Restaurants and wine bars are closing at a record rate during sweeping and often confusing COVID-19 restrictions. Wine professionals are scrambling to find creative ways to stay employed and keep the lights on. We spoke with a few Los Angeles sommeliers about their “pivot,” the changes to the industry at large and the buying habits of their guests.
“The concept of the pivot just doesn’t work,” says Matthew Kaner, of Bar Covell in Los Feliz. “You can’t just transform to take out. The only ‘pivot’ is to get out of restaurants entirely. We’ve been losing 6-12 thousand dollars a month since March, and we have no rent abatement. The situation is dire.” Kaner has opened for outdoor service when allowed, and now runs a pop up bottle shop at the Hollywood Boulevard location from 2 to 8 pm Wednesday through Sunday. The logistics of running a retail store out of a former wine bar, however, are daunting: He’s working without the traditionally large breadth of a retail shop’s inventory. “If someone comes in wanting Champagne, I have only one choice, I can’t afford an inventory of multiple options. People don’t always know what they want; hopefully, they want what I have to sell.” And, to find out, they have to first buy the wine and take it home: The days of Kaner pouring a few choices at the bar for you to sample are gone for now. “We all miss the past,” Kaner says. He has found some “emergency lights illuminating the way,” however, in small-lot, hand-sell wines not typically found in larger retail stores. Kaner has repeat customers coming back for Meinklang Graupert Pinot Gris, a skin-contact wine from Austria’s Burgenland, as well as more classic examples of Sancerre, in the 2019 from Jean-Jacques Auchère.
Kathryn Weil Coker, owner of Esters Wine Shop and Bar in Santa Monica, says she’s been fortunate to have been a mixed model from the beginning. While the Wine Bar has been touch-and go through varying outdoor-dining capacities and stay-at-home measures, the retail shop and wine club has grown substantially. Many of the wine-bar customers who have enjoyed Kathryn’s curated selections have shifted to purchasing retail from her shop. “We have a large patio, which we have maximized as much as we could during the periods of outdoor dining. The staff caught on quickly to all of our safety protocols and the constantly changing mandates. Of course, now, we’re back to full lockdown again, and the hard part is not having work for our kitchen and inside staff.”
Weil Coker has translated her Sunday Tastings across the many stages of COVID-19 precautions. When outdoor dining was allowed, the original flights, poured at the bar, became pre-poured tasting portions in small vials, with a QR code linking to a short video. Now, with a full ban on both indoor and outdoor dining, the Sunday Tastings have gone virtual, with short info sheets about the wine, to be tasted at home. “There is no one pivot,” she says, “it’s constant pivoting There’s no one thing, we have to do all of it.” She finds her guests still want the interaction and interplay of curated choices, and the Wine Club remains their connection to the Esters world. “Our guests are still coming to pick up their Wine Club shipments. It helps them feel like they are a part of keeping us alive—and they are.”
Weil Coker’s customers have been coming back for a twist on the classics—Domaine Denizot Sancerre and Hermanos Peciña Rioja. And there’s always a strong call for domestic wines, she says; Angela Osborne’s Land of Saints Pinot Noir from San Luis Obispo is a favorite: “People love it.”
For Nathaniel Muñoz of Eve Bottle Shop in Echo Park, “The reality is—every day could be the last, there’s just no space for edited candor.” Bar Avalon, the restaurant/wine bar he opened alongside Eve Bottle Shop, closed right before their one year anniversary. Eve, however, continues to be a local neighborhood spot. Scott Sampler’s Scotty Boy skincontact wines have been a hit at Eve, as has Michel Guignier Beaujolais and Michael Roth’s Lo-Fi Malbec out of Santa Barbara. “People still want an experience, contact, guidance, and service,” Muñoz says. “I do the same tableside service I used to do in restaurants, now I do it at the door. You can still build relationships, even at six feet.”
Rick Arline opened his West Hollywood space, Fellow Traveler, during the pandemic. He built the model for a socially distanced world and it is a totally different gig than his time as Wine Director at Auburn. “We knew going into this, that COVID was our reality. We built Fellow Traveler from a retail structure. The whole model itself is take-out food and wine. When, and if, this cools out, we’ll keep this to-go model going.”
Arline has stayed focused on uncertainty. “Every day I’m changing my job description.” But one thing doesn’t change. “I’m in wine sales,” he says. “I’m here to sell wine.” Asked about the sales element and customers’ COVID-era preferences, Arline notes, “We have to shift things. The old restaurant model just won’t work when we come out of this on the other side. We’ll have to be aggressive on our pricing.” He is still working on bridging the gap between retail and on-premise pricing, but it isn’t easy. Restaurant pricing is traditionally twice retail in order to factor in the higher associated costs, such as labor and high rents. The limited number of seats determines the opportunities to sell, whereas retail is a volume game. “I want to be as egalitarian as possible. I want people to drink more wine, I want them to drink better wine. I want wine to be less of a commodity and more of a grocery. We can give people something to entice them, but we have to be creative.” Creativity, for Arline, means offering out the fun unavailable stuff, like Piu Piu, the riesling pet’nat from Fio Kettern and DD Niepoort—“It’s very weird, but people love it.” And he’s in good-natured competition with Muñoz for some of the small lot California wines: “Nathaniel and I often find ourselves gunning for the same wines,” he says. Though Arline scored a few bottles of the Scotty Boy Orange wines, “This time, Nathaniel outgunned me and got more.”
This story appears in the print issue of February 2021.
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