If you’ve wandered into an American wine store in the past five years, you may have noticed that retail is shifting. Where establishments with the library approach once dominated the market with their towering stacks of cases and big-name, blue-chip wines on pedestals, smaller shops with eclectic, affordable wines and attentive, casual service have come to the fore. Wine shopping has become, well, cool. Nudged along by the pandemic, the world of retail wine seems to be experiencing a great awakening.
It began a little over a decade ago when wine shops like Uva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Terroir in San Francisco began charting the rising tide of natural wine, an ethos which trickled down all over the country. In Kingston, New York, 100 miles north of the city, Michael Drapkin opened Kingston Wine Co. in 2013. Courting both traditional and natural winemakers at an approachable level, Drapkin has attracted moneyed weekenders, the city’s youthful expats and Hudson Valley locals. Two years later, Helen Johannesen opened the natural-focused cave-like Helen’s Wines inside of Los Angeles restaurant Jon & Vinny’s, a format that has been replicated at Park Avenue Fine Wines in Portland, Oregon, and Tinto in Philadelphia. In 2020, Denny and Katie Culbert opened the tightly edited Wild Child in Lafayette, Louisiana, introducing natural wine to a nascent market that hadn’t yet realized it needed such an establishment.
The pandemic has also noticeably reshaped the modern wine shop as bars and restaurants have pivoted to turn their shuttered dining rooms into makeshift retail spaces. For St. John Frizell, owner of Red Hook, Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance General Store, merging concepts exposed a desire not only for product but also connection. “I realized that the neighborhood needed more than just a place to hang out,” he says. “The idea was, how can we still be of use to the community here?” In addition to selling wine and bottled cocktails, Frizell provides CSA shares, tinned seafood, dairy and eggs, fresh and frozen meat and fish, bread, pasta and assorted home goods. His customers are regulars who come for the necessities, but also for interaction with the staff and neighbors. In this sense, it’s become a true American general store, embracing the grand tradition of fostering community.
Also in the spirit of the general store, wine retail has been infused with a sense of democratization prompted by customers’ unprecedented access to once-specialized knowledge. “It seems like, especially in NYC, there’s an incredible saturation of really good wine and spirits,” says Conor McKee, owner and buyer at Brooklyn’s Fiasco! Wine & Spirits, which opened in March. “It’s never been easier to track down that bottle you had that one time at that one place. And a sommelier doesn’t really have the time, mid-service, to procure a case of that banging bottle of bubbles you just crushed.” The result, McKee says, is a reliance on retail spaces that can, in his estimation, provide a more individualized experience.
Before—and especially during—the pandemic, online shopping, social media marketing and subscription models have helped retailers to extend the experience to customers’ homes. Leisir, whose slim blush-colored space opened in late 2019 in New York’s Chinatown, built its identity upon personalized service, but when the pandemic arrived, its owners adapted.
Conor McKee, owner and buyer at Brooklyn’s Fiasco! Wine & Spirits, which opened in March.
“We couldn’t really allow a lot of people in the store, and we had to increase our online presence and format more wine club–like things,” says Ashley Santoro, partner at Leisir. The shop’s club offers monthly two- or four-bottle subscriptions for $65 or $120 based on its owners’ particular interests. Domestique, a natural wine shop in Washington, D.C., increased its audience with a national subscription service, local pickup and delivery, and virtual wine consulting and events. Miracle Plum, Sallie Miller and Gwen Gunheim’s hybrid market-café-natural wine shop in Santa Rosa, California, curates three different subscriptions, and ships all across the country, providing them with a platform beyond their tight-knit California neighborhood.
For New York’s Parcelle, online sales were always a priority. The store’s out-of-the-way location meant they needed to get “in the forefront of peoples’ minds,” says general manager Christine Collado. With increased targeted email and text messaging as well as a robust online store, they’ve not only provided a new platform for conversation and education, but expanded the idea of what a wine shop can mean beyond brick and mortar, while building relationships with customers both in and outside of a physical space.
As the concept and shape of retail shifts, so too does the power dynamic of access. Traditionally reserved for high-performing restaurants, allocated wines have begun appearing in retail shops in unprecedented numbers. “We’re, in a sense, being able to sell higher-priced wines to more people,” says TJ Douglas, co-owner of Boston’s The Urban Grape. “The wholesaler realized that, hey, we’re sitting on all this inventory, and restaurants are not going to buy it anytime soon.” This year, Douglas was able to acquire Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera 2015 from Tuscany and Domaine Dujac Clos Saint-Denis Grand Cru 2018 from Burgundy, wines that never would have been on offer before at retail. These rarities have sold furiously and helped level the playing field for those who might not be willing to invest in the purchase at restaurant markups.
When it comes to constraints both physical and intangible, retailers have a quality of flexibility that many restaurants do not. The former can push through stock more readily, advertise recent arrivals, tailor subscriptions to their customers and, in a normal world, open bottles for guests to taste without too much detriment to profit and loss. In both retail and restaurants, the relationship between buyer and seller is one of trust. But whereas restaurant service has a more immediate, staccato quality, the retail interaction provides space for a longer, more leisurely interaction. In a wine shop, time slows down. The classroom opens up and conversation unfolds. Customers share what they’re cooking for dinner, what kind of mood they’re in after work, or the tastes of the friend for whom they might be buying a bottle.
In 2021, though, what does the consumer want from retail, and how will retail meet these adapted needs as the world begins to open again? “I think we’re in this weird Catch-22 moment,” says wine writer Megan Krigbaum, considering the blurred roles for on- and off-premise establishments. (Krigbaum is a contributing editor for PUNCH.) In the long run, can a retail space be two things at once? Can a restaurant? Dana Frank, owner of Portland’s Bar Norman, a wine bar and shop that converted to a retail-only model last year, doubts that the hybrid margins are sustainable long-term. Still, she says, retail has benefited from the push. “I do think people are seeing that they can get great service in a retail situation and drink at home, as opposed to having to go out for that type of experience,” she says.
Ultimately, such hybrid spaces may not be an enduring concept; the divide in markups and margins will likely be a barrier, and it’s unclear whether the legal loopholes which have allowed these mashups to exist in the first place will remain open. But the accrued sense of hospitality that has filtered into retail over the course of the decade will likely persist. Longtime restaurant employees like Ashley Santoro, Dana Frank and Christine Collado have brought with them the tenets of their training and education; their relationships with winemakers, educators and distributors have infused the landscape with a renewed sense of possibility. It makes sense then that absent restaurants for an entire year, the world has experienced its own awakening, rising to meet the new breed of wine sellers in all the ways and places they’ve emerged.