‘In D.C., selling alcohol to go had always been illegal,” says Brent Kroll at his Maxwell Park Wine Bars. It was illegal for restaurants in most parts of the country, until COVID hit and state and local regulators changed the rules to help restaurants survive. “The ability to do to-go sales really kept the pressure at bay,” Kroll says. “We used social media to offer corporate retreats and themed Zoom calls for our guests stuck in their homes—‘Couchtoberfest’ and ‘Netflix and Chilled Reds.’” His biggest events eclipsed what had been a typical night pre-pandemic. “Our whole wine list is available to go for 30 percent off. I have a lot of plans for the future—we can take what we’ve built as a wine bar and get creative with our retail.” That is, as long as regulations don’t change again.
Even before COVID-19, some sommeliers had turned to retail to build on the personal relationships they had developed in their dining rooms—and to share their interests with a wider audience. Two of them, Jason Jacobeit and Daniel Jung, were sharing an office at the Myriad Restaurant Group, where Jacobeit ran the wine program at Bâtard and Jung at Tribeca Grill. They opened Somm Cellars on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in April.
“We had been working on the idea for a Burgundy-focused retail project for some time,” Jacobeit says, seeing an opportunity “to bring warmth and conversation into a retail environment. We’ve arranged our inventory to resemble a restaurant wine list, and created a U-shaped bar inside the space so that people can sit down and sample some of the wines. We’re really looking for engagement. We want to do seminars and bring in winemakers for collaborations. We want to weaponize this beautiful bar to bring a warm and convivial vibe.”
Acknowledging that many people think Burgundy is out of reach, they are not ignoring the collectible wines, but focusing their energy elsewhere. “Of the five sub-regions of Burgundy, only the Côte d’Or regularly produces wines we might agree to call ‘expensive.’ And even here you can find mind-blowing, affordable wine from off-the-beaten-track villages (Santenay, St-Aubin, Auxey, for example) as well as the most affordable wines from top producers.”
On the other coast, a trio of sommeliers—industry veterans from Michelin-starred restaurants—is set to open Maison in Healdsburg. Evan and Jade Hufford have teamed up with Ryan Knowles, all part of the original opening team at SingleThread. The Huffords had moved to Healdsburg after stints in Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
While at SingleThread, the three partners missed engaging more regularly with the local community. “Friends and family could afford to visit us one time, if even that,” says Evan, who acknowledged that, throughout his career, he was working on a regular basis only with the wealthy. “There is a complete dearth of wine bars for miles around. Opening one will allow us to offer that intimate level of fine-dining hospitality without the high sticker price,” he hopes. “Having an open door with offerings at all price levels will allow us to welcome the community,” as a place for locals to gather. Since it’s legal in California to do both on- and off-premise sales, they will sell at retail as well. In addition, they plan to offer classes and tastings “targeted at wine drinkers of all knowledge levels, also inviting guest winemakers, sommeliers, and other industry experts to host events.” The classes might consider California history through dusty old bottles. But the main focus will be “on the elegant wines of coastal California, particularly the Sonoma Coast,” Evan says. By placing them in flights alongside iconic Grand Cru Burgundy and Champagne, we hope to demonstrate that they all belong on the same table.” The name Maison is meant to reflect their goals: “We want our guests to feel comfortable, like they’re enjoying a glass in our home.” The team hopes to open Maison this summer.
This story appears in the print issue of June 2021.
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