- Jonathan Ross is one of the 300 master sommeliers in the world: He is an educator for the Guild of Sommeliers, an examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers, and sits on multiple wine investment advisory boards, as well as founded Micro Wines.
- He says that although the alcohol industry is booming for large retailers, small businesses are struggling to find ways to stay afloat.
- Many smaller retailers and restaurants are turning to creative ways of staying open, including virtual tastings, delivery, and designer happy hours.
- Support your local restaurants and wine sellers now if you want them to survive this lockdown period.
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With a substantial amount of lockdown time under our belts, people around the world have found creative ways to remain social, active, and entertained. Virtual cocktail hours and dinner parties, live educational tastings, and all-around beverage discourse are filling social media airwaves.
There is no way to replace genuine human interactions: a necessity for a healthy life. However, this crisis has reminded many of us that at the center of human contact often lies a great drink.
And continuing to drink well, learn well, and do well by the wine industry in this time is not only possible, but imperative.
Over the past decade, wine has seen a growth in consumer demand for information and validation. With the rise in popularity of the sommelier profession, access to expert advice has grown, such as on SommTV. Winemakers, retail buyers, trained sommeliers, wine journalists, and enthusiast influencers have all become more prominent, widening a previously narrow field of critics whose scores focused on retail shelves and an endless sea of Yelp-like reviews on wine apps like Vivino.
Consumers seek greater interactivity and down-to-earth advice (try Crunchy Red Fruit or SommSelect). Restaurants remain the treasure trove, attracting enthusiasts of all levels looking to quench their thirst for wine experiences at restaurants.
Enter COVID-19. Since the novel coronavirus took hold, alcohol sales in the US have actually boomed. So much so that the first 30 days of quarantine resembled the alcohol-fuelled holiday mania of December.
But almost all that business is being funnelled through established retail supply chains; a small percentage of restaurants and bars are attempting to create in-home experiences to stay afloat. This all goes beyond the sudden deluge of social media hashtags like #quarantinecocktail — this is about supporting an industry that is at risk of faltering.
How some small wine businesses are getting by
For restaurants without an already-established retail arm, creativity and agility have been the only ways to survive. Robust social media marketing supported by rich online content is the key for these businesses to tap into the current retail boom.
Master Sommelier Laura Fiorvanti — one of 35 women in the world with this prestigious title — leads Corkbuzz group. Based in New York and North Carolina, she is taking their offerings online. With streamed versions of her in-house tastings matched with wine packs that can be purchased and shipped from the Corkbuzz cellar, she’s turning what was once thought of as an in-person-only event into something that’s not only more affordable, but also can be done in your own home.
National retailer and Vermont wine bar Dedalus has also curated a wide variety of online entertainment that traverses everything from one-on-one happy hours with notable sommeliers to foundational lessons on cheese and its best pairings to fun-loving wine and DJ sets.
The New York branch of La Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels, with managing partner Caleb Ganzer, has taken to YouTube with their in-house “Wine Boot Camp,” popular with the millennial drinker given that they have over 1,000 people log on at a time, and are able to deliver featured wines to the local area thanks to temporary retail licenses being made available to restaurants. (States have banned the on-premise sale and consumption of food and alcohol, they authorized take-away and delivery retail sales for all current liquor license holders.)
For other restaurants looking for ways to thrive through the pandemic, focusing on the in-home experience is key. Whether it’s a ready-to cook dinner paired with beverages, individually bottled cocktails, or working with sommeliers and winemakers to create video wine tastings, there needs to be an effort to engage with people in their homes.
But virtual content alone can’t sustain the industry
Though it may be too soon to tell what combination of virtual content will allow some to surge forward, what is clear is the need to help preserve the restaurant world. Stark numbers overshadow the hope that some restaurants have. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the James Beard Foundation, over 500,000 restaurants have closed temporarily, causing the loss of over 11 million jobs. Only 20% of those closed restaurants believe they’ll be able to afford to come back once the new normal sets in.
While a few economic thinkers believe this will just result in a great re-shuffling, others fear that it will expedite the homogenization of American restaurants: a patchwork of individual small businesses that represents the largest private industry employer in the US.
Large, online-only retailers have seen the largest spike in their revenue during the novel coronavirus era, jumping three-figure percentage points in just days. They represent big discounts on large-production wines and a low-risk comfort zone — purchasing that arrives at your door with zero human interaction. It’s these inherent pillars that big businesses are built on, and it’s working.
If you’re at home, shop local
If there was ever a moment to support small business, now is the time.
All restaurants were deemed as essential businesses. If they haven’t shuttered, takeout food and beverage is the only way they are surviving. If someone wants to buy a bottle of wine, check out what is available at a local restaurant first, then a local wine shop.
Some restaurants have turned into grocers that support local farms and butchers. Anything bought here will be fresher and of better quality than what would be found at a supermarket. Lastly, if looking to donate, Frontline Foods and the Independent Restaurant Coalition are the most secure and effective avenues.
If you can think of a restaurant or small retail shop where you thoroughly enjoyed their hospitality, then seek out that place and patronize them. Chances are, they’re scrambling to pack wine and food to-go orders so they can one day reopen their doors and welcome you home.