As Wine Director for République, Sam Rethmeier has one of the best restaurant jobs in Los Angeles, and the longest commute. He and his family live in Ventura, CA, sixty-plus miles away. The COVID year has given him more time to home-school his kids, “the best reason I can come up with,” he jokes, “for drinking earlier in the day.” In his spare time, he started a small retail operation, called the Wednesday Night Wine Club, weekly wine selections with a video introduction. Service resumed at République as of February 5.
So, reopening is this week:
Yes, we’re going to have tables 8 feet apart, small parties; ideally we’ll be able to do 120 turns—that’s compared with pre-COVID, when we were doing 400-450 covers a night.
How did the Wednesday Night Wine Club get its start?
So, we were selling some wines retail, and one of my customers bought some wine and asked if she could Facetime with me to find out more about the wines she’d purchased. I realized while I was talking with her that I was basically doing my sommelier tableside thing; the wine club was birthed out of that.
The videos are about three minutes long, and it’s just the basic information you need to drink better wines, wines that are better for you, or better for the planet. And I give you what you need to know if you were going to bring it to a friend’s house or share it with your boss. I view it a little like going to a therapist: eventually, you won’t need me anymore.
So this is not your first reopening…
No, we reopened July 18. We were set to open July 1 when the indoor dining ban hit. Se we had to pivot—ok, now what? Walter and Marge [chef/owners Walter and Margarita Manzke] decided to build out an outdoor patio for al fresco dining. They built an area they felt would mimic the dining room, and make you forget you were in a parking lot; the whole idea was to help our guests forget where they are. We could serve sixty. We wore gloves, face shields, masks, we were all washing our hands maniacally. But the thing that stood out was how everyone banded together. There was no resistance. We’re a tight-knit family, and you do what it takes.
Obviously, the wine program had to scale down.
Yeah, we had a deep inventory and had to figure out how to use some of it, wisely. And Walter and I decided we needed to find the fun, dig out something happy in these circumstances.
So it was a smaller list, one page white, one page red, front and back, like in the old days. And at the bottom of the page was a QR code which you could scan with your phone and access the big list if you wanted it. Eventually, we got it online with hyperlinks so you could check it out before you came.
With the depth on your list, you could do this for a while…
That’s true, we want to make it a great opportunity for people to taste things they wouldn’t normally. I have to say, it really is a joy to feel like we’re taking care of people, especially now. People are coming in to take a respite from their reality. It’s important for us to be able to facilitate a reprieve from people’s lives. This whole year has really been a big wake-up call for things that are and aren’t important. Early on, we got together and said, “How do we take care of people and get them to feel comfortable and safe?” So, in the end, we’re a little less focused on costs; at a time like this, being stingy or worrying about the bottom line isn’t a good way to care about people.
Tell me about your by the glass program.
It’s a smaller version of what we had before COVID, pretty classical and traditional; we’ve got things like Vajra Barbera, and Chianti, and a Saumur-Champigny from Legrand. But we also wanted to show gratitude to our guests for coming in, and we poured some wines from the cellar you do not normally see by the glass. In fact, the most fun part of all this was going through the cellar and popping bottles, Colin-Morey Meursault or Château Fuissé or some other fun allocated wines where you’re like, “You know, why not? If not now, when?” Industry people would come in see what we were pouring and go, “No way, shut up!”
And then I’d go out of my way and track down some of my guests who are into wine and text them—“Hey, I’m going to open up a Dauvissat La Forest from 2012”—and they’d come in. It was a great way to connect with people in what was one of the weirdest times in our lifetime.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.
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