What producers need to know to get their wines into the hospitality sector.
Restaurants closed throughout much of 2020 when the novel coronavirus caused a series of lockdowns. To cover the costs of lost sales and in order to continue to pay employees, the monthly rent, and attempt to stay in business, some restaurants resorted to selling much—in some cases all—of their wine inventories.
Now that restaurant and hospitality spaces are beginning to open their doors and welcome guests at full capacity, wine directors and sommeliers are looking to restock—but are significantly scaling back purchases.
So, how have restaurant wine-buyers adapted wine programs and what sparks theirs—and their customers’—interests?
Whether restaurants sold their inventory or reduced spending, shorter wine lists are inevitable for now, noted Vincent D’Aquila, wine director at Tribeca Grill in New York City. “It does not necessarily make sense for the restaurants to buy all this wine back now that they have re-opened.”
Tribeca Grill did not sell its 2,000-selection cellar and is relying on existing inventory. “The purchases I make are more focused on filing specific holes in the list as they arise, rather than fleshing out a category that already has significant representation or a developing a new category that may be a bit esoteric for our average client,” D’Aquila says. “We always need to have several selections of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from California under $200.”
However, there is a place for the “esoteric” styles and lesser-known producers. Many wine-curious consumers used their home lockdown time to taste and learn. Now, sommeliers are seizing the opportunity to spotlight unique offerings in an effort to entice and encourage customers to step outside their comfort zone.
Tonya Pitts, wine director at One Market in San Francisco, pared down her wine list from 900 to 600 selections, with a renewed focus on seasonality in order to give more producers exposure, and customers more variety. “Our guests had an opportunity to explore their palates during the pandemic and we are going to continue to keep the discovery of new tastes coming,” says Pitts.
A similar, rotational technique has also affected many by-the-bottle programs. “We reduced our by-the-glass program to just four options: one sparkling, white, pink and red,” says Alyssa Papierneick, wine director for Mentone Restaurant in Aptos, California. “We change the menu almost every week so our regulars can try new wines by the glass each time they come in. This encourages people to try things they might not normally gravitate toward, or push them to the bottle selection.”
Paul Iglesias, wine director at Canela Bistro & Wine Bar, also in San Francisco, looks for boutique Spanish producers to complement the restaurant’s Spanish cuisine. He says he’s specifically looking for wine brands with a great backstory, “Our wine descriptions have evolved from the standard regions, vintages, and price points into creative stories that paint pictures of the culture and emotions Spanish wines evoke here at Canela,” he says.
Social impact and supporting minority owned producers and communities are also top of mind. Contento in East Harlem, New York lists “Wines of Social Impact” on the menu. Lyle’s at the Lyle Hotel in Washington, DC, located in a prominent LGBTQ neighborhood, spotlights women, black, BIPOC and LGBTQ winemakers.
Rania Zayyat, wine director at Bufalina in Austin has prioritized finding and working with more women-owned or run wineries and BIPOC-owned wineries. “It’s important to acknowledge that while it may seem like there aren’t many wineries owned or operated by intentionally ignored communities, the problem stems from a lack of representation rather than a lack of existence. These producers are out there and making incredible wines. In order to find them, we need to start asking and demanding more diversity from our importers and distributors,” says Zayyat.
In the end, the answer is—authenticity sells. Sommeliers are looking for wines with a strong commitment to quality, a great backstory, and wines that promote a sense of inclusivity and community: all topics that resonate the modern wine consumer.
Melanie Young produces and hosts The Connected Table Live and The Connected Table Sips podcasts featuring conversations with global thought leaders in wine, food, spirits, and hospitality, and Fearless Fabulous You, a lifestyle show for women. The Connected Table LIVE is ranked #4 in Feedspot’s Top Food & Drink Podcasts for 2021. Her articles on wine and spirits and the business of wine have been published in Wine Enthusiast, Wine4Food and Seven Fifty Daily. Her food articles appear in Santé Magazine. For 20 years she ran M Young Communications, a culinary marketing and events agency in New York, and advised many global wine organizations and businesses. During that time, she was responsible for the launch and management of The James Beard Foundation Awards, serving as the Director for 16 years. Melanie is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, the Wine Media Guild and Women of the Vine & Spirits.