Rusty Rastello moved to Healdsburg to run the beverage program at three-Michelin-starred SingleThread after being Assistant Wine Director at three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York City.
How has the last year at SingleThread been for you?
I had taken over the beverage program at SingleThread in mid-February and had begun to make some changes. Our previous Beverage Director, Evan Hufford, had geared the experience towards wine pairings at $195 and $350 per person, and at those prices, the non-alcoholic pairing had been competing with them. I had just started to bring down the prices on the wine pairings, while opening up possibilities for the bottle list. We had just barely begun to see the effects of the change when the shutdown order came to Sonoma County.
How did the shutdown order affect you, the restaurant and the wine program?
I was told, “You need to figure out how to pay for yourself.” Essentially, I became a commis in the kitchen. I chopped things. I stayed busy. Trying to figure out what could be done, I looked around Healdsburg and realized there was no retail wine shop outside of two high-end grocery stores. I thought, why not open a shop? Rather than simply liquidate inventory, I could create a business. I didn’t want to strip the list, so I pulled some of the rarest selections off, and offered the rest out, even creating an entire website, SingleThreadwines.com. That first week, we got huge orders, $40k. It was dumb luck with a little bit of strategy.
The rules surrounding wine sales are way behind the times. With the relaxing of the regulations during the pandemic, we’ve kept busy and haven’t wasted this opportunity. We are the only three-star Michelin restaurant that has a wine shop. I’m just looking at what works and trying to create a curated experience. We have three different monthly subscriptions—California red wine, sake and Champagne—and we’re finding that guests from all over the country want to be a part of this. I’d say our customers are only 20 percent locals.
What about the restaurant itself? What new programs have you run there?
We got the call to reopen in July; we were able to do exactly 10 services before we had to shut down again. It was time to pivot again, and while working on one concept off property, a new loophole was exposed—according to the use permit, the beautiful rooftop of SingleThread was previously only available to the people who were dining in the restaurant, but with new regulations, we were able to open it to everyone. It’s been a wonderful opportunity. The Rooftop Wine Bar has helped us to stay in the black. We opened it up with a limited wine list and snacks, it’s SingleThread, but casual.
That initiative started the same week as the Kistler Vineyards Presents: Autumn Dinner Wine Series at Trenton Roadhouse. It was a very busy week. We had teamed up with Kistler to do this series of dinners in a beautiful outdoor setting, and keep our team employed and safe. It worked out really well. Our service is very specific and hands-on, and it just wasn’t possible for us to deliver that experience while running food up three flights of stairs from the kitchen to the rooftop—but at the Trenton Roadhouse, we had a giant deck on the backside of a hill overlooking the vineyards.
Our next pivot was to do “Usu-Zan,” a tented outdoor dining experience in the lot next to SingleThread. Usu-Zan was conceived to be an outdoor dining room drawing inspiration from the forests and scenery in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, where Chefs Kyle and Katina Connaughton had lived. Unfortunately, once again, after 48 hours, we were given word that we would have to shut down again. To keep pulling the levers on when we can be open, and then have to close again, has been very difficult, it creates instability. Fortunately, we’ve been able to re-open the Usu-Zan experience, and for now, we plan to keep it open until we can go back inside again.
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