by Micah Ling
Micah’s essay appears in episode 22 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
Ryan Kraemer is a writer.
He collects characters from the people he meets, and invents plot lines from the things he sees and experiences. He is, like all good writers, constantly aware of the senses. Always curious about why things are the way they are. He sees the tiny details, but also the bigger picture. These traits lend themselves nicely to Ryan’s other passions — wine and hospitality.
Ryan is a sommelier at 71Above Restaurant and Sky Lounge in downtown LA. For the past four months, the restaurant and lounge have been closed due to COVID-19. So, like much of the world, he’s adapted. He’s been attending seminars and tastings online, and staying in touch with his community with various virtual tools. He’s highly anticipating the re-opening of 71Above, with all kinds of adjustments. But also, Ryan has come to terms with the fact that his industry — wine, service, fine-dining — has a lot of work to do to become more inclusive, and more aware of the story they’ve been a part of, and the one they want to create moving forward.
Ryan has been working in restaurants for over 14 years. It began with PM when he was a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s where he hung out and liked to spend time, so it just made sense. Plus, it allowed him the chance to live both his introverted personality, and his more social side.
He worked at PM for 5 years before moving to Chicago with some friends in 2011. There he got a job at Yusho, owned by Mathias Merges. Merges, Charlie Trotter’s former chef de cuisine, put a Midwestern spin on traditional Japanese food for Yusho. As Ryan learned more about hospitality, he became really interested in sake and wine, though he admits that he always had a taste for higher caliber ways to imbibe. “Even in college I was the kid showing up to a party with a 6-pack of craft beer while everyone else was chipping in for a case of Natty Light,” he says. “So a little bit of the snobbish drinking habit was recognizable early.” Ryan became a Certified Sake Professional while at Yusho, which was his first foray into certification in beverage, and he kept working toward managing, buying, and earning higher credentials.
“Even in college I was the kid showing up to a party with a 6-pack of craft beer while everyone else was chipping in for a case of Natty Light, He says. “So a little bit of the snobbish drinking habit was recognizable early.”
But after working at Yusho as the assistant manager for 2 years, Ryan felt burned out by the hours. He had met a girl, he had saved some money, and he was ready for a change.
So beginning in Prague, Ryan and his now-fiancé Ashley, spent 6-months traveling throughout Europe and southeast Asia, including a work-away for a couple who owned a huge piece of land. “That allowed us to extend our travels on minimal funds.” It also allowed Ryan to become familiar with some of the best and most renowned regions of wine.
His writer self and his wine self were ecstatic.
When Ryan and Ashley returned to the states, they set their sights on Los Angeles. Ryan had started picking up some wine books, and was already keen on the idea of learning as much as possible. “Literally on our first day in LA, I got an interview with the General Manager for 71Above,” he says. The restaurant and lounge were still being constructed, and they had already hired most of the staff, but Ryan made an impression. “I had worked in high-end restaurants but never in fine dining. I walked in and saw who I now know as a good friend and mentor, Catherine, doing wine training, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” But the GM wasn’t totally sold — Ryan had just arrived in LA and had no real experience at a place like 71Above, so he asked Ryan why he enjoyed this kind of work. “I had a really passionate answer about hospitality and why I think it’s important,” and that sealed the deal, he says. Within a half hour Ryan was tasting the menu and getting started on training.
Ryan started working as a server at 71Above, but Catherine Morel, lead sommelier, helped him get going on his Court of Master Sommeliers Certification (CMS). So far, Ryan has gone through the intro course and the certified course. He was supposed to sit for his advanced course in July, but it got pushed to March 2021 amid COVID-19 concerns. Then, finally, the master course. These days Ryan is one of 3 sommeliers at 71Above. It’s very much fine dining, but, Ryan says, he and the entire staff do everything they can to omit the snobbery. They want people to feel welcome — they want to provide experience that’s special, not uncomfortable.
These days Ryan is one of 3 sommeliers at 71Above. It’s very much fine dining, but, Ryan says, he and the entire staff do everything they can to omit the snobbery. They want people to feel welcome — they want to provide experience that’s special, not uncomfortable.
“We have a 3-course dinner menu with 6 options under each course,” he explains. “One of our features is pairings, so a large part of what I’m buried in at work is hovering over the wine station with course selections from our diners. I arrive [to the table] a minute or two before the dishes do, pour the wine, let [customers] know what they’re drinking, and why we think it goes particularly well with the dish they’re having.” It’s a relationship. At first, people are a little awkward and nervous — they don’t know what to say or do. But when Ryan returns for the second course, and checks in on them for the rest of the meal, they relax and have fun with it. They ask questions, and want to know more.
Ryan also helps people maneuver through the 550 different labels on 71Above’s wine menu. He helps them find the right bottle at the right price point. Ryan says bottle service is something that makes the evening feel a little more elegant and special — it makes the time more of a celebration.
Somms are certainly passionate about wine first and foremost, but they’re almost equally as interested in hospitality. It’s not just having the knowledge, it’s the desire to share it, and to make someone’s meal and experience better than they expected. It’s science paired with service. Somms love to talk about wine, but they also love to—as Ryan puts it–“nerd out about how to surprise guests with that extra touch, or how to go above and beyond.”
In many ways, the sommelier can help hold the whole restaurant experience together.
In many ways, the sommelier can help hold the whole restaurant experience together. They excel in wine and beverage service, of course, but they also need to understand how the whole machine works. “Servers are more married to their station, but a somm can kind of disappear for a while and someone might not notice as much. They can bus tables, run food, and tend the bar if that’s where the need is.” Ryan says there’s this image of somms as the ones in the elegant suits with a towel draped over the arm, recommending and selling great bottles of wine, spouting knowledge about regions and vintage, but they’re also the ones who can usually jump in just about anywhere, help out, and remain humble.
Even in the CMS exams, much of the tests have to do with demeanor. Things go wrong — that’s just a fact of life. But the tests cover the ability to remain calm and problem solve. “There are horror stories about Champagne exploding or dropping a tray of glasses, but it’s all about how you recover from those mishaps.” Service, like many things, is your ability to show fortitude in a stressful environment.
For someone who has spent most of his adult life in the service industry, Ryan’s quarantine experience required a serious adjustment. At the time of this interview, 71Above closed their doors in March and are looking to reopen, with numerous safety measures, in July.
“I miss all the great wines I get to taste at work,” Ryan says. At the restaurant, he often gets to try what he describes as, “one ounce that reminds you why you do this. Those wines with such complexity they send shivers down your spine” Like the perfect poem.
But also, Ryan misses the people.
In a lot of ways, he considers himself at the beginning of his wine journey — he’s read and studied a lot, and traveled a bit, but the world is huge. For him, it’s a lot like writing. There’s always more to read and experience — and that only makes him better at creating his own masterpiece. Nothing excites him more than helping someone else begin their own journey, by sharing what he knows. In the meantime, he’s been thinking a lot about how to make interactions more inclusive within the industry. With his teammates, colleagues, and peers. He’s spent a lot of time recently studying and working to support those who are bettering the wine world.
“The focus on Black Lives Matter has put a spotlight on diversity in wine, or rather lack thereof. The Court of Master Sommeliers stumbled through it at half-speed, with arguably tone-deaf messaging about inclusivity without addressing Black Lives Matter head on, until pressure and criticism moved their stance. They cited inherent organizational gridlock to excuse the delay – the challenge of getting unanimous consent from board members on their response.”
Ryan says that a number of Black wine professionals have shared stories of being made to feel unwelcome in the (CMS) court. The court has since instituted a diversity panel within the organization and worked to set up more scholarships for BIPOC through their charitable sister-organization, the SommFoundation, and have released a more appropriate response to BLM as well as discontinue the use of the term ‘Master’ in place of always using the full title ‘Master Sommelier.’ Still, to date, 3 Master Sommeliers have resigned from the organization mostly citing disillusionment over an organization that has come to operate more as a gatekeeper and insiders club than an institution of education.
Hearing the voices of those who have been shut out of a world that Ryan has been welcomed into, is at the forefront of his vision now.
Hearing the voices of those who have been shut out of a world that Ryan has been welcomed into, is at the forefront of his vision now. He’s aware that, while climbing the ladder in the service industry, and making his way toward some of the most difficult exams in the world, he’s never been discouraged or questioned. Quite the opposite. Moving forward, Ryan’s focus is on listening, hearing, and working to diversify a world and industry that he believes in. He’s tuning into panels and discussions, and he’s asking himself, as often as possible, “What more can I do to help?”
For Ryan, life is no longer about getting back to normal; it’s about moving forward in an inclusive and actionable way, to continue serving others — serving everyone.
Custom artwork by Corinne Pease.
About Micah Ling