Airing between common episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Spherical” explores the concepts and improvements which can be serving to drinks companies adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges come up, VP Professional is in your nook, supporting the drinks group for all the rounds to return. If in case you have a narrative or perspective to share, electronic mail us at

On this episode of “Next Spherical,” host Zach Geballe sits down with Belinda Chang to debate her new mission, “Virtual Boozy Brunch.” Whereas this mission is Chang’s latest endeavor, it’s one of many thrilling positions she has held in the wine world. Right here, Chang discusses how she moved into the wine and hospitality trade shortly after majoring in biochemistry and economics, and the influential roles she has held alongside the means.

Early in her profession, Chang moved to Chicago then San Francisco, the place she was chosen to switch Rajat Parr as the new wine director for the Fifth Floor. From there, she earned a sequence of fascinating positions and was chosen to be the wine director at MoMA, in addition to the first nationwide Champagne educator for LVMH. She additionally led a staff to win a James Beard Award, in addition to internet hosting each an annual pre-prom for feminine nominees to prepare for the ceremony and an annual pool social gathering in Aspen.

The latter two occasions had been put on by her personal firm, which she describes as “luxurious experiential advertising and marketing.” Now, her platform hosts “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” which she initially launched to help wine professionals at the starting of the pandemic. Right this moment, the sequence has advanced into what she calls a “sip-along, cook-along, bake-along, dance-along, and many- other-things-along expertise,” the place customers can log on and study inside interactive periods. Chang emphasizes that these occasions all the time focus on consumer engagement and storytelling and can proceed on effectively into the future.

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Zach: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and it is a “Next Spherical” “VinePair Podcast” dialog. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our common podcast episodes with the intention to focus on the points and tales in the drinks world. Right this moment, I’m talking with James Beard Award-winning sommelier and the creator of “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” Belinda Chang. Thanks a lot to your time.

Belinda: It’s my pleasure. Thanks a lot for having me just about, Zach.

Z: That’s nonetheless the means we do just about all the things nowadays, for now. So let’s begin earlier than we get into “Virtual Boozy Brunch,” the place I need to spend a good bit of our time immediately speaking about your previous together with your trajectory, your profession as a sommelier, earlier than Covid-19 modified all the things.

B: Certain. Like many of us, I began at college. I used to be a graduate of Rice College in Houston, Texas, who majored in biochemistry and economics. And when you ask my dad and mom, they might most likely say all of it went fallacious after I began courting the lead singer of this ska band. I imply, there have been fairly good ska bands, proper? They opened up for the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. It was a university band, however they had been fairly darn good. And the lead singer of the band who I used to be courting, he was a senior. I used to be a freshman, and he had the entire down low on easy methods to be actually well-fed and drink wine whereas being a university scholar and on a typical faculty scholar finances. And that was to work at the College College Membership, which is named Cohen Home. And in order that was my first job ever. After all, I adopted alongside and acquired myself a job at the Rice College College Membership, and I ended up being the head waiter there as a result of I believe I used to be simply actually having a lot enjoyable. So what that seemed like was throughout my lunch hours, I used to be carving brisket — that brisket in Houston is so scrumptious — and ladling out bowls of the unbelievable gumbo and shrimp to say that that they had on the buffet line for all of my professors. After which in the evenings, we had a small staff that did these synchronized service, tremendous eating occasions for the president of the college. And lots of the illustrious alumni, like the Baker household, individuals like that. And that was my first expertise with tremendous eating and nice wine. Effectively, the nice wine at the time, I believe, was Magnums of Macon-Villages.

Z: Appears nice.

B: Yeah I imply, it was a non-public establishment, and to me, that was barely nicer than what they had been serving at some of the different school golf equipment. However that’s how I acquired into this entire factor and fell in love with wine and fell in love with hospitality and fell in love with all of it and determined to desert the path that I had been set on to, possibly develop into one thing respectable, like a health care provider or a lawyer administration guide. So whereas I used to be there, I then — after I fell in love with the lead singer of the ska band who knew lots about easy methods to get free meals and wine — I then fell in love with the new chef of the high restaurant in Houston, which at the time was a restaurant known as Cafe Annie, owned and operated by a Ph.D. in biochemistry who turned a chef. His identify’s Robert Del Grande. He received all the James Beard Awards and was an enormous wine lover and lover of rabbit enchiladas and mole. In order that was fascinating. However, they ended up with a Wine Spectator award-winning program. And it’s a phenomenal place the place I imagine that we had the most fascinating clientele you would have at the time, like Colombian drug runners and folks like that which can be in Houston. And so there have been lots of Chateau Mouton ’82 and magnums of Dom Perignon throughout the place. In order that was a very enjoyable place to get my begin in eating places correct. So I began in the kitchen there. I knocked on their again door at some point and ended up being employed on as a banquet line chef. So I do know lots about making wild mushroom quesadillas actually shortly and en masse and likewise doing that, do not forget that like ’90s Zig-Zag from the squeeze bottle? The crema fresca over the mole-topped enchiladas and all types of stunning Southwestern meals. And that’s the place I acquired my first subscription to the Wine Spectator. I began studying about wine, began guzzling that Newton Chardonnay Unfiltered. I suppose Texas is the largest purchaser of that wine. And there began my wine training that set me in that path. After which lots of issues occurred after that. I don’t know if we need to go into that.

Z: Effectively I simply was going to say possibly clearly you’ve had a exceptional and illustrious profession, and be at liberty to recount extra of it, however I’m simply questioning, clearly for all of us there are the preliminary formative restaurant experiences that you just say “that is the place I discovered the ropes.” However then alongside the means for you as effectively, had been there another stops that you just significantly really feel like recounting? Or if not, we are able to definitely transfer on.

B: Yeah, I imply, I believe I believe the early stops are to be the most fascinating as a result of they are surely the formative ones. So I had a good time at Cafe Annie and I beloved working with the husband-and-wife staff. And I’m grateful that I began on the culinary aspect to have a very good grounding in how a flowery kitchen works and all of that, which made it simpler for me to adapt transferring ahead. So whereas I used to be at Cafe Annie — and possibly that is additionally just a little bit about my profession technique from the starting — I went to Cafe Annie as a result of a buddy of mine instructed me it was the finest restaurant. So when you’re going to study one thing about cooking in eating places, go there. After which whereas I used to be at Cafe Annie I noticed a canopy of the Wine Spectator that mentioned that Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago is the finest restaurant in the world for a foods and drinks expertise. And I believed, oh, effectively, of course, I ought to simply go work there subsequent.

Z: I admire that. That’s some self-confidence.

B: Proper. So I wasn’t even excited about it. It’s like the way you would possibly suppose to your self, like, “Oh actually? Yeah. I’ll simply go to Harvard. That’s what I’m going to do.” And so I faxed my resume and went to Kinkos earlier than it was FedEx. I bear in mind driving there, sending in a resume that I’d cobbled collectively. And lo and behold, by the time I acquired again, on my answering machine that used an everyday cassette tape was a message from Chef Trotter himself. In order that was the subsequent factor I did. I packed up all the things. And I believe inside every week I simply hustled myself out to Chicago and began working there. And there he begins you wherever he needs to start out you, and though I used to be so proud of myself at that time, at Cafe Annie I used to be the solely girl working as a captain in the eating room, which in tremendous eating is like the high of the heap. I went to Charlie Trotter’s, and I used to be a meals runner. So 5 years there, and I ended my time as the wine director of that very venerable cellar and discovered all the things you would probably find out about working a restaurant in the means that he did and lots of different classes. So I believe that’s the cease that actually set me on this path endlessly and likewise knowledgeable lots of what I imagine in hospitality and easy methods to ship experiences and easy methods to work and easy methods to mentor and plenty of different issues. So I did that. So I went from Houston again house to Chicago. My dad and mom have lived right here, and I lived right here from third grade on. This was my hometown. And after a pair of years at Charlie Trotter’s, I acquired a name {that a} chef named Laurent Gras was in search of a wine director and a alternative for Rajat Parr in San Francisco.

Z: I believe I’ve heard of him.

B: Yeah, proper. So I used to be like, oh my God, who doesn’t need to be the follow-up to Rajat Parr and that unbelievable cellar stocked from ground to ceiling. That was an enormous cellar of Burgundy, I believe most likely the largest in the nation, if not the deepest in the nation simply at that second in time. And so I flew myself out to San Francisco with the identical thought, like, “After all, I’m the one to switch Rajat Parr.” And I met the chef. I believe I used to be most likely the 60th particular person he’d interviewed, the final one that put their hat in the ring for it. And there’s a pleasant second right here the place I took the elevator as much as the fifth ground, proper? The Fifth Floor in San Francisco was on the fifth ground, and I noticed Martine Saunier sitting outdoors and he or she was on a cellphone. And it wasn’t an iPhone. It was like one of these large ones, I believe, or possibly a Motorola flip cellphone. And he or she seemed up, and we didn’t know one another effectively. However I met her a number of instances and he or she mentioned, “Oh, Belinda Chang.” She mentioned, “Are you right here to interview?” And I mentioned, “sure.” And he or she nodded. And I went into the interview. I discovered later that she known as chef Gras after and mentioned, “rent her”.

Z: Oh, wow.

B: Yeah. In order that was a very cool second. And I didn’t find out about this for a few years. And I can inform you, I really like him deeply. I believe he’s so superb and I treasure my years that I labored with him. However I do know that after I walked into the room, he was positively like, however you’re a woman, proper? However he comes from very traditional eating rooms. And I’m positive in these years, there positively was not a lady sommelier on any of these service groups.

Z: Yeah, I believe that could be a protected assumption.

B: So it was fairly cool that she acquired in the recreation and instructed them what to do, and he adopted her recommendation. And I believe that at the moment that was the job that lots of individuals wished.

Z: I guess, yeah. If 60-something individuals utilized, I guess so. So earlier than we shift gears and discuss just a little bit about “Virtual Boozy Brunch” and what you’ve been doing these days, what was the final sommelier or wine director job you held? Was your stepping away from the ground only a factor or time that had come, or how did you make that call?

B: Yeah, it’s a fantastic query. We are able to fast-forward to it. So from the Fifth Flooring in San Francisco I got here again to Chicago to supervise a giant group of eating places for Richard Melman from Lettuce Entertain You. From there I used to be recruited by Danny Meyer’s staff to take over the wine director place at the Trendy and MoMA in Manhattan. After which after that, after profitable the James Beard Award with my staff, I then went into a pair of experiments. I labored with Graydon Carter and Ken Friedman at the Monkey Bar, after which I went into that company paradigm that lots of individuals suppose that they need to go into after single owner-operators or small-group restaurant paradigms. And I spent a while as the company wine director at Starwood Culinary Ideas, which was half of Starwood Resorts and eating places run by Jean- Georges. After which after that, I frolicked as the first nationwide Champagne educator for LVMH, for M.H. USA. So these are all the numerous issues. After which in spite of everything of that, I made a decision it was time to get again onto the ground. So I took a managing associate and wine director place right here again in Chicago, my hometown, with Maple and Ash. In order that was the final time that I used to be on the ground. And that was a two-and-a-half-year stint that launched me into my very own enterprise.

Z: And so let’s let’s discuss that. So what had been you doing, broad strokes, pre-pandemic? And the way did you pivot into digital occasions?

B: So pre-pandemic, I used to be a few 12 months and a half into my first foray into single-owner-operated bootstrap entrepreneurship — terrifying in and of itself. However pre-pandemic, I had some nice purchasers. I used to be working with Champagne Taittinger and Calvisius Caviar, and I used to be already then doing one thing that’s not simply defined. I suppose when you needed to give it a one-liner, it was luxurious experiential advertising and marketing. The humorous factor is, I really did do some digital Champagne 101 and meals and wine pairing courses through Skype for editors at Sauver Journal and Elle Journal earlier than this all occurred. However except for that, I used to be placing on actually cool experiences, like an annual pool social gathering in Aspen and my six-year-running James Beard Awards pre-prom, which put collectively a glam salon for all the girls nominees and ladies winners to get them red-carpet prepared. So issues like that. So positively in the luxurious area, positively in the experiential advertising and marketing area. So after we acquired to that fateful March — which feels prefer it was 10 years in the past, however I suppose it was just some months in the past — it was the first 12 months of the enterprise the place I felt prefer it was all going to be OK. I had all my 2020 Q1, Q2, and Q3 lined up, deposits put down, and it was in at some point, I used to be in Toronto on a enterprise journey after I acquired all the calls. I acquired 4 of them in a row, which I believed was actually bizarre, from totally different purchasers. And so they had been all calling me to refund deposits, so I emptied — like, actually emptied, possibly to the final 5 cents — my working money account and, of course, refunded all these purchasers, as a result of I need to work with them once more later and sat and cried on my sofa, on this pink velvet sofa. So you may image me similar to, “Oh my God. Oh, my God!” Yeah. In order that led to a “Virtual Boozy Brunch” a pair of days later.

Z: So are you able to once more, having attended a pair of them, I don’t know that I may pretty ask you to summarize it in a pair of sentences, however only for the people who find themselves listening who aren’t acquainted and we’ll embody the hyperlinks in the present description, what’s “Virtual Boozy Brunch” and and the way has it possibly advanced since the early days of the pandemic?

B: So it’s how I acquired off the sofa. So I acquired off the sofa a day later and I noticed Jackie and Dani’s digital glad hour. I don’t know if anyone has seen that, however they had been actually, I believe, the first to essentially put on this large effort the place they had been inviting three bartenders an evening with two showings an evening and recreated a bar situation the place buddies and supporters may are available in and just about tip these bartenders from throughout the nation. And so they additionally gave a possibility for the liquor manufacturers to return in and assist out and sponsor all these bartenders that wanted assist. They’re all furloughed. They’re laid off. What are they going to do? So I believed I ought to attempt to do one thing for the wine individuals. I really feel like that by no means occurs as a result of all of them suppose that we’re landed gentry or one thing. And it is likely to be as a result of all of us have buddies who’re such natty dressers, that I believe it’s fairly uncommon or till now fairly uncommon that there was a devoted effort to assist them. Like, who wants assist? They appear to be they’re doing simply tremendous. However simply because we’re sipping and swirling Jayer doesn’t imply that we purchased it ourselves. It’s only a half of our job. So I believed effectively, what may I do this may very well be one thing just like this digital glad hour situation that actually helps wine individuals? So I known as Carrie Leavens, who’s a protege of mine. I known as a buddy Rachel, who was at Osteria Mozza. And I mentioned, “ what? Let’s put collectively a Sunday brunch the place you may come and chat about wine. You may invite all of your collectors and your followers and your mates and your supporters. And so they can tip you for sharing your magic. And we’re going to discover a means to do this just about on digicam to be able to nonetheless ply your commerce.” Proper? Which is making individuals really feel nice and serving to them to drink good wine. In order that was what episode 1, 2, and three had been about, having nice wine individuals and giving them a spot to attach with their supporters and followers and attempt to make some cash and do it with out having to ask for a handout. And what we realized was that lots of our chef buddies had been coming and tuning in and lots of different individuals with fascinating tales and magic to share had been tuning in. So it advanced after a number of weeks into this sip-along, cook-along, bake-along, dance-along and many- other-things-along expertise. So it advanced actually shortly from being like a digital wine class into being like, I don’t know, it’s a residing journal. It’s a digital expertise. It’s lots of issues proper now.

Z: Yeah, effectively, and I’ll say simply from my very own expertise attending a number of of them, one factor that I believe is actually enjoyable about it’s it looks like going inside the cooking phase of one thing like “Good Morning America.” And this isn’t a adverse factor, however not form of polished inside an inch of its life the means these issues are, like, “Hey, errors occur!” Swear phrases positively occur. Individuals are consuming. However I believe you guys do a tremendous job of making it. If you wish to learn to do one thing, you actually can. And I believe that was the subsequent query I used to be going to ask. I believe one of the hardest issues about the digital format in my expertise, particularly because it pertains to issues like cooking, cocktail creation, even the extra static issues like even simply wine tasting, I discover it’s very exhausting to speak and to obtain that coaching once you’re distanced from any person, once you’re watching them by way of a display. However I believe you guys do a very good job of making all of the recipes, all of the cocktail recipes actually understandable. So how have you ever achieved that?

B: Effectively, I believe from the begin, we’re excited about why somebody would tune in and the way we may hold a fantastic viewers and make this endeavor price our time and interact individuals all the means by way of. I imply, I don’t find out about you, however particularly as I acquired later into my profession, I used to be like “the formal wine tasting is the most boring factor.” And I used to be all the time looking for methods to make it just a little extra fascinating, in that panorama of again in the day once you and I had been full-time administrators on the ground, you get like 50 invites per day. So it’s like, how do you select which one’s going to be actually nice? Apart from like possibly going to the one which has the costliest wine, I believe on this digital area, the ones which can be actually fascinating to me are the ones the place I get to essentially take part. Proper. So we by no means have a moderator learn off the questions from the chat and relay that to the chef. We flip you up on display in case you have a query about, “did I do that accurately or does this look proper or is it brown sufficient?” So our viewers is all the time invited to be a component of the expertise in each means. I all the time inform our staff if sooner or later you’re taking a look at the gallery of viewers they usually’re all wanting down they usually’re texting or they’re taking a look at their telephones as an alternative of what’s taking place, we’ve achieved one thing fallacious. We wish it such that everyone who’s in the viewers is partaking with the expertise the total time. So it’s a very worthwhile endeavor, whether or not the expertise needs to inform a model’s story or share a recipe or approach, or simply join. We make it in order that it’s a platform through which they’ll all the time do this at the highest degree. So I believe that’s what we’ve discovered easy methods to do all through the pandemic. And I believe that’s what we’re doing finest.

Z: Yeah, for positive. Yeah, I positively can inform the participant and viewer engagement is excessive, which could be very difficult to do, each in particular person, frankly, and likewise just about. So I believe the last item I need to ask you about, at the very least at the second, is we’re hopefully — knocking on every bit of wooden in my home — at a cut-off date the place it looks like the finish of the pandemic is likely to be nearer than the starting. And clearly, none of us know what that course of interval goes to appear to be. It’s going to be uneven. Some persons are going to be vaccinated and really feel snug going out in the world. Some individuals won’t even after being vaccinated, it’s going to take time, et cetera. However clearly, like anybody who’s created one thing on this interval of time, you may have some ideas about easy methods to carry it ahead right into a post-Covid panorama — and don’t really feel such as you’ve acquired to share any commerce secrets and techniques right here — however what have you ever been excited about in phrases of persevering with “Virtual Boozy Brunch” as soon as that digital half is now not obligatory?

B: It’s such a sensible query, Zach. And likewise to your level about not displaying any commerce secrets and techniques, I’m very proud of the incontrovertible fact that I believe that our “Virtual Boozy Brunch” format, which began March 16, has impressed tons of individuals to do their very own take on it. So all my commerce secrets and techniques aren’t secrets and techniques, I all the time need to share. I really like sharing finest practices and what I’ve discovered. However to your query, I completely suppose that that is an thought whose time has come — not simply because of the pandemic, however as a result of it’s a sensible means ahead, significantly for advertising and marketing and this striving for experiential advertising and marketing and authenticity and storytelling. I’m going to be attending digital experiences, I believe, for the relaxation of my life, as a result of it’s costly to journey, proper? Keep in mind after we would get provided the journey to Germany, however you would solely ship one particular person from the restaurant or they had been solely inviting 10 wine administrators from round the world? You may put collectively this programming that’s so highly effective when you do it effectively and rent the manufacturing staff the place it feels similar to you’re in Luca Cerrado from Vietti’s mother’s kitchen, smelling the blueberry risotto as a result of they despatched you all the components. And you’ll be stirring that pot with them from house and you’ll go to the vineyards and you’ll invite as many individuals as you need from throughout the world. So I believe that that is some cool stuff. I all the time use this analogy: these futuristic motion pictures the place they’re having the board assembly and all the individuals on the board are holograms they usually’re all sipping the identical Scotch collectively? Every time I noticed a film vignette like that, I all the time thought, “Oo, how may we do this in the wine and meals area?” And we’re doing it! So I believe that that is going to go on endlessly, and persons are going to get higher and higher at it and ship greater expertise containers and actually make this so it does really feel similar to you’re in the room, however you’re in the room so safely and you’ll be in any room wherever in the world with simply the click on of a button and the opening of a laptop computer. So I believe it’s so cool. I’m all about it, and I’m all in. And I don’t know after I’m going to need to go like, are individuals going to nonetheless do Vinitaly? I don’t know. I did the digital model of it this 12 months, and it was actually enjoyable.

Z: Yeah effectively, I believe that — simply my two cents on this entire factor — I believe two issues appear fairly true to me. One is that digital experiences and in-person experiences aren’t mutually unique. And persons are going to need some of every. They’re going to need the expertise of whether or not it’s getting on a aircraft and going to Europe, some of them, or the expertise of simply going out to dinner or having somebody serve them. All these issues are going to nonetheless be in style with individuals. However I believe what we’ve discovered, as you mentioned, is that you are able to do a tremendous job of creating a very memorable expertise. I believe the concern heading into this or earlier than the pandemic was individuals had been going to see a digital expertise as, at finest, a pale imitation of an in-person expertise. And I believe what we discovered is that they’re not precisely the identical factor. And there are issues {that a} digital expertise can ship that an in-person expertise can’t, together with the incontrovertible fact that you would do it in your own home together with your pajamas on. And that’s, because it seems, for lots of us, a factor that we like very a lot. I additionally suppose the different piece of that is that I ponder about, even in my very own profession. You mentioned that in-person wine tasting had gotten previous to you. And I largely agree that there turns into a time for everybody, particularly professionals, however even I believe for amateurs or simply hobbyists and fans that gaining access to all the wine is much less essential than having good wine. And I take into consideration some of the consumer-facing occasions I’ve been to large, large occasions in the States and it’s like, is there going to be the identical demand? Possibly there’ll nonetheless be the identical demand for the drunken s*** present that’s these large, a whole lot and a whole lot of producers pouring drinks as a lot as you need occasions. There are all the time going to individuals who need to get drunk, for positive. However I believe that the smarter positioning for lots of individuals goes to be, when you’re a vineyard or a spirit model or no matter, do you actually need to go be misplaced in that sea of drunken red-wine sloshing, or do you need to do targeted occasions for individuals round the nation? Who’re your precise potential clients? And I believe that’s the place you’re going to see lots of that shifting is individuals’s advertising and marketing budgets are going to say, “ what? We’ve been capable of actually attain our viewers straight, versus hoping that somebody not too inebriated comes by our sales space, likes our wine, after which remembers to order it 5 days later.”

B: “Remembers.”

Z: Yeah, precisely. Remembers something that occurred, of course.

B: Agreed. 100 p.c. I believe we’re at a very fascinating second for these of us that have interaction in the storytelling advertising and marketing activation aspect of issues. I believe we are actually going to see some everlasting modifications and issues for the way we transfer ahead, even when it’s doable for us to all be safely collectively in the identical area once more.

Z: Completely. Effectively, Belinda, thanks a lot to your time. I actually admire it. It’s been tremendous cool to observe you experiment and discover this digital area, and I look ahead to seeing what is available in the months and years forward.

B: Thanks a lot, Zach. It was a pleasure.

Thanks a lot for listening to the VinePair podcast. For those who get pleasure from listening to us each week, please depart us a evaluate or ranking on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it’s that you just get your podcasts. It actually helps everybody else uncover the present. Now for the credit. VinePair is produced on my own and Zach Geballe. It’s also combined and edited by him. Yeah. Zach, we all know you do lots. I’d additionally wish to thank the total VinePair staff, together with my co-founder Josh and our affiliate editor, Cat Wolinski. Thanks a lot for listening. See you subsequent week.

Ed. observe: This episode has been edited for size and readability

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