Right now, Americans are drinking more and better wine than ever before, thanks to a strong domestic winemaker culture and decades of importers competing to bring in the best wines from some of Europe’s lesser-explored regions, like the Loire Valley in France, the Kamptal in Austria, and Sicily in Italy. All of which is great for drinkers who want to explore this variety. But for restaurant professionals, it also means there is much to learn.
Sommelier courses of various stripes have surged in popularity in recent years. Often, the courses fill up well in advance. And they aren’t cheap. Autodidaction has its merits but also its limits; ultimately, there is so much to learn when it comes to wine that guidance really does help.
Stepping into the fray this year is a new company called Journee, launched with help from a Kickstarter campaign last fall, that offers wine-related education, as well as instruction on other topics relevant to restaurant-industry professionals — including coffee, ergonomics and spirits — as part of an annual membership. At the company’s New York City location, top importers, sommeliers and wine directors teach lessons on very specific topics, such as “wines of the Jura.” People who purchase a $365 membership can attend these classes all year and even use the space to co-work. Elsewhere, an online annual membership can be purchased for $18 per month, including access to just the wine classes, which are filmed live. For the NYC membership, only industry professionals can join, but that’s a pretty loose definition encompassing kitchen servers (the entry-level waitstaff position), somms and chefs. Chances are, if you think you fit the definition, nobody at Journee will challenge you. As for the online classes, they are wide open to anybody who would like to learn in the comfort of their home.
Journee’s founder, Anthony Rudolf, started out working in restaurants at the age of 15; after working as a dishwasher and a cook, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, where he found his true passion: service and hospitality. From there, he worked his way up through the front-of-house ranks at the venerable New York restaurant Jean-Georges, starting as an entry-level waiter and moving to captain, then to maitre’d. Next, Rudolf worked for seven years as director of operations at chef Thomas Keller’s esteemed Per Se. He started Journee because he saw a need to emphasize collaboration over competition within the restaurant industry.
He envisions Journee as a place where industry professionals from various ranks, specialties, and restaurant groups can come together and appreciate the wealth of knowledge among them. “We’re all in this together and have more in common than not,” says Rudolf. “We can only benefit by working more closely together and embracing our similarities.” At first, Rudolf founded Journee as an in-person experience, where people could co-work, with a few classes focused on business development and whole-animal butchery. Then, last fall, Rudolf decided to begin creating online media and needed to raise money via Kickstarter. “We picked wine education as something people can connect to,” he says. The company raised money for the creation of “Netflix-style” wine classes, and used that momentum to build up the course roster at Journee.
With input from his “advisory council” — consisting of author, mezcalero, and winemaker Richard Betts and his life partner and co-winemaker Carla Rzeszewski, who formerly worked as the beverage director for New York City restaurateurs April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman — Rudolf has been able to put together an all-star case of teachers. Featured lecturers include celeb somms Rajat Parr, Pascaline Lepeltier, and Dustin Wilson, niche importer Camille Riviere and Meatball Shop co-owner Dan Holzman. The course roster offers a bit of something for everybody, which, in today’s rapidly changing restaurant industry, is an asset. With various restaurants transforming their models, specifically by replacing tipping with higher prices or administrative fees, the hope is that employees will be more long-term rather than simply earning cash as a side gig. That requires a wide breadth of knowledge on subjects ranging from coffee to wine to charcuterie.
The lineup at Journee for 2016 is already under way, and you can sign up for a membership or find out more here.