Chris Dunaway has been at The Little Nell in Aspen since the beginning of the pandemic, where he’s seen some of the busiest seasons yet as international travel restrictions send wealthy drinkers to the Rockies during the spring and summer.
Has the pandemic changed the size or composition of your list? Or has it impacted your buying habits?
A little bit of both. We’re accumulating some inventory value. I think is more a result of the inflation of prices. We’re buying at the same rate that we always have. Maybe a little more now that we’re starting to open up. We had the snowiest December in 80 years, and that caused a lot of change in guests being able to get into the country, people being able to leave, which threw a wrench in our holiday season. As many people had to adapt and adjust during the COVID surge, we had to cancel our New Year’s Eve party. That affected our ability to move some inventory. We had to send quite a bit of Dom Pérignon back as we were working with them for the party. That was a bit of a bummer.
Cocktails and liquor sales?
I have seen an uptick in cocktail and liquor sales. I keep an eye on our numbers with the daily reports and liquor has been consistently performing incredibly well so far. Wine sales have been close to the average. We had a strong January, we’re a bit behind in February but liquor sales are up. That’s a trend that we’ve been keeping an eye on.
Looking at the restaurant, liquor sales are way up. They’re close to $30k ahead of their project budget at this point in the month. This time last year, liquor sales were $19k, they’re $31k right now. 33% uptick. Two years ago, they were about this. In 2020, right before stuff hit the fan, they’re about what they are now. In 2019, they’re close to where they were pre-pandemic. Compared to their budgets, it’s performing well.
Prices climbed a bit in the last year both for food and wine. Why is that? Have people been pushing back about it?
Yeah, I think so. We’ve invested a significant amount in Burgundy. Which, you know how that’s been. You have inflation and the exaggeration of that with such short vintages recently. Our guests are willing to pay for those because they understand why the prices have climbed like they have. It hasn’t curbed our spending on it. We’ve invested more. But even by-the-glass items that I’ve been loyal to for 7 years have had significant price increases as well.
Inflation has caused a hike in price across the board, no matter where the wine’s from. The influence is seen most in the heavy hitters, the heavy movers and the white-whale bottles. Sancerre is skyrocketing, Champagne is going up because the demand is super high. I had a conversation about the supply of Champagne with Dom Pérignon folks; before the pandemic, people were buying a bottle here and there for retail and a bottle at the restaurant. Now, people are buying cases at retail and still buying at restaurants. DP said they’re having trouble forecasting how much P2 they have available for the market. Fewer people are buying the Brut compared to the P2 and P3. Great for [Dom Pérignon] in the short term, but we’re running out of supply. To hear them, of all people say that, that sounds like a global trend. That insatiable demand for these wines is driving prices up. That, plus the natural rhythms of inflation.
Reason for the top bottles being huge price tags?
Combination of all things. People are willing to get out there. They couldn’t travel and spend money, they’ve been pent up in the house. They’re spending more now. Now that the somm profession has become more widespread, there’s been more experience with the somm, and they’ve become more trusting. The intelligence of your average guest has become higher with more wine IQ; they’re aware of the price of these bottles. I have a gentleman come in. and we had a bottle of Roumier Musigny for $13,000. He basically said, “When you see that bottle, it doesn’t matter the price because it’s so rare.”
I think that Chablis has become a hot commodity. Chablis has always been around and been a household name. This could just be our climate in the après-ski and après-hike and -bike. It’s a refreshing, rich and delicious wine. So many people have become familiar with Chablis, and now they’re trying to take their relationship with it to the next level. They want to drink the best expression. They want to drink Le Clos, they ask for Piuze. Not just Chablis, you want Le Clos.
What’s really awesome about this place is how seasonal it is. With the seasonality, you get this influx of regulars. We’ll have regulars who’ll come in—a couple that comes every day through mid-February all the way through March—they’ll order something from Tuscany. They will tear through that Super Tuscan list. We’ll reach out and try to source specifically for these guests. Because they do, they’ll come in and blow out sections. But few and far between. It does happen, but not that often.
You mentioned that “Ultra Premium Champagne” surprised you as a category.
We used to have these Champagnes on the list and they’d sit there for years. Now and then you’d get someone come in to drink P3 or Clos des Goisses. I’ve never seen so many high-end bottles of Champagne in one season. We had a vertical of P2 that we’ve been accumulating over the last five years. That’s gone now. Someone drank our entire vertical of Salon with the exception of ’08 magnums. This couple came in and drank 8 bottles of Salon this week, it’s gone. It totally happens.
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