As I reached Henry Beylin, Gjelina was scheduling to reopen for the fourth time in the COVID year. The Gjelina Group, composed of restaurants, retail shops, and online stores, was better positioned than most to pivot during the pandemic, primarily because they could channel sales through Gjiusta, the group’s sprawling café, open kitchen and outdoor restaurant which had been doing a booming patio business for many years. Much of the wine business shifted there, in retail form.
Have you managed to stay healthy?
Well no, I had COVID—about a month and a half ago. I was laid up for about ten days. To be honest, I’m around so many people it just seemed sort of inevitable. I don’t get sick a lot, and I had very few symptoms. I just lay in bed reading books for a week and a half. And then I bought a $60 mask.
Others I know have had it worse—some of my staff spent time in the hospital; others lost family members. We’re still living in it, and now we have to worry about the variants.
In the meantime, staff move away, or find something else to do in the down times. So then you have to hire new people and train them and then we get shut down again. It’s not a great mental landscape; it feels like Sisyphus. And it’s expensive. I’m worried that the Super Bowl is just going to be a superspreader event. We could have some trouble in a month.
So what’s the state of the business?
We’re following protocols. We’re all geared up with masks, face shields, everyone is six feet away from each other—actually, I think that changed to 8 feet. We all look like freaking robots with all the protective equipment.
I mean, it’s good that I get to buy wine again, but it also means I have to physically put wine up on shelves and move things around.
Most wine sales have been through Gjiusta, and online. It’s nice to keep the people I buy from happy, and it’s also nice to sell wine cheaply, since retail has a whole different markup…there’s so much more value at a 50 percent markup (wine’s expensive in restaurants!).
So what’s selling?
At Gjelina we had a Bordeaux by the glass, we had a Barolo by the glass, we were pouring Chianti, Pascal Cotat’s Sancerre, actually more than one. Kind of a traditional lineup, but Gjelina is going to be 15 years old soon, we’re that kind of restaurant now.
Anyway, none of that really goes at Gjiusta. [laughs] This is Venice, people are hip, or think they are, and they want to drink hip. I sell skin-contact whites like crazy, anything from Georgia, from Istria; they want things that are funky, that are weird—these are the adjectives that people use daily. And lots of sparkling wine also—bubbles, pet-nats.
I’ve also been making my own wine…
Oh, the Birds of Passage wines [a rosé of refosco and a red gamay from the Central Coast].
Yes, they’re a collaboration with Peter Hunken and Amy Christine of Holus Bolus/Black Sheep Finds, out of the Lompoc ghetto. The wines have done well; maybe it’s a little bit of beginner’s luck, but they turned out pretty good. I’m making a refosco and a gamay—both varieties that wouldn’t compete with what Holus Bolus did.
The vineyards are run by good farmers. The refosco actually is dry farmed most years, which I believe in; dry-farmed vineyards have a chance to really show some terroir, to stake a claim that the wine is from here, this is its natural habitat. And if you get good grapes, my feeling is you’d have to work hard to mess them up. But if they’re farmed correctly, picked correctly, if you get even ripening; the wine doesn’t make itself—I hate that saying—but it’s not rocket science either.
How did it come about?
I don’t know, I guess I was bored doing what I was doing. But you know we taste thousands of wines a year, and so many are just ordinary. I figured I could do at least as good as this.
Have there been other surprises?
It’s just nice to sell wines in that $25 to $30 range, to turn people on to a good Austrian blaufränkisch (from Weingut Tauss, Styria) because it’s delicious and it hits the price point. I had great success with Vino Nobile this year—the 2015 Le Bertille Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Vino Nobile is so uncool, but it’s the type of wine people should know, and I love serving a good one. It’s such a joyful wine when it’s well made.
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