Brent Kroll of Maxwell Park in Washington, DC, on Zoom Tastings and Wine To-Go - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Brent Kroll of Maxwell Park in Washington, DC, on Zoom Tastings and Wine To-Go

Photo by Marissa Bialecki

Michigan native Brent Kroll managed 17 beverage programs for DC’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group until 2017, when he opened Maxwell Park, a wine bar in the Shaw neighborhood that featured 50 wines by the glass, served at five different temperatures. He and his partners, Niki Lang and Daniel Runnerstrom, added a second location in the Navy Yard neighborhood that opened in March 2020, two weeks before restaurants were shut down due to Covid-19. 

How has your team changed this last year? 

We had about 22 people on our team before shutdown, now we’re at six. We raised about $15K for our furloughed employees, and never kicked anyone off healthcare unless they’ve said they definitely plan never to come back. That was paid straight out of our budget. Luckily, we’ve had a lot of support from people who want us to succeed and who get their companies to do events where we sell a lot of wine.

What kind of events have you done?

We do Zoom tasting events for groups. I had never heard of Zoom before 2020, and I had never shipped wine before either, but I figured out I could ship through a third-party partner to most states, which has allowed us to do some big company events. The biggest one was for about 400 people, which dwarfed any night of business the bar has ever done. Typically, we do an event for about 12 people and ship four bottles per person. There have been several months where these classes beat our bar business [in revenues]. The business has come mostly from previous customers who were connected to a big company or organization. We listed the option on our website, but it’s not very high profile. We put it on social media periodically, but in terms of marketing or PR or advertising, we’ve spent nothing on it, it’s mostly word of mouth.

It’s been a huge pivot. I’m so grateful, but we were never set up to be this kind of business. 

What are the themes for these events?

We used to do maybe a one-hour class once a month on different themes, and we’ve used some of those, like Wine Aquatic (vineyards that border saltwater) and Wine Body Workout (describing the body of wines). During quarantine we did Netflix and Chilled Reds—reds that benefit from being slightly chilled to 55 degrees (we print five different temps on our wine menu; cost me an extra $10k to be able to do this). We also did Dry January—all dry wines that were under 4 g/l. We sold skeleton t-shirts for that one. We’ve always done a new t-shirt design each month since we’ve been open and now have about 35 different designs. Before Covid we typically sold about 50 per month. 

Nearly 40 percent of your wine sales were from these events and from take-out sales. How did you develop the take-out side of the business? 

In March I started writing legislators that restaurants needed to sell wine to go. It had always been against the law here, but by April we were allowed to start doing it. So then we sold wine to go out of the Shaw location, one day a week. We would take preorders, offered our whole list, nothing off limits, and sold off a bunch of our cellar. Our retail price would be about 30% off list price. Most retail sales are closer to 50% off, but if I sold at 50% off [to match retail], it would be hard to get back to my former model for in-person sales. Another recurring thing we’ve done is blind tasting kits, selling the wine in vials the size of standard glass pour. We’ve done maybe three blind tasting classes for the public, typically for 40-50 people, with 4-5 wines each, at about $45 per kit. We’re just always trying to do something. During normal times that’s how we operate, but even more now. We’re always trying to keep people guessing, to not be stagnant. 

What was business like during the months you were open for in-person dining?

We have some outdoor space at both locations. In June we could do outdoor only. Then they allowed indoor up to 50 percent, but we kept below that window. Our space is small, about 50 seats in 1000 square feet, so I felt like 50 percent wouldn’t be safe. We’re really a wine bar, not a restaurant, and that’s what we want to be. In my opinion, if you have a chef and sous chef, you’re a restaurant. Lean into what you’re best at. Ironically, during Covid is the only time we’ve taken reservations. Before Covid, our sales were about 85 percent wine and 15 percent food; during the pandemic, our wine sales are more like 90 percent. 

How have all of these changes affected the wines you sold in 2020?

This year, the best-selling wines were those we chose to put in those big events. Even in normal years, we determine to some extent what we’re selling and pitching, but this year we are determining that more than ever. Our biggest new success was Tyrrell’s 2019 Hunter Valley Semillon, which was very popular in a couple of our giant classes. We do a Lambrusco week every year, people know us for that, and Fiorini 2018 Lambrusco Grasparossa sold well. We always have a focus on Greek wines [Sigalas 2018 Santorini Assyrtiko was #3] and Southern Italy; the Murgo Brut Rosé [from Mount Etna] was our fastest-moving wine during the patio season. Instead of coming up with a bunch of new themes to get people to come in, we’re trying to run through what we have. There would be a lot more list changes in normal times. We did do a pop-up for about two months with pairings, and the Movia [2017 Goriska Brda] Cabernet Sauvignon was paired with a lamb dish. It’s very different from a Napa Cab, about 12-13 percent alcohol so not big and fat, but we sold a ton of it. We’re supposed to be a wine bar that turns people on to new stuff, so I guess people expect something different from us.   

What is your outlook for 2021?

I know we will get through 2021, because we got through 2020. We’ve been as low as three people, so we know we can just batten down the hatches, go online and be resilient. We don’t have any parent company, it’s just us, and we can adjust. The bigger companies that have to pay tiers of people above those doing the work in the restaurant are probably having a harder time. 

We’re closing the restaurant on Wednesday (Inauguration Day). We’ve been open for everything before this, including the demonstrations over the summer, but with 25,000 troops here, we just don’t know what the day will hold and they’re telling everyone to stay in. There’s been so much uncertainty through this year, you just have to take the wins where you can. I have to think that a guest who comes in and is a jerk has just had the worst year of their life. I firmly believe that once the vaccine is widely distributed, we will be packed. There’s so much pent-up demand. I can’t believe how many first dates we’re getting on our patio, on some nights it’s over half the people; that seems hopeful. I have to think that by summer or fall people are going to run out like they’ve been in a bomb shelter for the past year.

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.

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