Aria Dorsey first got exposed to the world of wine while in the Hospitality program at Cornell. Incorporating sommelier shifts twice a week while AGM and GM for various branches of the Boulud empire in NYC and Washington, DC, Dorsey built on her wine education, traveling with the team to wine country every year. Now she is the GM and wine buyer for Nashville, TN’s popular sister restaurants Folk and Rolf & Daughters.
Can you quickly run me through the story of the year with estimated dates of opening/closing?
At the beginning of March, we got hit with a massive tornado that pretty much closed both restaurants for about a week due to loss of power and the devastation in Nashville. We did a lot of support and outreach with community centers and our staff, because they were in turn out of work for a week. When we reopened that second week of March, COVID was starting to make its way through NYC and things like that. On March 15, we made the decision to shut down all dining and move directly into takeout only. Within 24 hours, we had an online ordering system up and ready to go. We had to wait a month and half before we could do alcohol to-go. A lot of others shut down, hoping it wouldn’t last more than a month, but we were thinking long-term.
We stayed as takeout only until August, when we opened the patio for just outdoor dining. We ended up opening the dining room in mid-October and then closed it again at the beginning of December. That was a decision based on our responsibility to our community. We still don’t think that dine-in is the safest option for our guests. We don’t want to be an incubator. Coupled with the fact that every day we were getting staff members who may have come in contact [with the virus] and we were having to open and close all the time and it wasn’t viable. We’re operating takeout until mid-March, when the patio will open up again.
You’re the only person on your wine team. Have you been working the floor? How has service changed as a result of the pandemic?
No, that’s normal. I don’t think people wanted to spend less time talking to me. I would just stand farther away from the table while doing so. What changed was the mechanics of pouring and refilling, etc. I would do the initial service and then after that they’re pretty much on their own. Making the wine list smaller, especially by the glass, was the other [change]. Normally, we would have 12-15 wines by the glass. Because we were working with so many fewer tables and guests a night, we kept it to one white and one red, as well as two or three special bottles that we’d open up for a night. So that we can keep it exciting but not waste product.
85% of guests at Folk order wine with dinner. Has that number gone up during the pandemic?
I think it actually went up during the pandemic—maybe 5-10%. It seemed like people were a little more favorable to drinking a bottle of wine that we were opening in front of them rather than a cocktail made behind the bar.
Wine prices increased slightly for you. Is that standard inflation, or was there a specific driver for that?
The big reason was that roughly about halfway through the year, that 25% wine tariff on the majority of EU wines kinda started to hit the states. We weren’t working from back inventory anymore, we were importing new product. Things went up 25% which becomes a lot. We raised prices roughly 5-10% because of the tariffs. The biggest increase we saw were on wines that were in the awesome affordable $50-60 price point on the list and suddenly they’re in the $70-80 range.
You sold a lot of Italian varieties planted in California (e.g., Stoumen Mendocino Nero d’Avola, Forlorn Hope Sierra Foothills Barbera). Do you think that might be due to climatic changes? Or are guests excited to look to Cali for more than Chard and Cab?
Across the board for restaurants, the two things people have the most comfort in are wines from California and wines from Italy. That’s what people know a bit about and are willing to spend money on, in a way. It’s harder to get them to go to France, weirdly.
You started offering to-go glasses in 2020. How did that work? Do you think it will stay after the pandemic ends?
Guests responded super well. We were able to have a limited bottle list on our website so guests could see photos of everything and have a nice two-line descriptor of flavor profile and what it would work well with. It was easy for guests to navigate, easier than ordering from a wine shop. We also did a lot of take-home meals for the holidays, where that’s basically a prepackaged meal for four that they can take home and reheat or a do-it-yourself pizza and pasta kit. Having add-on bottles of wine for this worked super well and guests loved it. It was a one-stop shop. We would love to have this outlet post-pandemic, but the retailers would hate us because it’s competition. If we did, it’d be incredible.
I interned at a wine shop in Tribeca and created a mystery bottle program to get rid of wine bottles in the store. We’d brown-bag them and hide descriptors inside. It was a perfect thing for guests to grab if they wanted something exciting. I implemented it here and created the online mystery bottle for $35. Guests would choose if they wanted white, red, sparkling or dealer’s choice, and, whatever they would order, I’d pick a bottle and pair with their food. They would get something that we would normally be selling between $40 or $50. It was stuff where no one would see it online and say, I need it, but, if they have it in front of them, they’d love it and we would introduce them to something cool. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were spending tons and tons of money. It was a good way to move through a lot of inventory really quickly. I’ve bought wine this past year but mostly sticking to allocated stuff and the lower-end things. My inventory was at $30,000 this time last year. Now I’m at $6,000.
You listed no port, fortified or dessert wines. Do you sell them at all? Or did the category get hit by the “no lingering” effect of outdoor/limited indoor dining?
It was one of those things where we couldn’t really allow people to linger for an after dinner drink. We went the European style and gave people out-by times. They had 2 hours to enjoy their meal. If they did have an after-dinner drink, it’d be an amaro or a Bailey’s and coffee, nothing too exciting.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.