Wine

What’s It Like to Work in Wine Right Now?

March 26, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Photo: Daniel Krieger

Wine

What’s It Like to Work in Wine Right Now?

March 26, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Art: Daniel Krieger

Daily stories from sommeliers, retailers, winemakers and importers working in the wake of COVID-19.

March 30 | San Francisco

Here in the Bay Area, the first American metropolitan region to issue a shelter-in-place order to its residents, it feels like we’re living in the future. For weeks, the rest of the country eyed us skeptically: Surely you’re overreacting; what do you mean you haven’t left your apartment in six days? While you picnicked and hit up the bar (one last time!), we paced our living rooms and fretted—a community of begloved, six-foot-distant Cassandras, cursed with the knowledge of what’s to come.

The wine industry can see into the future, too. The decisions they make today will have ripple effects months, even years from now: If there’s no cash for an importer to order wine in June, then her wines will start drying up in September. Sooner, if the Port of Oakland closes and an in-progress shipment of wine is left cooking inside its shipping containers. If winemakers don’t sell through enough of their spring releases, then they won’t have enough cash to make new wine this fall, which means they’ll have to skip a vintage and the scarcity cycle will start over again this time next year.

In the age of COVID-19, reality seems to rewrite itself every few hours. But West Coast winemakers, importers, retailers and restaurants are already several steps ahead of the rest of us, so perhaps their insights can help us prepare for what’s to come. —Emily Timberlake

Martha Stoumen | Founder, Martha Stoumen Wines
Martha Stoumen is a winemaker based in Sebastopol, Sonoma County.

The wine business is weird in that all of your money flows out during harvest when you’re making wine—buying grapes, paying for your farming, paying for bottles and packaging. Once everything’s in-bottle, you tell yourself, “OK, this is the lowest my bank account will be,” knowing that you will sell it. We’re at that lowest point now.

We still haven’t done our spring release yet—that’s about 75 percent of my production. Part of me wonders whether it’s tone-deaf for me to be asking people to buy wine right now, like I’m somehow drawing their attention away. But we’ve decided we’re still going to do the spring release on April 7: We’ve gotten a lot of support from our wine club members and our repeat customers.

If we could increase the amount that we sell direct-to-consumer, that would be great. My main hope, though, is for some government assistance to fill in the gaps, particularly for restaurants. We can hold our breath; wine isn’t perishable. But if restaurants and retail don’t reopen, then we don’t have anywhere to sell those bottles that we’ve held onto.

I don’t know if people realize that there is only one grape harvest per year! Think about what that means for business: We have one shot to figure out what we can afford to make, and what the market can handle. There’s really no telling, but I know that I will decrease production this coming year—I don’t know how much yet. The worst-case scenario is we skip a vintage.

Tess Bryant | Owner, Tess Bryant Selections
Tess Bryant is a Cazadero-based importer of organic and biodynamic wines from Australia, France and California. Her 15-producer portfolio includes many of the rising stars of the Aussie natural-wine scene—including Jauma, Sam Vinciullo and Borachio—whose harvest ended earlier this month.

Ninety-five percent of my inventory comes from Australia, and I have to consolidate full containers in order to make shipping costs make sense. This means I place orders maybe three or four times per year.

It takes three-ish months for the wine to get here. I placed my last order in the middle of January—worst timing possible!—and the containers arrive at Oakland customs on March 27. So I’m just hoping—selfishly, for my business—that the ports stay open at least until then. It’s about 1,000 cases of wine. If the port’s closed, and we’re headed towards warm summer months, I have no idea what condition that wine will be stored in. That would be enough to shut my business down right there, because it’s a $250,000 investment. I was planning to order another round of wine in June, but at this point, I’ll have no money to do it, and potentially nowhere to sell it. So that wine won’t be here in September.

I was just in Margaret River, literally a week ago, visiting Sam Vinciullo. He’s supposed to be bottling his 2020 wines in June, and obviously we still have a little bit of time until then, but he texted me in the middle of the night last night to say, “I don’t think I can bottle my 2020s.” He needs money to buy bottles and labels and to pay for storage once the wines are in bottle. And he’s already either assuming the worst or being practical about it—however you want to look at it.

In terms of a possible shortage: Our harvest here [in the United States] isn’t until the fall. If these extreme financial difficulties last through the summer, many people won’t have money to make wines—unless they have $1 million in the bank. Most of the people who I work with, who I’m interested in and hang out with, don’t.

Dominique Henderson | Owner, Gemini Bottle Co.
Gemini is a bottle shop specializing in natural and biodynamic wines that opened in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2018.

The city government hasn’t really given us any idea of whether we can be open. “Essential” is so vague. We had friends at Ruby Wine who were doing everything right: They had their gloves and masks on, were only doing curbside pickup and deliveries. The police came and basically told them, “If people want wine, they can go to Safeway.”

We realized if that’s happening to someone up the street from us, we should really figure out how to work around this. A friend connected us with Martin Bournhonesque, who has a farm down in Soledad. He basically lost his whole business because he was only delivering to restaurant accounts. He has all this produce and nowhere to sell it. So we partnered with him and so he’s doing CSA boxes that are delivered to the shop on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Then we partnered with another company, Front Coffee, who were supposed to open up their new location in Potrero Hill last week, but they were obviously unable to open. Now, we’re selling their coffee, as well as some olive oil from Sonoma Mountain Winery. We’re looking to bring on other small purveyors who typically only sell wholesale—bread bakers and the like. We’re really trying to make this a makeshift grocery store, but with products from people who really need support and another outlet for selling their products.

We’re doing deliveries and curbside pickups wearing masks and gloves. Everything has to be ordered ahead of time. We’re so lucky that we have this crazy, overwhelming, supportive community that we’ve built in this last year and change. Luckily, a lot of people in our neighborhood work in the tech industry, so people have their jobs and they’re still able to support us. We’re not killing it every day. But I think a lot of people in the last week have been seriously stocking up and buying a lot more wine than they need. In the next few weeks we’re really gonna see how this is going to work, as the novelty of getting wine delivered goes away.

Matt Straus | Owner, Heirloom Café
Heirloom Café is a 50-seat restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District that boasts one of the deepest and best-priced wine cellars in the city. On March 17, owner Matt Straus announced via email the launch of “Cellar-20,” a wine club in which patrons contribute “$5,000 or $10,000 to a fund which will be used, in the coming months and years, to build an inventory of our favorite, classical, age-worthy wines. The inventory will then be available to founding members, who may draw a maximum of $1,000 worth of wine per calendar year from it, at no charge but the shipping.” For Straus, the Cellar-20 program is a better and more sustainable solution to near-term cash-flow issues than asking customers to buy gift cards, which he worries will cause similar cash-flow issues the moment his restaurant reopens. As of March 25, he had interest from 18 potential members.

People think I’m out of my mind when I talk about the gift-card thing. They say, “People are throwing money at you; take it and do what you need with it!” But what does it mean to go 50 grand into gift-card debt? A gift card is just a loan.

Let’s go through the scenario: Some people bought these massive gift cards. And then they make a reservation for eight people, and there are three different parties of eight people on a Saturday night who come in and tear through your wine cellar and ring up nine or ten thousand dollars in sales and you have like, just $1,500 in credit card charges to show for the night.

Cellar-20 is a totally disparate thing from all of this; now just seemed like the right moment to broach it with some of our top clients. It’s an idea that I hatched about 16 years ago, with a guy who was probably my best friend in the wine business, Kevin O’Connor [a former sommelier at Spago, and the cofounder of Lioco Wines].

The truth is, virtually no restaurants or retailers in the country offer mature wines that they have curated and stored themselves. Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa is one of the few. If you’re looking for something beyond blue-chip wines like Lafite Rothschild and Pétrus—say a 2004 Ferrando Carema—you could watch every auction for the rest of your life, but you’ll never see it. If you want to buy a 15-year-old, well-stored bottle of something delicious from a magnificent winemaker, it’s impossible.

Personally, I fell in love with putting those wines away and then reaping the massive joy and benefits later. That has been the gas in my tank for 15 or 20 years. So the idea with Kevin was, what if we were to bring some people on board, build an inventory, take some capital upfront, and build a wine club where people have the benefit of pulling wines out of that inventory?

We have 18 takers at the moment. After another couple of people, I will have to cap it. I’m going to make wines available to founding members in the next three months, probably.

The response we’ve had so far is a way to ease the burden of rent for a month or two. To a certain degree, I felt like this was a way to collateralize the wine that we already own. If we were out of business for eight or 10 months and I took every penny of the money that people bought into the wine club and put it towards rent, there still would be enough wine in our cellar to pay all those people back in very, very great wine.

March 27 | Nashville

On Tuesday, March 3, a tornado barreled through Nashville and Middle Tennessee, destroying many homes and businesses and taking more than a dozen lives. For two weeks, pockets of the city were without power. Just as they started to come back online, COVID-19 began cutting a path across the United States. “It was a gut punch with the tornado and then a right hook to the jaw with coronavirus,” says Will Motley, owner of East Nashville’s Woodland Wine Merchant, which is now open for curbside wine pickup only.

Some restaurants have remained closed since the tornado. Others, like Bastion and Henrietta Red, started back up but then closed amid the chaos, unsure how to navigate the new landscape. And others, still, transformed their venues with takeaway menus and wine packages to keep the business afloat. Mandates from the state’s governor have evolved quickly: Current rules dictate that restaurants can sell food, as well as wine, beer and liquor, for takeout only. Any booze orders must be accompanied by food and all drinks are required to be in a sealed container.

As the city finds its way, many are simply attempting to deal with the damages left in the wake of the tornado. If you’re looking to help, Motley recommends donating to the Community Fund of Middle Tennessee. —Megan Krigbaum

Will Motley | Owner, Woodland Wine Merchant
For the last 13 years, Will Motley’s wine shop has been an important hub in the East Nashville neighborhood. Motley says he’s surprised by just how busy the store has been—even in its curbside capacity—and how willingly customers have transitioned to taking recommendations via text.

We’ve just gone from one tragedy to another. It’s a shame because this was just an absolutely devastating tornado and people need a lot of help getting back on their feet and [there were] few businesses, like us, that were mostly OK. When I look out from our store, right across the street from me, those businesses just aren’t there anymore. We are very aware of that.

Fortunately, we had minimal damage, but we didn’t have power or internet for two weeks. We were finally able to reopen right at the height of when the public was starting to panic about the virus and started panic-buying wine. We could still allow customers in the store, but as of Sunday night Nashville closed all nonessential businesses and is trying to operate a shelter-in-place protocol. Right now, we’re able to operate as an essential business. I have not had to let anyone go.

Our customers have been great—most people have been really kind and understanding. That said, we’re really looking forward to having our online store up and running today or tomorrow. We’ve always wanted to be a store that’s very forward in making recommendations and still want customers to have that experience. They’ll text and say “Can you put together six bottles of red? I’d like to spend this much—whatever you think.”

We are in the process of building out our second shop on the west side of town, which is just more anxiety, honestly. Everything is so uncertain. We were shooting to open on April 1, but there have been some delays, so May 1 is looking more realistic.

Aria Dorsey | Director of operations and wine, and Folk
Today, while two of the city’s mainstay restaurants operate with a trim kitchen crew and continue to support furloughed employees with health insurance, wine director Aria Dorsey has pared back the lists and started selling wine packages to-go.

 Rolf & Daughters lost power for about a week after the tornado, but as far as physical damage, both restaurants were fine. That said, a couple of employees lost their homes. We tried to help as much as we could. For those who lost all of their personal effects—some lost every piece of furniture and all of their clothes, things insurance won’t cover—we gave them a check and helped call insurance agents. At Rolf & Daughters, because the restaurant was closed for a week, we gave all of our employees $500.

Last Monday, the 16th, was our last in-room dining service. Tuesday we switched to all curbside and delivery, and luckily, our POS system already had an online order system in place. This Monday, they announced that we can sell liquor, wine and beer for off-premise. All of the wines we have are available, but I pared down our wine list, so there’s only 25 bottles per restaurant.

At Folk, we have wine packages, like a Sicilian wine six-pack and one that’s all Paolo Bea, if you want to ball out. And then we’re doing mystery bottles: You pay $35 and choose sparkling, white, red, rosé or skin-contact and we pick something out for you. We’ve sold a lot of those.

Right now, we’re just selling through what we have, which sucks because it’s allocation season and everything is coming in right now. One distributor is holding on to what he can for me so that I can hopefully buy it in the next month and a half, and hopefully not completely start from scratch when we reopen.

We were able to keep most of the kitchen staff at reduced hours and some of our dishwashing team. We’re trying to take care of those who are laid off. We’re covering health insurance for all of them for the foreseeable future. All of the gratuity and tips we’re making at the restaurant are going to them. And we’re making takeaway family meal for them every day, an awesome little bag of goodies.

Alex Burch | Wine director, Bastion and Henrietta Red
Closed as of March 15, Bastion usually hosts Hip Hop Karaoke every Thursday. Last night, the restaurant held a virtual version on Instagram (and offered delivery of its signature nachos) to raise money for its staff. Wine director Alex Burch is continuing to reach out to the community with wine education online.

I’m kind of laying low right now. Bastion is a 24-seat dining room, so doing a quick pivot to to-go isn’t a top priority. We’d have to change everything. We have a neighborhood bar on the other side of the restaurant and even that is closed because you have to have face-to-face interaction there.

Our restaurant specializes in personal connection, so we reached out to some of our regulars and I asked if they wanted to learn to blind-taste or do a wine tasting. I picked up some wine at Woodland Wine Merchant, a few bottles of each, and dropped them off to people’s houses and told them to re-sanitize them. And then I got online and started guiding a tasting, creating maps with Google Earth and moving through the wines—all from different parts of Spain. Last week it was a group of seven people. I’ll do it again next week. I’m trying to figure out how to make it more affordable, to see if we can split up bottles and still be safe.

Calvin Webster, who’s in the wine business here, is studying for his WSET, so we’ve done some joint blind tastings on Instagram. He has a wine store employee who picks out the bottles for him to taste blind. And then we can blind taste and analyze them at the same time.

I work with Julia Sullivan as a wine consultant for Henrietta Red and she’s been doing a lot of work with the Tennessee Action for Hospitality. That’s been a really cool organization that’s working to change policy and looking for aid packages. It’s cool being connected to the national industry on social media; it’s had an amazing impact.

March 26 | Seattle

As one of the first large cities in the country to be impacted by COVID-19, Seattle’s restaurants, bars and wine shops have had a head start in dealing with the state’s ever-changing rules and guidelines. Ten days ago, Tom Douglas, owner of one of the city’s most prominent restaurant groups, announced that he was temporarily closing down his entire operation—12 restaurants in all—ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that all restaurants in the state cease in-person dining. It set the tone for the weeks to come.

Simultaneously, Canlis, Seattle’s top fine-dining restaurant, closed its doors to instead open a morning bagel shop and drive-through burger window, offering delivered meals in the evenings. On Wednesday, March 25, Canlis nixed the bagels and burgers to fully focus on meal delivery, with wine director Nelson Dacquip suggesting five wine pairings for each meal; the restaurant’s entire immense wine list is also available to those ordering. (This week, Dacquip says, a 2005 Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf du Pâpe and a couple bottles of Krug have been purchased.)

Today, restaurants with a license for beer, wine and spirits may sell sealed bottles via curbside pick-up or delivery. These establishments, most operating with a skeleton crew, are finding their way in a new normal, offering take-away menus and often marking down their wine lists to retail prices. In an effort to make space for curbside pickup, the city is helping to open up parking spaces in front of businesses to make it easy for customers to drive up and move out swiftly.

This is how a few members of Seattle’s wine industry are making do as their situation transitions daily.—Megan Krigbaum

Kathryn Olson | Wine director, L’Oursin
On March 15, this Central District French restaurant and wine bar closed up shop in response to the governor’s orders, but reopened four days later with the entrance serving as a caviste/market, selling bottles and prepared foods, like soups and chicken liver mousse, from chef JJ Proville. The team is being stringent about protocol, allowing only one customer in at a time. Each bottle has been wiped down, and each shopper dons gloves upon entering.

Things started to feel more serious last Monday and our very small management team decided to pivot at that time. [Co-owner] Zac [Overman] and I came up with some themes for wine selections (L’Oursin Chez Vous, The Hunker Down Funkers, the Smoke-It-If-You-Got-It Bag, and the $40 Recession Special) and started internet sales Tuesday night, and then went full market Thursday at 11 a.m.

When we opened two years ago, we had $1,000 of inventory. A month ago, we had $12,000 of inventory. We’ve been selling highly allocated wines, one-offs, things we’d keep in cellar. It’s an interesting opportunity to be able to buy a super-special bottle to drink at home. So we will be starting from zero when we open.

Our first week, we were working with the inventory we already had—we didn’t think it was smart to order. But it’s been really positive and we’ve had some nice weather, so now we can make some very small orders. Everyone we’re working with on the distribution side (the minimums have gone out the window) has been willing to do deliveries from across town, even just for a case. We’re very small and most of our distributors are small and independent, but we want to keep that chain going, even at a snail’s pace.

Marc Papineau | Proprietor, Cantina Sauvage, and wine director, Lecosho
Former Bar Ferdinand co-owner and Seattle wine industry vet Marc Papineau has been running Cantina Sauvage, a series of natural wine pop-ups around the city, for the last couple years. He’s had to cancel his pop-ups for the foreseeable future, but he’s still selling and delivering wines from his dinners direct to his mailing list. Last week he sent out his first list of offerings and quickly sold 12 cases, delivering to customers himself.

We’re in lockdown. Does that mean I’m not supposed to be out delivering wine? I don’t want to spread any illness. I’d just sort of put the wine on the porch, knock on door, stand back and say, “There’s your wine!” No hugs!

There’s definitely a lot of support; people are picking up to-go [orders] to support their neighborhood restaurants. And there’s a reason I sold so much wine with my first email offering—people want to support me. I have a good audience in the sense that I know all of them. It’s not a big email list, but it’s one that’s loyal. There’s a spreading of the wealth going on, which I find really—not just endearing—but really edifying. It’s not all negative, but it’s a huge change. I don’t even think we see yet what the far-reaching effects of this will be.

I have been looking around for the last year or two for the right place to reopen a wine shop, a brick and mortar, and—I don’t think I’m alone in this—in this moment I’m so glad that I didn’t open a place. I think a lot of independent operators are in the same boat that I am, that they don’t want to take on a lot of debt.

Carrie Omegna | Beverage director, Sea Creatures
Sea Creatures, the beloved restaurant group led by chef Renee Erickson, closed its doors March 15 while transitioning several of Erickson’s restaurants (The Whale Wins, Willmott’s Ghost and Bateau) to do takeaway. Though beverage director Carrie Omegna was temporarily laid off, she says she’ll be back soon.

It’s a roller coaster that changes daily, sometimes hourly, and being adaptable is imperative. It was a heartbreaking decision to have to lay off almost all staff, both hourly and salaried. After the first week, the collective decision is to reassess every two days to see what the next steps are.

Our staff is diminished and those who are left are working long hours and hoping to break even serving meals to-go curbside. We are not allowed to sell liquor, so it is wine and beer at retail pricing, also to-go. We have been pulling wine from our closed locations to pull cash out of inventory. We’ve not had the need to purchase any wine or beer at this time and it hurts our vendors who have focused on-premise portfolios. The lack of sales trickles down to all our vendors—both food and beverages.

Tuesday through Saturday we show up, take a look at what’s left, pull food and beverages from closed locations and get to it, with curbside pickup from 3 to 8ish. Long term, this isn’t sustainable. If people want to know how to support the hospitality and arts communities in Seattle, buy gift cards to use when we can return to our normal social selves. Order food delivery through Caviar, Uber Eats or other third-party delivery services.

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