
No matter one’s personal drinking preferences, it’s clear that there’s growing room for sobriety in alcohol-friendly spaces. The existence of sober sommeliers is certainly further proof that the industry is changing.
For wine professionals evaluating their relationships with alcohol, Vidal encourages introspection and respect for alcohol. “It’s important to be honest with yourself and with others about your decision,” she says. “But don’t let it define you. You’re still a sommelier, and you still have a lot to offer.”
Published: January 2, 2024