Sommelier Yannick Benjamin Works the Floor on Wheels
A bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin saved Yannick Benjamin's career; wine saved his life.
On October 27, 2003, Benjamin had a car accident on the West Side Highway that left him a T-6 paraplegic for life. He wasn't drinking, he didn't break any laws, nobody else was injured. Benjamin instantly knew something was wrong: "I felt a pulling in my body, the way a magnet is drawn to a refrigerator." That night was the first of many in a decadelong journey to mend his body and spirit, and return to the career he almost left.
At the time of the accident, Benjamin, only 25, was hitting his stride in the sommelier world. Born and bred in Manhattan, Benjamin had been working his way through the ranks of New York's finest restaurants. "Growing up, I dreamed about owning my version of Cheers," he says. "I wanted a fun place with a good group of people, simple food, and wine. I just couldn't imagine doing anything else."
Benjamin's accident left him in a wheelchair. At first, he was confident he'd return to work. "I was so naïve, thinking I was going to come out of the hospital and start working the floor," he says. But the positivity ebbed and flowed. For Benjamin, the hardest part came when a nurse finally explained that certain activities, specifically catheterization to go to the bathroom, would be forever. "'This is your life,' she told me. The gravity of that hit me, and it was depressing."
After the ICU, Benjamin spent several more months in rehab before returning home in January 2004. "I remember that night; my dad brought me home," he says. "We opened a Joseph Roty Gevrey-Chambertin from 2000. This was the first wine I tasted after my accident, and it was my first sip of something that wasn't water or juice. The wine just hit me in the way an orange bursts in your mouth and the flavors taste electric. All this nostalgia came back, memories of working on the floor, being with wine friends. That experience changed my life and cemented my decision to get back out there no matter what."
Convincing restaurants to hire him proved enormously difficult. "I can't even tell you how many places I applied to that first year," he says. "But nobody knew who I was, and I came rolling into the interview in a wheelchair. Yes, of course, rejection can make you strong, but after a while, it was also discouraging."
As time passed, Benjamin was introduced to Jean-Luc Le Dû, the former sommelier at Daniel. Le Dû, had just opened his eponymous wine shop in the West Village, and without a moment's hesitation, hired him, allowing Benjamin to continue working in wine. The job gave him stability. He began adding to his list of achievements, finishing college and entering tasting competitions. His highest goal was to sit for the Court of Master Sommeliers exam.
MS candidates are required to simulate wine service by carrying, decanting, and serving. Benjamin spent hours online trying to find someone working a restaurant floor in a wheelchair. "I looked up 'wheelchair sommelier,' and absolutely nothing came up," he says. "I guess I am the only one dumb enough to attempt it." To take the exam, Benjamin needed a tray. After various models, Benjamin finally settled on a custom wooden tray he designed with Jean-Paul Viollet of Atelier Viollet.
Last spring, Benjamin passed the service portion of the MS exam in Aspen. But he still felt a deep emptiness: "I didn't care if someone paid me five bucks or nothing, I just wanted to get on a restaurant floor. I needed it." A week later, he heard about an opening for a sommelier at the University Club. He had previously participated in competitions there in which, unknown to him, general manager John Dorman had been a judge. "When I went in and applied, he said he knew who I was."
Benjamin was hired fuss-free and has been working as a sommelier nearly five months now, using his custom tray. At first he was nervous, worrying that the staff and customers might not accept him, but instead found the opposite. "They have been unbelievably helpful and gracious," he says. "I think they feed off my energy."
Reflecting on the past 10 years, Benjamin acknowledged that wine served as a life jacket during his recovery: "Wine, for me, isn't just about drinking it; it's a bridge to many different things—people, places, stories. I don't know that if I didn't have wine in my life, I would've been able to get through these difficult years." Benjamin hopes to visit Joseph Roty in Burgundy. "I thought about writing a letter," he says, "but I want to tell them in person how much that bottle meant to me. How that bottle saved my life."
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