Carlin Karr has been on the wine team at Frasca since 2012 and joined the executive team in 2015 as director of the Frasca Hospitality group which also includes Pizzeria Locale in Boulder and Tavernetta and Sunday Vinyl in Denver. We spoke earlier this year.
We’re back at 100% indoor, plus a few globes outside that we’ve kept. Omicron gave us a bit of a dip that we weren’t anticipating, especially at the holidays. We had to close Frasca and the pizzeria right before Christmas for a few days. But, overall, we’ve been really lucky. January was a little slower than we’d hoped, maybe because of Omicron and Dry January together, but now we’re coming back. February is always a bit slower until Valentine’s Day, but now we’re feeling great and back to normal-ish.
We definitely went through some staffing changes; some people chose not to come back to restaurants. Over the last two years, some of our somms have moved to other states and changed their direction in life, and that is so natural to happen during something like this pandemic. What kept our interaction with wine alive was our to-go program from May 2020 to May 2021. It was a once-a-week kit called At Home With, that became a really composed and beautiful program. We would choose a wine to pair, and then do a 30-minute Zoom with the winemaker. Our chef would pair a meal with the wine, for example BBQ ribs with Ridge Zin for July 4th—just fun kits, we would sell 75-150 each week split between Boulder and Denver. It really kept us alive, allowed us to keep benefits and health insurance and 401(K) contributions for our whole staff. It was also a way for us to still buy wine, about 5+ cases a week, to help the wine industry and to stay relevant.
Evolution of wine buying
It’s been hard to see how the pandemic shifted the wine industry. It immediately all went to retail, and it hasn’t shifted back yet. I’m fighting for wines today that I never thought I’d have to. It’s just kind of salt on the wound, interesting to see how certain suppliers handle things. It shows who great buyers are, who is adaptable. It’s all about great relationships; it’s been really important to keep our buying relationships open.
A lot of experienced wine buyers have left the industry, and now there are lots of inexperienced people buying wine. Restaurants aren’t going away; people will still drink fine wine in restaurants, so it is difficult to see, on the supplier level, this shift away from caring about supplying restaurants. For so long, things were handled with kid gloves. There were wines that you’d never see in certain retail stores, like Montevertine or Le Pergole Torte. Now I can’t get certain wines that used to be restaurant-only, and yet they’re at all kinds of retail stores. The way things were allocated totally shifted. I understand suppliers have to do what they have to do, people started drinking a lot more wine at home, going direct to wineries, digging in on their own in a way that led to more direct wine consumption. It’s great for wine as a whole, but it makes it hard for a restaurant wine buyer. I wish more people were talking about this, I don’t think it’s just happening here. Also, prices have gone up dramatically.
My buying ethos is the same, I never buy without tasting unless it’s a highly allocated wine and I can’t taste it. But with what’s going on in the supply chain, I’ve just leaned into relationships with producers and distributors. I may take a bigger stand on things that I know we’ll sell, like Le Ragnaie Brunello, which I love. I bought about 48 cases of the 2016 Brunello. If I really believe in a wine I’ll try to take as much as I can, knowing how things are going right now, because no one is protecting inventory for me anymore, and I have to be more aggressive as a buyer. It’s all about providing a better experience for our guest; by having that volume of a wine, we can turn on so many more people to that producer.
People are drinking more than pre-pandemic, and spending more for sure. That’s been consistent since we reopened in 2020. Our average bottle price is up and we’re selling a lot more blue-chip bottles—for DRC or Coche-Dury, we’ve sold more of those since the pandemic began than in past 10 years combined. Not just us, my colleagues in Aspen and Vail have been kind of wiped out of that high-end wine.
I’m not sure why, but I think people’s awareness level of wine grew while they were cooped up. It’s not limited to wine, there’s the same with the craze around Pappy and high-end Bourbon; that has gone completely nuts. There’s an obsession with very rare and expensive stuff; maybe it’s like the world is ending, let’s just go for it and enjoy. Also, there’s been more awareness around fine wine by sports figures, NBA players posting about it.
Liquor, glassware, weird things like Fever Tree soda, the prosecco we use in our Aperol spritzes…things that used to be mindless are now always on my radar. Everything is a disaster. Glassware is the biggest supply chain issue. Just this week, I’m getting a Zalto order I placed in July 2020, and we’re one of the largest Zalto accounts in the country. For a while I thought we’d be serving wine in paper cups.
People are drinking significantly more liquor as well as wine. For wine, the average spend is up but not the volume. But both the number of cocktails and dollar spend has gone up a lot. My guess is that people are going out less, but when they do, they go out hard. They’re partying, making a special occasion of it. Their budget and their bandwidth for drinking on that night is more than when it’s spread out over a lot of nights. Also, they’re not spending as much on travel, international vacations, other things that were consuming more of their budgets. They’re staycationing. The espresso martini has had its moment, whatever we might think of it. We always sold a ton of it, haven’t seen a big change in type we’re selling, just selling a lot more of everything.
Going into COVID and right after it, there was this very intense interest in natural wines, people were asking for them, but that has decreased significantly since then. I think it was just a trend; people maybe had one experience with a pét-nat, thought it was fun and cool, asked for more and maybe had some bad experiences. It seemed like it was growing and growing, it wasn’t just a blip on the radar. That was definitely a long moment in time, but now it’s really tapering, at least from our guests. Even at our wine bar, where we see a younger crowd, it’s way down.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2022.
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