Being Open to “The Pivot” During a Pandemic

By Brian Freedman

Getting out of Egypt was the easy part: The pandemic wasn’t yet officially classified as one, though we could see how quickly the situation was devolving and decided it was time to head back home. I fell ill a few days later—dry, body-wracking cough, extreme fatigue, and more—and it was a fight to get tested. My result finally came back (negative), though I’m still not convinced it was accurate, especially given the rate of false negatives back in March. After a slow but thankfully steady recovery, it was time to figure out what my professional landscape would look like moving forward.

I was mostly flying blind, as were so many other wine professionals. Unexpectedly, however, the very nature of my life as a freelance wine, spirits, travel, and food writer had prepared me for precisely this moment. My wife even began referring to it as my Super Bowl: The moment I’d spent the better part of the past 15 years preparing for.

However, as a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of quarterback Donovan McNabb vomiting in the middle of the 2005 Super Bowl. (This, of course, is a bit of a legend, questionable at best, but here in Philly, it has the power of truth, actual verisimilitude be damned. We’re not known as a forgiving sports town, and the loss that day against the detested Patriots still stings.)

Working as a writer was once described to me as akin to living on the edge, and I have to agree. Still, what it lacks in inherent stability it more than makes up for in opportunity, excitement, and quality of life. And over the past few months, it’s become more than clear to me that it also provides the unique opportunity to pivot.

I’ve always known that making the kind of living that I want would be difficult, if not impossible, on a freelancer’s pay. But the notoriety and expertise that I’ve accumulated over my years in the business had afforded me other income streams that I was able to successfully mine before the pandemic struck. From hosting wine events for corporate and private clients around the country to building a solid restaurant consulting business—I help create and fix wine lists and bar programs—and more, I’ve always maintained multiple income streams.

This sort of work is inherently uneven, and great months can just as frequently be followed by terrible ones as they can by even better opportunities.

So when the world began shutting down, my wife—the brains behind the operation—and I had to figure out how to make the most out of the situation without falling victim to both the unarguably horrifying nature of it and the depression and fear that was always skulking right outside our door.

Fortunately, my writing has expanded, and I’m now contributing to a range of outlets that I only ever dreamed of. And while I can no longer host events for corporate clients around the country, I’ve built a thriving business of hosting virtual ones. It’s become a financial boon for us, but it’s also proven to be one of the most emotionally rewarding aspects of my work. I have the incredibly fortunate chance to bring a sense of joy to people’s lives for the hour or so that I taste with them.

I’m always conscious to remind myself that no one gets into the wine business because we hate wine and are forced into it. The visceral joy that results from the pop of a cork and the glug of the liquid is undeniable. By bringing that to the guests at my events, and perhaps interrupting the drumbeat of terror—the professional, medical, and financial concerns that have become the white noise of American life in 2020—I’m able to directly and deeply connect with one of the aspects of wine that makes it so special: Its almost alchemical ability to confer the sense of promise, of hope, and happiness.

We also started a video series, “Day Drinking with Brian,” which we stream on several platforms. It began as an excuse to have a glass of wine and a sip of some spirit or other in the middle of the day, and I would have been happy if a few dozen people tuned in for each one. Now, nearly 25 episodes later, we just filmed our first episode in partnership with a winery. We’re in talks with another, and the opportunities that have arisen from the show’s visibility have stunned me.

The point is that pivoting is one of the most challenging and daunting things that any professional might ever have to do—this is true no matter what field you work in. But those of us in the wine world can do so in ways that are unique to our field. In times of trouble and in times of celebration, people drink. They drink differently, of course, but it’s always there, hovering in the background, or foreground. There’s a reason that Napoleon was supposed to have said that he drinks Champagne to celebrate the victories and to salve the wounds of defeat. (Much like Donovan McNabb puking in the Super Bowl, this story, too, is probably apocryphal.) Expertise in the world of wine, whether you’re a writer or winemaker or sommelier, has real value, especially now. And it’s even more valuable if you’re adept at communicating about it clearly and with enthusiasm.

If you’re willing to seek out and find the slivers of opportunity that result from country- and soul-crushing events like this pandemic, and you’re brave enough (or foolish enough) to pursue them, then you’ll give yourself the chance to bounce back. You’ll make the most of a situation that you may not have realized you were preparing for—whether every effort succeeds is not as important as you may think. Resilience, and a willingness to re-imagine when things go sideways, is.

The point of the pivot is to try. Eventually, something will stick.