Jonathan Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, on Their Sunday Markets and Losing Connections - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jonathan Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, on Their Sunday Markets and Losing Connections

Photo by Aya Brackett

Chez Panisse is open for takeout and delivery, as well as as a shop. For 2020, wine sales broke down as 40% takeout, 60% shop.

They’re not really different. We didn’t do anything for a month, then started doing a Sunday market. We really had done it for the farmers, passing things along at a minimal markup. Then we started adding things to it, and I quickly began adding wine. We set up in the back of a parking lot that we share—south of the restaurant, by the post office—so on Sundays, we can use the lot. Anyone who had any outdoor space that’s possible to use has found a way to use it.

After about three months, we started doing prepared meals Wednesday through Saturday for takeout, lunch and dinner—dinner being the downstairs set menu—all packaged up in compostable boxes. There is wine offered by the bottle and I do a wine pairing with those meals.

I’ve been buying wine all year, at least once we started being open—less-expensive rosés and less-expensive wines. I still have a fair amount of expensive wine, Burgundy and things like that. But the shelf that sells is the less expensive things. I’ve had to replenish certain spots, mostly the less expensive wine, primarily because I have enough of the others. People come in to buy farm boxes, and those are not the same people who buy Puligny-Montrachet. 

How has your pricing structure changed under this scenario? Many wines in your top ten are under $30 a bottle.

Those are the ones that have been selling. My pricing is retail or a margin below retail. I search [online] for it, some stores sell things for more than I am selling them for. “Bargain” sounds like a bad sale word, but when you see something there at this price, that’s great. I’ve been tapping into the reserve cellar, 2010s from Pierre Gonon (St. Joseph) or Vincent Paris (Cornas). The 2012 Briords Muscadet by Marc Ollivier (Domaine de la Pépière). I would put away wines that weren’t grand. With Gonon, Les Ils Feray (a Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche). Then I can pull them out now and they don’t need to command prices over $50 or $100.

How are the wines you sell in the shop different from the wines you historically sold in your dining room?

At the restaurant, I didn’t have wines below a certain price point; at a market, I would. I haven’t gone below $10, but I could. You wouldn’t go to the French Laundry and expect an $8 bottle of wine. Everyone has a wine list with, maybe, an unsaid bottom and, maybe, an unsaid top. 

In the dining room, you were there to connect with the people; you could follow through with that experience. I’m working the counter at the shop one or two days a week, but the experience is different; people are taking the wine home. You’re not there to take them through it. Did you read Michael Pollan’s book about psilocybin being used to treat depression [How to Change Your Mind]? People would do the drug in a controlled environment and that augmented the experience. With that person in the room with you, one moves forward with a comforting hand—it’s not just a mild augmentation. That’s what I was able to do at Chez Panisse, even if it wasn’t always my words or hands. You were still in a place, with people all around you, with the lights and the feeling. It wasn’t just trappings. Now, I sell wines by words written on paper, it’s different than being with the people, being in that moment. There might be other reasons that the wines are different, but that’s the thing I thought of. 

Last year, Puy Arnaud (a wine from Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) was number one, this year, Green & Red House Zin.

Green & Red was almost always at the top of the BTG list. It’s waning now, but initially and for quite a long time, we were selling cases of it. People knew the wine from the dining room and many thought, “Great, I’ve never been able to buy this and take it home.” The calibration now may have shifted back to our selling more French red, and Italian, as well—those wines are selling as much now as the zinfandel. 

When I put new things on, those will have a little burst of selling. We have regulars coming to all our markets, they want to taste new things and try new wines. But the fact that Green & Red was the top wine in 2020 was indicative of people wanting to support us. They like that wine. By having our name on it, it had a certain amount of comfort and assurance for people.

This year, Rosé sold well for you, from Graci Etna Rosé at $21 to Tempier Rosé at $56. 

The Tempier is very expensive for rosé, but it sells regularly; it has a glamour and is delicious, too. I’ve watched the price rise for thirty years and it’s expensive, but people like it. Graci sold the quickest of the new ones. I did sell that Guilhem from Moulin de Gassac at $10 a bottle; that was cheaper, but I sold more Graci. 

Have you implemented any programs or special promotions to try to increase wine sales?

I’ve mostly been integrating wine sales into the restaurant programs. We had some holiday sales and I did a mixed case of 12 vintages of zinfandel, another of reserve Champagnes. But I haven’t had a separate wine promotion. The sales were tied into being open on Christmas Eve, and on New Year’s Eve day. We sold as much wine on New Year’s Eve day as we would have if the restaurant had been open—a lot of people buying Champagne and buying cases of these wines—people celebrating. Lovely that they chose to buy it from us.

On Sundays, on a counter, I’ll have a certain amount of wines for sale, but I don’t have my list posted. So, if someone wants something else, they might ask for it. Initially, I dabbled with selling Coche-Dury and other expensive things to collectors, but I didn’t go far with that.

We used to give people tours of the kitchen, but now I’ll say, “Come into the cellar, take a look around (with a mask on). We have a temperature-controlled garage where the wine is kept; we built it out into a cellar.

How has the pandemic changed your role at the restaurant and how might that impact your approach to your job when the restaurant reopens for indoor dining?

The wine is important for us economically, but it’s less important now because we’re selling it for less. A huge part of my role was customer contact. Now, it’s mostly just people picking up wine and leaving. I am writing notes for the website, but I’m writing into a silent void. I’m a person who loves connection; this is not my type of year. That was as much my role, to connect people to wines—the spark was as much of what I was interested in as the content, the spark that started the fire, not necessarily the wood itself. I’m not sure that will return. The future is a little hazy now.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.