When Grant Reynolds opened Parcelle, he knew he had a major challenge to overcome. The wine shop was part of a multitiered project in New York’s Hudson Yards, which included a restaurant, bar and café from Delicious Hospitality Group, where Reynolds is a partner. It was 2018 and the neighborhood was in the midst of being developed with high-rise residential and office buildings in addition to fine dining restaurants and a mall, but the foot traffic wasn’t quite there yet. Reynolds’ solution? Focus on delivery and e-commerce and launch a text line. For years, friends and customers had messaged him personally to ask questions about wine, so he knew there was a demand for this type of open-ended consultation service. And because everyone on staff at Parcelle was a sommelier, helping customers navigate a selection of wines was second nature. “The constant problem that we’re always trying to solve for is the difficulty of figuring out lists, with a retail model behind it,” Reynolds says, of Parcelle’s aim to provide a virtual wine service that resembles talking to a sommelier in a restaurant.
A year and a half later, Parcelle wasn’t the only wine shop with a foot traffic problem. When the pandemic hit, shop owners everywhere scrambled to figure out smart ways to sell to their customers while it was unsafe to welcome people inside stores. Although the demand for bottles to drink at home was climbing, the ability to have in-person conversations about wine had disappeared, leaving a hole in the retail experience that wasn’t always solved by having a phone line. As a result, some retailers began to recognize the power in selling wine over text. They sent pictures back and forth, answered questions and made recommendations, unlocking a reciprocal channel for casual intimacy and reaching new customers in the process.
Esters, a hybrid retail space and wine bar in Santa Monica, leaned into encouraging customers to call in orders for curbside pickup until general manager and sommelier Zaitouna Kusto realized they were missing out on sales from people who didn’t like talking over the phone. In June of last year, they started using the app TextMagic to offer a new service: Somm Chat. “People really responded to it,” Kusto remembers, explaining that texting has helped her foster relationships with people who are better able to articulate themselves over text, particularly younger drinkers. “The biggest challenge for a somm is to be able to understand someone’s language—to crack the Rosetta Stone of knowing what people mean when they say they like a wine that’s like this or like that.”
In other words, the ability to text a sommelier as you would your friends lessens the anxiety that often comes with buying wine. Kusto says that some of the most enriching educational moments have occurred when customers text questions that they otherwise may have felt intimidated to ask, like “what’s an orange wine?” Once, someone asked if a rosé was a mix between a red and a white wine. “There are no dumb questions,” Kusto says. Texting is particularly useful for talking about budget, which is one of the most, if not the most, important facts for sommeliers to know when helping customers choose wine. It’s also “often the most awkward moment” for people, as Reynolds notes.
During the pandemic, Daryl Nuhn of Peoples Wine was running her business almost entirely over text. She had opened the doors to her Essex Market shop in November 2019, and was holding off on launching an e-commerce website out of fear that too many people would buy bottles based off of labels instead of what was inside. “We sometimes FaceTimed, often [had] phone calls, but text was the quickest and most efficient way to chat,” she recalls. Peoples’ virtual buying experience required customers to first fill out a survey about what they were looking for. Then, someone from the shop would reach out via text message with pictures and descriptions of suggested wines and follow up with an invoice after the selections were approved.
“It was great for us, because we were able to put people onto wine that they maybe wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because the label wasn’t super sexy,” she says. It also provided an opportunity for Peoples to create deeper connections with their customer base. She recounts how one customer, an older woman, would send her pictures of every meal she made with the bottles of wine she bought from Peoples. She continues to be a loyal customer to this day.
Texting as a feature of the wine retail experience isn’t just relegated to traditional shops, either. Highly Recommended is a text-based consultation and delivery service founded by entrepreneur Marquis Williams. He curates tight monthly wine lists then texts out PDFs containing details and tasting notes from which customers can order. Highly Recommended started four years ago as a way for Williams to help friends buy wine. Now, he runs it in conjunction with Good Wine in Park Slope; a team of four people helps him respond to texts from a community of over 1,300 members.
While wine shops have opened back up and restaurants can host diners at full capacity, the potential for texting as a permanent feature of the wine retail experience remains. According to Nuhn, through texting she’s developed one of her most profitable relationships, helped people buy wine for first dates and breakups, and received updates of major milestones (such as when she helped a man pick out a celebration wine after his baby was born). At Esters, customers have started to use the text line in a more utilitarian way, including to make reservations, but Kusto says she’d like to figure out how to encourage more people to text in questions about wine, “because that’s the most fun way to use it.”
For his part, Reynolds is intent on continuing to expand upon what Parcelle is able to offer over text, including integrating customer profiles with their SMS communications so that his sommeliers can make stronger suggestions. An ideal technical setup would allow them to keep track of the bottles each customer likes—whether they drank it at a restaurant and then let the shop know, or bought it directly from Parcelle—so that “we’re always learning more together,” Reynolds says. Although he has yet to notice a widespread adoption of texting in the wine world (save for GaryVee’s deal-based club), he considers it a promising avenue for the future of hospitality-driven retail. “If there’s any positive development for the industry on account of COVID,” he says, “it’s that these great brands and businesses that were confined to their specific location are finding ways to create revenue and experiences for their customers outside of those walls.”