The Everlasting Influence of OG Sommelier Belinda Chang
Our columnist recently talked to the legendary sommelier about her rise to the top and how she has adapted her business during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before sommeliers became “somms” and everyone was either drinking “dirty” or “clean” wine, Belinda Chang was building some of the most spectacular wine programs in America.
She has held her own in a trinity of cities—Chicago, San Francisco and New York—even when there was no one that looked like her working as a sommelier. But Belinda is determined. When we met for a video interview at nine in the morning, I was still drinking coffee and hadn’t brushed my hair yet, while she popped on the screen with red lipstick and earrings.
Instantly, feeling self-conscious and a bit embarrassed that I was so underdressed, Belinda laughed and put me at ease by showing me how to turn on the “touch up my appearance” setting on Zoom. She picks people up. It’s a common thread of her career, and after being in this business for more than 20 years she now has a loyal following of guests, restaurant people and clients that she has inspired in meaningful ways.
During our conversation she shared with me her secrets of how she stays so fun and fearless (her events are the stuff of legend) and also called out some not-okay behavior. That’s Belinda, she doesn’t shy away from what’s tough and she certainly doesn’t shy away from a good party.
Victoria: “Can you share with us what you’ve been drinking and doing during the coronavirus pandemic?”
Belinda:“I’ve been drinking everything from old bottles gifted to me by winemaker friends to everyday drinkers—it’s like everything and the kitchen sink!
During these times, Zoom is my business, all day every day. For banking entities and finance companies, I’ve done dinner parties with Michelin-caliber wines. We’ve even coached their housekeepers on how to set up the table in front of them, and we have this luxurious dinner together. The chef is on camera walking through plating with them, and the sommelier is tableside with you. It can be even better than dinner at a restaurant because I’m there to sprinkle some magic, they won’t let us go, sometimes for six hours!
I’ve created something that can overcome geography. Before you had to fly everyone in (think about the jet fuel alone) and now I can bring ten vintages of Margaux to you, at home. Everyone should be making this change. To me, a sommelier has never just been a sommelier in the traditional sense. I’m easily bored. I love to master things.”
Victoria: “Tell me about the transition, how did this pandemic affect your events business?”
Belinda: “I believe in service and hospitality, so I had to find a way to continue to do that. To engage and bring joy, safely, on platforms like Zoom. It was hard at first. I had to refund a year’s worth of deposits for these luxury experiences. But then the first thing I did was a virtual boozy brunch on Sundays. And now every Sunday we feature three people, and an audience of millions joins us to connect! I also did a Mastercard live takeover wine class on Twitter for half an hour.
I have one coming up with American Airlines, and I want to make it available to anyone, as inclusive as possible. For $10, you get four bottles and a half hour together. It’s maybe how a lot of wineries and wine marketing should move forward.”
Victoria: “You’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. Tell us about what brought you here and what keeps you in this world.”
Belinda: “Being a sommelier, that’s what I am. It’s my spirit and soul. But it didn’t start out that way. I went to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and studied biochemistry. Both of my parents are Taiwanese immigrants, one is a chemist and the other is a librarian, but they were epic at entertaining. My mom was a culinarian but you have to understand that in Taiwan what you did with women was you taught them to cook then married them off. I guess dinner parties were sort of their way to approach cultural assimilation, to build a support system by entertaining. They poured like Blue Nun, not great stuff, but it was there. So, I always knew in the back of my mind that wine was a part of a party and could create this memorable magical moment.
At college, I dated the lead singer of this ska band on campus and he worked at the faculty club where I ended up working, too. We carved brisket tableside. They were these formal white glove dinners with synchronized service and real crystal. It’s where we learned about Burgundy. The fancy wine was this magnum of Mâcon chardonnay. You would make $25 an hour if you got all the way to the protein, which I did. I loved the formality of it all—the beauty. Sometimes I went with my parents to Chinatown for dinner but we never went to fancy restaurants, ever.
Later, I found this cookbook by Charlie Trotter with wine notes in it from Larry Stone. There was great photography and it showed this magical world I wanted to know more about and understand. So I went to Trotter’s restaurant. I didn’t have a reservation. I didn’t know you had to have one! They were in their pre-shift meeting at the time, polishing glasses. While I waited for a table to open up I must have drank two bottles of Duckhorn Merlot myself, because it was the only thing I knew on the by-the-glass list. No surprise that this experience was magical because I was pretty drunk by the time I made it to my table!
I do remember though that everyone looked at the sommelier with such admiration, and I had also seen a Wine Spectator cover that said this was the best place in the world for wine and food. It felt like the happiest place on earth to me. It brought me back to my parents’ dinner parties, when I would get to stay up late because I would help them clean up. I was the kind of kid that relished those moments, carefully taking the nice glasses and knives off the table, putting them in the dishwasher, and the best part—feeling pure contentment when I got to push the button that would start the machine.”
Victoria: “You have an incredibly impressive resume from working with Charlie Trotter to taking over from Rajat Parr at Laurent Gras’ The Fifth Floor to Danny Meyer’s The Modern and as a result have had exposure to great wines and a huge network of people. Can you talk more about what you learned from these experiences?”
Belinda: “You have to be fearless. If I can impart anything to anyone, it’s that. [Sommelier] Alpana Singh always says, we’ve been friends for decades, ‘what impresses me most about you, is you always know your worth and you always fight for it.’ This is what I try to always tell young women: do not worry about how people did things before or how people were perceived in that job or that position, make it your own right away and be fearless.
A good example of this is when I first started working for Lettuce Entertain You and we were going to open a place with an all-Italian wine list—this sort of thing didn’t exist back then in Chicago. And, I didn’t want to put a Pinot Grigio on the list. The partners were like, but you can’t not put Pinot Grigio on an Italian wine list! Listen, I said, ‘I’m going to make the revenue and in fact exceed what you want, but here’s what I want to do. Let me do it.’ Of course it worked. I made it work. I held hands with my guests. So, don’t listen to people when they say you’re not doing the right thing. Fight for it.”
Victoria: “You’ve also seen so much change. What are some things you are happy to see change and what are some things we still need to work on as an industry?”
Belinda: “I’m definitely happy to see that wine is now an important part of restaurant programs. There was a time when it was an afterthought, dollars were not invested on experienced people to manage these wine programs. It was just someone in management who did the wine ordering and they had maybe a bit of education from a big distributor and therefore populated the list based on those recommendations. The rise of the sommelier: it is something that is necessary and has been growing, thankfully with more and more women and people of color involved. I remember when I moved to San Francisco, Shelley Lindgren and Christie Dufault invited me to lunch, they were so excited there was another one of us! And this was in San Francisco of all places.
One thing I’m sad about is that I grew up in places with giant wine programs, which afforded me tasting experiences, like being able to sit down with Aubert de Villaine and taste 20 vintages of La Tâche. I feel like there is less of that now, those investments in large programs. I feel bad for younger people, women especially, who don’t get to do that. There used to be so many patrons of sommeliers who would invite you to things, like a 1982 Bordeaux tasting with Robert Parker. They invested in our education because they knew that would make us better sommeliers.
It almost feels now that there is this pushback against classical wines. I love these elevated, interesting wines that served as the base of it all, the education, the origin story. I feel this way with chefs, too. I always look for what their influences are, where they studied, who they apprenticed for. No one is completely self-taught, wine is the same thing. With these young people who just do what they think is right, I’m like—no. You have to be inspired by something, there has to be more to it than that. I need to know your political stance, who you donate to and how you treat your staff, in order to love you.
Also, I was already mad about natural wines and now the clean wine thing is hysterical. I mean, I’m the old crew. I feel like I had to walk uphill 100 miles barefoot both ways! And when I talk to a lot of these older winemakers, I mean they know these wines are just flawed. Technically flawed. I was mad about that all-natural wine list. I mean I would bring in a collector into these restaurants and he loves great wine, but there were no classical wines! He was ready to spend, buy the most expensive bottle, and you’re making it real hard for me, for the restaurant to make money.
The clean wine thing…I’m just dumbfounded that that’s a thing. Listen, I think classics are classics for a reason. Yes, we have to demystify and make everything as inclusive as earthly possible but I do think in production of a product there will always be a gold standard. It’s like with clothing and couture or craftsmen. Sure it’s arguably a better product but it’s also a lot more work, centuries of knowhow have gone into making it. Before judging new radical products and ideas you have to know the history and what came before and why it was the best. You can’t hate these classical wines because they’re expensive. Think of everything that goes into making it! Can I afford custom bespoke shoes sewn to my foot’s measurements? No. But I know there is a difference. When I can have that, it is a beautiful thing.”
Victoria: “Can you describe challenges you faced as an Asian woman in a field that is notoriously an old boys’ club?”
Belinda: “There were all these articles written about me and Alpana Singh. It was so weird, they had us confused! Everyone would call me Alpana and her Belinda. All they saw were minorities, persons of color who were women. No, she’s the one who grew up in Fiji, I’m Taiwanese. Very different. All anyone heard was a woman is running a wine program, they had a hard time keeping us straight.
I’m a fighter. I don’t take no for an answer. It’s a good thing to be different, look different, sound different and teach everyone that’s great. It did cause me to prefer to hire women and women of color and put them front and center stage. It’s funny I was on a plane once with Paul Grieco and he was trying to help one of his staff replace a lightbulb via phone, and I was like, why are you doing that? My approach with mentoring is I don’t want to ever be required.
Everyone knows about the jobs I did get, but I was rejected also for so many jobs. I know it’s because I’m a woman and look and sound the way I do. I couldn’t get a job to save my life in Las Vegas. This was when it was the rise of restaurants in Vegas and I thought surely with all of these places opening...but no, it was a bunch of well-known white men, master sommeliers, who wouldn’t even take my call. They were building an army of white guys with quadruple Windsor knotted ties for their wine teams. But I wouldn’t just take the rejection. I forced them to show me their cards, if you will. I asked why they didn’t hire me.
You need to know I was also unlucky in that I was never able to find a mentor back then or someone to help me make connections. Instead, I went to the restaurant I wanted to work at. I had dinner. I proved to them I was the right person. I had to find my way in. Right now, a lot of young sommeliers think that it’s about getting the master sommelier accolade or being a part of the pouring team at a big magazine event, but that’s not what it’s about.”
Victoria: “You have been a great mentor to others though, especially to women. Can you talk about your ethos involving mentorship?”
Belinda: “I’m very proud of that. It’s what I’m most proud of, actually, these great women who have come through my cellars. From sitting on wine boxes and reviewing P & Ls together to now Keri Levens is making her own wine, running great programs, Julie [Hennigan Merlino] who is down in Charleston running restaurants, and Carson [Demmond] was a front waiter at The Modern and she just told me she was obsessed with wine and now she has her own company and was an associate wine editor at Food & Wine. There are so many more, too. Nothing is more rewarding than figuring out all the things and sharing it with other people.”
Victoria: “There are a lot of big changes happening. Recently people have spoken about using more inclusive wine terms that aren’t just Eurocentric. Can you speak to this as someone with a Taiwanese heritage?”
Belinda: “I feel very mixed about it. We have to have a universal language but everyone’s experience is unique. Like when they say wine has a buttery mouthfeel, what am I going to say? We don’t cook with butter in Taiwan. I’m not sure. All voices and all points of view are valid, but we still need a common language. There aren’t wrong descriptors, but maybe we just need more descriptors, we have to add more colors to the rainbow, more voices.”
Victoria: “Do you want to shout out someone who has impacted your career in a positive way?”
Belinda: “Sara Floyd! She is my favorite mentor, well, I sort of forced her to be my mentor later on. She is such a successful businesswoman. There are a lot of people who know a lot about wine, and have unlimited access—we know them. But she is this brilliant businesswoman that built these businesses from scratch. I mean that girl is freaking brilliant. She always wants others to be successful, too. I remember she called me when I was living in New York working at The Modern and said, listen, stop having a roommate, get off the floor and start a business. And I was like, OK, whatever you say Sara. She was right, it was my time and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to do all these great things for others. Like the James Beard Foundation pre-prom party, that’s probably something I’m most proud of. For all the women that have been nominated for the awards, they get professional make-up done for the red carpet, hair, too. I’ve done that now for six years. It makes them feel good and it’s sort of a way to give these women professional armor for that event. “
Victoria: “Lastly, one thing so many people always say about you is that you are fun. Why do you think this is important in hospitality, bringing joy wherever you go?”
Belinda: “I think people forget that we are in the business of service. Sommeliers particularly can bring up all kinds of bad connotations and negative experiences. Bobby Stuckey talks about this a lot, too. I always ask people who want to be sommeliers, do you love clearing tables? Would you be able to walk past a table with a dirty fork with your head held high? The great ones are in service and are all about bringing joy. It’s just that our tool is wine. We have to sprinkle that magic.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.