James O’Brien never intended to open a wine shop. The Maialino alum and partner in Wine Larder NYC, a wine brokerage and consultancy, opened Popina with chef Chris McDade across from the cargo yards of Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront in 2017. The restaurant became a neighborhood favorite, beloved for McDade’s Italy-meets-American South dishes and for a wine list with uncommon depth and value. But after a brief attempt at takeout and delivery, Popina the restaurant closed on March 25. One month later, it reemerged as Popina Wine & Provisions, an impromptu larder and wine shop—its tables pushed aside to make space for wire racks packed with bottles, bags of polenta, tins of fish and a cavalcade of premade cocktails.
Popina joins a growing number of restaurants around the country that have closed during quarantine only to reopen as de facto wine shops, taking advantage of laws that have either been relaxed or discarded in most states. Less than a week after restaurants were ordered to close in New York, Sauvage, in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, had transformed into Sauvage Wines & Spirits, complete with new signage and a retail website. A little further south, The Four Horsemen became Next Door Space, a shop selling art, merch and 16-ounce Capri Sun–style pouches of orange wine dispensed from kegs, alongside selections from its outstanding collection of natural wine. New York state law requires that wine and booze be accompanied by food when sold from a restaurant, so Next Door Space recommends shoppers add a bag of Spanish ham chips or Keetz Plant Bites to their online shopping carts.
On the West Coast, Seattle’s L’Oursin was one of the swiftest to transform. On March 19, co-owner Zac Overman and wine director Kathryn Olson opened up a “marché” in the former entrance to their restaurant, where they sell wine in cheekily themed six-packs (“Hunker Down Funkers” “Chez Vous”) or by the bottle. The operation has expanded to offer prepared foods, cheese and produce. Similarly, the couple behind Los Angeles’ All Time, Ashley and Tyler Wells, flipped their restaurant from sit-down all-day café to a general store, bringing in two refrigerators and shelving for wine and pantry items. Everything is ordered online and handed off curbside.
For the consumer, this new brand of retail means that wines that were once only available via a restaurant wine list—whether cellared and with age or just highly allocated—are now up for grabs, and takeaway, and reduced prices. (Restaurant prices are generally about two times retail, sometimes more.) “I’m astonished how cheap people are selling off allocated, sometimes irreplaceable wines,” says Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director of Acquerello and 1760 in San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Paterlini is selling a small selection of new-release wines from Acquerello’s legendary cellar and has begun placing 1760’s stock on somm.ai, an online platform that allows consumers to search and buy wine from restaurants around the country. According to him, buyers are benefiting at their established wine shops, too. “Retailers are getting all the restaurant allocations, so consumers have access to wines that they could previously only find in restaurants.”
Many of these new concepts diverge more drastically from the typical retail experience. At Heirloom Café in San Francisco, owner Matt Straus has launched a program called Cellar-20, which allows guests looking for older vintages to essentially buy into his deep reserves of Burgundy, German riesling, the Jura and California. Members pay $5,000 or $10,000 up front and can then draw against that, up to $1,000 per year. Straus is also selling wines a la carte, and has set up weekly Zoom tastings dubbed “Saturday Wines.” Customers can purchase two bottles from Heirloom ahead of time and then log in to discuss. Straus, the restaurant’s chef and sommelier, makes cooking videos to accompany the tasting each week. Likewise, sommeliers like Andy Fortgang of Le Pigeon and Canard in Portland and Steven Grubbs of Empire State South in Atlanta are using their expertise to tailor six-packs of wine with accompanying descriptions, to order, that evoke the conversations and hospitality they might have tableside.
Back at Popina, one of the restaurant’s great points of pride was O’Brien’s reserve wine list, which is full of geeky finds at low prices. After a couple of strong months of business at the beginning of the year, O’Brien had taken the opportunity to build up the cellar, which he estimated to contain about $55,000 in wine. When the restaurant shuttered in March, O’Brien unloaded everything he could in order to pay his bills, reaching out to restaurant regulars and collectors. He sold $45,000 in wine in a single week. The bulk of the wine he’s now selling at Popina Wine & Provisions falls between $25 and $40 a bottle, well below the wine list’s pre-COVID average. While he’s no longer able to source back-vintages for his reserve list, he’s taken the same amount of pride in curating the selections for Popina Wine & Provisions, expanding the list’s scope to include more wines from small California producers and other regions that might not have made their way onto his Eurocentric list at the restaurant.
“I want people to know that no matter what, we’re thinking about them and trying to provide that value,” says O’Brien.
The prevailing sentiment among owners and sommeliers is that the truest expression of hospitality lies in being nimble. At Popina, if the people want fresh ricotta and pork chops so that they don’t have to wait in line at the butcher, or orange wines and Sicilian reds, the team is committed to offering them, says O’Brien. He now sees Popina as less of a restaurant or even a wine shop or larder, but a community center that he hopes can weather whatever is to come with the support of the neighborhood. “I’m so happy people are supporting us,” says O’Brien. “Because what we’re doing is not just a flash in the pan.”