“When there are financial problems, the sommelier is always the first to get let go.” Now, admittedly, it was a sommelier who told me that; a waiter might have something else to say on the matter. But it doesn’t change the fact that, in this moment, people who work with wine in restaurants are struggling. Enter the United Sommeliers Foundation, a charitable organization founded by sommeliers to help financially strapped somms and wine directors around the country. To date, it has already raised over $400,000, and given support to over 530 restaurant workers who specialize in wine. And on May 25, in conjunction with Acker Merrall, the USF will launch a weeklong online auction to build on those funds.
USF vice president Erik Segelbaum, a 2019 Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year, explains, “We formed because of this crisis, but not for this crisis. Our immediate focus is getting people to a place of security doing this pandemic, but we plan to continue our fundraising actions and, we hope, the auctions, going into the future. And now that we’ve gone through all the effort of going through setting up the charity, we’ll be able to spring into action on day one the next time something like this arises.”
Grants from the fund help with rent, medical expenses, food costs, and more. As one recipient wrote to the foundation, “I cannot express how much this meant to me. To know that we’re not being forgotten during this incredible hardship, and that the foundation is able to help those of us who are still out of work, really gives me faith in the future.”
Given the quality of the wine to be auctioned, the USF will almost certainly see a dramatic rise in their available funds as a result. The auction items include rarities such as imperials (6-liter bottles) of 2005 Château Palmer and 2007 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche; the 1982, 1998, and 2000 vintages of Bordeaux’s famed Le Pin; bottles of 1990 Georges Roumier Bonnes Mares Grand Cru and 1990 Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux—the latter of which would sell for about $20,000 in the open market, if one could even find a bottle. Possibly most eye-opening is a 22-bottle lot from Napa Valley’s Hundred Acre consisting of every wine rated 100 points by legendary wine critic Robert Parker that the winery has ever made.
Owner/winemaker Jayson Woodbridge says, “That auction lot was chosen by me based upon what my mother always said: ‘If you truly want to give, then give your greatest, something that will hurt to lose. Then you have truly given.’ This unique collection represents some of the greatest wines I have ever made—I’ve only once before tasted them together, and I’m not certain I’ll ever get to again. But the world wouldn’t be as rich without the guiding knowledge of sommeliers. I’m supporting something I want to see continue at a time when the opportunity to put that knowledge and skill to work has been temporarily destroyed.”
Woodbridge is by no means alone in the wine community when it comes to valuing the work of sommeliers. Cult Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer Kistler vineyards has donated $50,000 to the USF. Importer and wholesaler Skurnik wines donated $33,000 through wine sales in April, and is on track to donate another $33,000 in May (additionally, a portion of the purchase of each Jancis Robinson+Richard Brendon decanter or wine glass, which Food & Wine recommends here and which are available from Skurnik’s hospitality site, also goes to the fund); wine importer Kobrand donated a whopping $100,000. Other organizations have stepped up as well, and more wines are being added to the auction every day.
There’s no doubt that the USF auction is a happy bottle-hunting ground for wine fanatics, but it’s also a rare opportunity to buy extraordinary wine in support of a great cause.