In the Before Times, a restaurant’s wine expert already juggled many responsibilities: curating a wine list that is both appealing and evocative, doing mental gymnastics through hundreds of factors to divine what a guest would like to drink, and executing pour after pour without dripping. But after restaurant dining rooms closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, wine experts had to find ways to translate that warm, curated interaction into new experiences — and not just another Zoom class.
Wine represented a critical lifeline to restaurants: Bottles can deliver similar profit margins as food without incurring labor costs or running the risk of expiration. While to-go cocktails were mired in a legislative quagmire for months, takeout and delivery wine sales were allowed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s waivers in March. Fortunately, wine experts face a receptive market. Whether due to wine drinkers stocking up or exploring new interests, wine sales have been up 66 percent during the pandemic.
However, selling wine while social distancing eliminated the personal, tableside experience. With many people hesitant to dine out, restaurants — and wine experts — had to make ordering wine more attractive to customers, who have the option of just drinking what’s on hand at home. Restaurants had a small advantage here, as they can often procure small-batch bottles that aren’t available in grocery stores. But they had to shift operations and customers’ perceptions to sell retail.
In other words, it was time for sommeliers to get creative.
Without dine-in guests, wine experts have had to take on new roles and build new skill sets to appeal to customers. That could mean managing online retail presences, increasing marketing efforts (developing newsletters, writing creative descriptions, building social media, etc.), and creating a wine club, among other routes. With restaurant menus modified to be carryout-friendly, they may also create new pairings to-go.
Austin sommelier Rania Zayyat believes that while finding new and profitable ways to branch out wine programs will be challenging, building these skills will ultimately make wine experts more valuable to the restaurant business. Zayyat perhaps exemplifies career diversification: She is the wine director at Neapolitan pizzeria Bufalina, founder of the Wonder Women of Wine Conference, and runs Vintel, a wine consulting firm.
For East Sixth natural wine bar LoLo, shifting to retail wine came as a shock since the bar had only been open five weeks when the governor closed bars and restaurants in March. Though LoLo was built with a retail wine section pre-pandemic, co-owner Adam Wills says that relying on the online store can make the bar feel like a cold, faceless order-fulfillment center rather than a friendly local business that provides personal recommendations. “It’s so much more enjoyable to pull a bottle off the shelf, tell a story, walk people through options, and share excitement,” he says.
Alex Wheatley Bell, the beverage director at South Lamar restaurant Aviary Wine & Kitchen, found that the pandemic made it more difficult for him to sell the more eccentric wines that the business is known for. “One of the things I’ve always loved sharing with guests is my visceral, emotional, and teleportive experience when I taste and select a wine,” he says. “We have to be there to share our bottled-lightning level of excitement with the guests to ease their apprehensions and loosen their inhibitions to try something new.”
At Aviary, retail purchases before the pandemic were mostly limited to customers enjoying a bottle with dinner and then buying a second to take home. Adapting to online sales and attracting customers to wines they couldn’t taste proved difficult at first. Relying simply on alluring descriptions of wine didn’t work (he speculated that after people spent their days staring at screens, reading a wine description in 10-point font on an app made for a hard sell).
Bell described March as a “nail-biting period” for Aviary. So, like other wine sellers, he pivoted to create more personalized experiences. And they’re working: In September, despite being open at a reduced capacity, the restaurant came within $10,000 of its sales from September 2019 (however, Bell noted, “We need those $10,000” during the financially harrowing year). Aviary took a workhorse approach to creating new programs to connect with customers. Bell has developed several themed wine collections, from a virtual wine tour of France to date-night packages to wines paired with music, and offers monthly virtual tasting classes.
The most popular offering at Aviary focused on trendy canned wines. Bell came up with the idea because cans can travel to more places than bottles, side-step glass-container rules (“There’s definitely something lost out of drinking wine out of like a Nalgene,” he says), and often feature the low-intervention, low-carbon footprint trends that customers look for.
Bell tasted over 50 canned wines to find eight that met his standards, landing on wines from Sans Wine Co., which focuses on canned wines (and, according to Bell, makes hands-down the best canned red wine); CO Cellars, a collaboration between ZAFA Wines and Shacksbury cider; Wrath Wines; Broc Cellars; and Old Westminster. He then mixed these into six-packs sold to go. The program has proved successful, with customers sending pictures of themselves having a picnic at Zilker Park or drinking wine from a can at the end of a hike.
After seeing sommeliers struggle to find work, J.R. Ayala (who works with Zayyat at Wonder Women of Wine conference) founded Stay at Home Somm, a series of virtual wine classes taught by local out-of-work wine professionals, in April. “So many of us were living from paycheck to paycheck, had health insurance that lived on paper alone, and we clearly weren’t able to work from home,” says Ayala.
Calling on previous experience as a wine educator, Ayala rallied a group of 10 wine professionals to rotate hosting intimate 45-minute classes via videoconference. The classes walk participants through wine-related topics each expert is passionate about, from exploring the Napa Valley to a deep dive into orange wines to a class on wine and wellness. For a suggested donation of $25, participants receive a list of wines to purchase, and then a sommelier gives them information about each wine (there may be a PowerPoint presentation, depending on the depth of the topic), describes the tasting notes, and answers questions about food pairings.
In addition to providing a learning experience for customers, Stay at Home Somm classes provide essential income for these wine experts. A percentage of the proceeds are donated to other out-of-work hospitality professionals through programs like Austin Shift Meal, which provides groceries, or other organizations that provide mental health services or wine education scholarships. Ayala says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and has even had anonymous donors pay for the classes for out-of-work restaurant employees who want to learn.
Perhaps staying true to the city’s trendy stereotype, Austinites have not hesitated to shell out for expert advice on new and interesting wines. Zayyat says she’s seen more wine clubs pop up in the last six months than ever before. She launched Bufalina’s wine club in April as a way to connect with regular diners (Bufalina did not reopen for takeout until May) and maintain relationships with distributors and suppliers. For selections in each of the club’s three tiers (which range from $75 for three bottles to $415 for six bottles), Zayyat focuses on natural wines from women-owned wineries, often giving members first access to new producers or wines in the market.
To personalize the wine club offerings, Zayyat includes customized postcards for each wine detailing information about the producer, the bottle, and a pizza pairing. She says writing the postcards has been a fun endeavor, comparing it to talking to guests tableside.
Zayyat also partnered with a monthly online wine club, MYSA, to create a box of natural wines made by women, accompanied by online tastings (with the option of recorded or live videos) to recreate the personal aspect of wine tastings. In the videos, Zayyat and Holly Berrigan (founder of MYSA), provide an overview of natural wine and discuss each producer’s story, details about the wine, tasting and pairing notes, where it’s from, and how it’s made, and address any anticipated questions wine club members may have.
Given that people are drinking more wine, and many seem to have chosen to become an amateur sommelier as their quarantine pastime, there’s a huge demand for wine recommendations across different channels. A sommelier’s job now spans a variety of platforms (hosting Zoom webinars, Instagram live sessions, and texting with guests for personal recommendations), many of which they likely did not use prior to March. “I feel like I’m recommending more than ever,” says Zayyat says.
Bell decided to treat his personal cellphone as a “professional opportunity phone” at the beginning of stay-home orders. Though the number was already on his business card, he began to encourage customers to reach out directly so he could walk them through the wines they purchased or offer recommendations for pairings, and initiated contact with frequent buyers to curate a case.
“It definitely blurred the line between professional and personal time,” Bell says. “But the one thing we all understood at Aviary was, ‘Who knows what’s going to happen?’ Right now there is no measure that is too much.”
The actual wines that experts are recommending have changed, too. Bell found that in the early days of Austin’s stay-home, work-safe orders, customers were gravitating toward well-known varietals like pinot noir or chardonnay over the Italian schiava or other lesser-known styles that the restaurant specializes in. To stay true to Aviary’s ethos, Bell collected familiar varietals from unexpected places, like a sauvignon blanc from Slovenia. By striking this balance of comfort and intrigue, Bell found customers more receptive and willing to expand their wine repertoire as the pandemic has progressed. (The ample time at home to research doesn’t hurt, either).
Interestingly, Bell says customers have been more willing to spend on pricier wines, which is important when wine sales are crucial to the survival of restaurants during this time. This could be due, in part, to the excitement of getting unique wines for less-than-list prices, or simply the desire to not waste time on low-quality alcohol as mortality looms over us during a global pandemic.
An extended period of selling wines at retail prices will have adverse consequences for restaurants — eventually. Wines found in restaurants are usually marked up anywhere from two and a half to three times their retail price to cover the price of the wine program, including glassware, research to curate a wine list, and staff education. However, during the pandemic, many places dropped prices to make retail wine more attractive for customers. Aviary sold bottles to go at 35 percent off list price before the pandemic, but after March, that dropped to 50 percent off for large orders. Bell would often research prices online to be more competitive. “I had to get really inventive with my purchasing,” he says.
The question is, then, if customers become used to paying retail price when ordering to-go wines now, will restaurants encounter pushback — and loss of sales — when they have to mark the prices back up? Bell reports that this has not been an issue so far, especially since diners are just happy to be returning to restaurants.
With time still spent at home due to restrictions and concerns on restaurant dining, holidays, and a stressful election season ahead, it seems likely that wine sales in Austin will not dip anytime soon. Creative offerings from talented sommeliers and wine professionals continue to carry restaurants and wine bars through an untenable time, and show the particular agility of experts outside of the dining rooms in which they honed their craft. Zayyat thinks this adaptability has proven a sommelier’s worth to restaurants, concluding, “It’s such an interesting, educational, and beneficial time in many ways.”
Disclosure: Eater Wine Club is a joint business venture between Eater and MYSA. This does not impact coverage of MYSA on Eater.