Rachael Lowe of Chicago’s Spiaggia on Seeing the Light at the End of the Tunnel - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Rachael Lowe of Chicago’s Spiaggia on Seeing the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Rachael Lowe took over in 2014 as beverage director at Spiaggia in her hometown of Chicago, after stints in NYC and California. She oversees an 800-bottle wine list filled with selections from Tuscany, Piedmont, Sicily and other parts of Italy. Owned by the Levy restaurant group, Spiaggia is located on the second floor of a high-rise on Michigan Avenue, so when Chicago’s restaurants shut down in March, Spiaggia stayed dormant until indoor dining resumed in July. 

How was business when you reopened in July?

We reopened on July 9 at 50 percent capacity indoor and brought back half of our team members by seniority. We were doing maybe 60 covers on a busy Saturday instead of 120. We took every precaution and never had any issues. 

How did guests respond?

People had no problem spending money on wine, and sometimes seemed to spend even more. They were really thankful to be back in restaurants. Wine sales were consistent, we just had fewer people. We put our wine list online and had a QR code and they could look on their phone. The somm would hold a paper copy and direct people to a certain page. Otherwise, we would have had to laminate our entire 46-page list, which I was not going to do. 

Did you make any changes in your wine offerings?

We went from 25 to 15 wines by the glass. I took off slower movers to cut down on waste and dropped more expensive wines like Brunello; I didn’t want to risk losing three-quarters of the bottle. Barolo will always move, even though it’s expensive. We were down to one somm and myself who were focusing more on bottle sales; our server team is well educated on glass pours. 

I think our guests understood that what we were offering for wine would not be normal, that we can’t be offering 1985 Sassicaia like we would during normal service. It had to be kind of simplified and made cost effective. 

What were some of your most popular wines?

Some people come in and know exactly what they want, like a nebbiolo or a sangiovese. Dei 2016 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (best new success) has been on the list in the past and sales ebb and flow, but it seemed to fit in that $70-90 sangiovese category. Blends also tend to do well; Brancaia Ilatraia from Maremma [a Bordeaux-style blend] was our top seller by the bottle. Then other people come in and say they love Far Niente, what do you have like that? They may have heard of Super Tuscans as a category, we can talk about these wines as having a little more bulk, softer and more approachable. That’s where a wine like Tenuta di Arceno Valadorna [a Tuscan merlot blend] comes in. It’s an easy mover, even at that price point [$205]. It’s consistent, California wine lovers like it. There are no New World wines on our list, so we have to have a wine like this in our back pocket. 

We closed down again in mid- or late October. So, basically, we’ve been open about half the year. Ran some to-go business during first shutdown out of the Café, even some wine to go. After second shutdown, it was just a basic skeleton staff and put me and the chef on different projects. 

Most of your wine sales were from in-person dining. Did you try any to-go or retail sales?

We did a little with some to-go packages, but you can’t mark up those wines like normal. We would maybe do a Puglian wine with a Puglian food menu where the most expensive bottle was probably $45. We featured those on Tock, and had some regulars who would go for it, but it was never a big proportion of our sales. We’re lucky to be part of a larger restaurant group and we never got to the point of needing or wanting to do retail sales or to sell off our cellar. We want to keep those gems for when we’re back in service.

What is your outlook for 2021?

I’m definitely optimistic. As we get closer to having the vaccine widely available there will be a sense of relief. Already people see a light at end of tunnel and are starting to get excited about going out again. I just worry about those restaurants where it’s already too late. That’s going to be a big number.

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.

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