Interview with Chris Blanchard, MS and Co-Founder and Treasurer of The United Sommeliers Foundation
On Wednesday, January 13th, Shoshana met with Chris virtually to discuss the origins of the United Sommeliers Foundation and the important work undertaken by the fund since launch.
What is your background and how did you get into wine?
My professional career started in the music industry then transitioned to law school and then to wine. It is a long story with many twists and turns in it, which is why I always tell my son “to follow every opportunity because you never know where it may lead.”
During my time at law school, I was also working at Gallo in sales and from there I started working in restaurants. Originally, I tried for the Master Sommelier more as a challenge when a friend told me I would not be able to achieve it. I was involved in many different wine groups at the time to help sell wine, but over time it was something I really got into.
What is the origin story of The United Sommelier Foundation?
Around March 16th, 2020, I was set to travel to Spago in Beverly Hills and present a wine tasting for Vine Hill Ranch where I am the National Sales Manager. Cristie Norman, the cellar manager for Spago, contacted me the night before the event was supposed to take place to let me know that we would have to cancel it, because everything in California was shutting down.
The next day, St. Patrick’s Day, Cristie and I were on the phone and I told her that I was getting calls from sommeliers across the country, who were feeling desperate. We both wanted to do something to help and Cristie suggested that I start a Gofundme page, which I called Emergency Fund for Sommeliers to raise money.
I set up the page late that same night and within 24 hours we were getting donations from around the world. For example, Laurent Perrier was one of the first to donate $2500.
Seeing all the interest and support from the community, we decided we needed to put together something more serious to manage the money and disperse it to the community faster. Cristie got in touch with a number of wine professionals around the country and we quickly got a board together and created some bylaws and The United Sommelier Foundation was born naturally. No one had any experience in an endeavor like this, but we learned on the go and are all very proud of the work we have accomplished.
How do you decide the recipients of the funds?
Arden collates the names of the different sommeliers who apply for the fund on the website and puts them together in an anonymous smartsheet file for us to review. Then the board votes on whether someone qualifies for assistance and on the scale of assistance needed. We use a point scale to determine the latter where higher scores are received for people who have worked the longest. So, it is based on a combination of need and hospitality experience.
Our smallest grant is $500 and then we have Grand Cru Awards given for those in real desperate situations up to $2500. The recipient receives the check immediately along with a note about all the people who contributed to The United Sommelier Foundation.
The United Sommelier Foundation was born as a reaction to The Covid Pandemic, but do you see a future for The Fund once the vaccine is disseminated?
There will always be a need for this because there is no organization to help this community. There is no safety net for sommeliers. These are regular working people who have no support once their jobs are eliminated and their jobs are typically the first lost and the last recovered.
It is important to note, that the United Sommelier Foundation is not giving people money to help with exams or travel, but to help support them and enable them to pay their bills.
Even when Covid is over, most restaurants in the country will be desperate to rebuild and won’t have the money to support sommeliers.
We also want to help sommeliers in communities that are hit by natural disasters or financial crises. We want to be around to assist with any issue that would case suspension of restaurants or economic decline.
Just this past year, the fires in Napa closed most wineries, led to slower production, and delayed harvests. Meadowood had a four-member sommelier team who found themselves out of work when the place burned down. Many out of work sommeliers were working harvest or tasting rooms and then they found themselves without employment a second time.
We were lucky to be in the position to help.
What would you say are some of the major successes in the past year?
We raised nearly $1m in less than a year – we are currently hovering around $970K.
We were able to help numerous people pay their bills and get through this challenging time. In towns and cities across the country, we were able to send checks out to regular working members of the hospitality industry. Knowing that we are helping these people and the thank you letters I received in response really are our greatest success. At the end of the day, that is why I am doing this.
Some examples of the letters I have received are listed below:
“You are the only organization that has stepped forward and helped us. I truly appreciate what you have already done for us with the precious $500 grant. It went directly to our utility bill and a portion of our groceries. – Miami, FL”
“I fell in love with service and wine, and that love is irreplaceable. To be considered for this grant is humbling and I can only imagine the difficulty in your situation in accepting applicants. I cannot accurately explain how much receiving this gift would mean to me. I appreciate your time and consideration. Thank you.” – NYC
“We currently have enough funds for a few more weeks of food. We are scared of any minor emergency or a medical issue that could push us over the edge. Thank you so much for your help. – New Orleans”
What do you think it is most important for those not aware of the fund to know?
I think it is important for people to know that our board is comprised of very diverse men and women from all over the country. They are some of the most respected men and women sommeliers in the US and they are inspiring people daily in their cities and beyond. The board members we have now are so important to our success. Without the people we have on our board and their diligent promotions to their networks, The United Sommelier Foundation would not be what it is today.
It is also important to mention that unlike some other charitable institutions, we do not sit on the money once we receive it. As soon as we receive the donations, we immediately start writing checks and mailing them. We also let people re-apply based on their situations.
Thank you so much Chris for taking the time to speak with me and for all the work The United Sommelier Foundation has done to support the wine community here in the United States!
For every order over $250, GRW Wine Collection will donate $5 to The United Sommelier Foundation. Click here if you are interested in donating directly.