Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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The coronavirus will change wine shopping, and some independent winemakers won't survive it


We are still in the early stages of the covid-19 pandemic, but of course we are eager to get out of it, and anxious about what we will find once we get there. Right now, the outlook isn't good from the perspective of the hospitality industry, including wine.

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This isn't to say we won't be able to buy wine when all this is over. But the wines available to us, and how we are able to buy them, may change, and not in obvious ways.

These potential changes may not be clear in the immediate spate of news stories. Wine stores have pivoted to curbside pickup, local delivery or shipping by UPS and FedEx. These are desperate measures, improvisations meant to generate cash flow and keep tenuous businesses alive as long as possible in the hopes that the current disruption won't last too long. Early reports show delivery and shipping sales are up, as we buy more wine to tide us through the stay-at-home orders. The latest reports show sales moderating somewhat. Calvert Woodley, a major Washington, D.C., retailer, announced it would suspend curbside pickup and close altogether until the worst is over, to protect its employees.

Spruce, a Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, converted its dining room into a retail wine shop after being forced to close by the city's stay-at-home order. The new shop opened March 26 with no advertising except handwritten signs taped in the windows. The makeshift store featured wines from the inventories of nine restaurants of the Bacchus Management Group, which includes Spruce, at retail prices ranging from $7 to $100 a bottle, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

This type of sale is a great opportunity for wine lovers. Many small-production wines are sold primarily to restaurants and rarely available at retail. It's a chance to buy these wines at retail markups, while helping the restaurant weather the crisis by contributing to its cash flow.

And who by now hasn't heard of Soda Pup, the 70-pound boxer mix performing curbside delivery duties for Stone House Urban Winery in Hagerstown, Md.? Three weeks ago, practically no one had heard of Stone House, and now it's perhaps the most celebrated winery in the world. Soda Pup has - pardon the expression - gone viral. (Are we going to continue saying that?) His deliveries, with two bottles slung in a saddle bag over his back, have been featured in newscasts and newspapers around the globe. Leave it to a dog to give us a feel-good story when we needed one most.

Wineries continue to schedule "virtual tastings" on Facebook Live or Zoom. They can be fun - I've agreed to participate in a few just to keep in touch and try to relieve the cabin fever until I can once again visit a winery in person. Virtual tastings may not outlive the pandemic, but they are an interesting stopgap, and they are more enjoyable than drinking alone.

Wineries are also pitching in to help one another and the industries they are interconnected with. The Willamette Valley Wineries Association launched a Web page called #WVCommunity, listing special offers from its members.

Beneath the somewhat strained tone of optimism - We're still here! - lies a sense of foreboding. However necessary, these draconian measures of "Stay home, stay safe," or "shelter in place," will probably have a lasting impact, especially on smaller businesses such as restaurants, importers and distributors, and independent retail stores.

When local governments ordered restaurants and bars to close, "We lost about 85 percent of our customer base," Gray Mosby, a partner in Salveto Imports, based in Alexandria, Va., wrote in an email that captures what other small companies in the wine business are experiencing.

"We do not do business with Walmart or the big grocery chains, and we have had to work hard for some modest success with independent retail," Mosby said. "Our biggest fear right now is that many of our restaurant clients will never reopen. What has been a thriving and interesting restaurant scene in D.C., Richmond and Charlottesville will undoubtedly suffer."

Salveto is working with one retail client to produce videos to accompany a three-pack of wines for a virtual tasting. And they are supporting one of their suppliers by promoting a sample pack of wines with proceeds to benefit laid off restaurant workers.

"This is the kind of thing we have to do to get any sales at all," Mosby said.

In the long run, he predicted, "the major chain restaurants and big-box stores, and the handful of multistate distribution corporations that supply them with industrial levels of wine, made by wineries owned by international drinks corporations, are going to come out of this with even more market dominance."

And the small, family-owned wineries, stores and restaurants? "The little folks - like us - who have been thriving on the margins, will certainly be reduced," Mosby said. "And without trying to seem arrogant, we will all be poorer for it."

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McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

Published : April 10, 2020

By : Special To The Washington Post · Dave McIntyre