How Do You Operate a Wine Bar in a Covid-19 World?

Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman of Ungrafted in San Francisco.

As pandemic-related closures and modified openings have continued to play out across the country, businesses have been forced to adapt quickly with new ways of serving customers and generating much-needed revenue. Cocktail bars and coffee shops have found creative ways to keep their businesses afloat, and many wine-focused restaurants are doing the same. We checked in with three Imbibe 75 alums to find out how they’re shifting in this ever-changing environment, what sorts of wines their customers are seeking out right now, and how they’re keeping hospitality alive while adhering to physical distancing guidelines. Here they share their firsthand accounts  in their own words. The interviews have been edited for clarity.

Ungrafted, San Francisco 
Master Sommelier Rebecca Fineman and her husband and partner Chris Gaither opened Ungrafted in 2018. Known for its hospitality-focused approach to wine, Ungrafted was our 2020 Wine Bar of the Year. Here, Fineman shares the changes they’ve made over the past few months.

We have always been a combination of a restaurant and a retail shop, but the restaurant sales naturally dwarfed the retail sales; now we see the opposite happening. What really helped our business was quick thinking and hard work. In short, we have the following right now: Sunday online classes; blind tastings on Mondays (through FaceTime), retail options for wine/beer/saké/cider/non-alcoholic drinks; wines by the glass to go; and a reduced restaurant food menu for takeout.

We wanted to maintain our regular Sunday wine classes and Monday blind tastings, and I’m happy to say we’ve created quite a following doing these our way. We put all the wines into 2 oz. hermetically-sealed vials, and we offer free deliveries within San Fransisco. This way everyone gets to taste 6 wines, without having 6 bottles open going to waste on their countertop. If people drink something they like, they can then come in and grab a bottle (or two). It takes days to put all the wines into vials, but we think it’s more than worth it.

Most people are buying bottles that are $30-50 on the retail side. We have wines that are under $20, but those sell slowly. The wines over $70 also tend to move more slowly. I think most people just want delicious wines they can sip on everyday, with less of a focus on building a wine collection right now. Some of the neighborhood folks like to buy one or two bottles at a time, but they make us a regular destination on their quarantine dog walks/kid walks/solo walks. For those who live farther, most are stocking up. Everyone seems to be running out of beverages faster than they are expecting, and we are always happy to help.

Our guests like to have a combination of familiar and unfamiliar. Most people will pick up an everyday wine like a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, but then say “what’s that?” pointing to a wine/grape/region they’ve never heard of before. We’re lucky because we have asked them to trust us, and they do. Our guests reach out to us all the time through phone, email, text and instagram, so we’re very much here to help and make suggestions. That hasn’t changed in the least. We are starting to get set up for online ordering right now. One reason we held back was that we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to talk with someone about their purchase, but we also have a business to run. I am certain we will find a way to make sure we’re still communicating with our guests, even those who have purchased wine online.

Nathálie and Haley.Henry, Boston 
Known as a champion of natural wines, Haley Fortier oversees two wine bars in Boston: Haley.Henry and Nathálie, our 2019 Wine Bar of the Year. Here, Fortier shares how both locations have been adapting amid the pandemic, and how their customers are responding.

We started takeout at both bars about three weeks ago. It’s been an interesting challenge. To take what is normally a full-service wine bar and spin it into a takeout restaurant certainly isn’t sustainable in the long run—it’s an entirely different beast. The important thing for me was to get some people back to work that really needed to be working, not only financially, but also for their mental health. In terms of takeout itself, it’s been pretty straightforward. People are either calling in their orders, or ordering directly online through our website. We’ve also been delivering food, wine and tinned fish to people, so that’s been a bonus to be able to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption (something the city allowed businesses to do to offset revenue).

We’ve always been very fortunate that our clientele is not only loyal, but they also keep us on our toes. In a very short period of time, after opening haley.henry in 2016, it was pretty obvious that people wanted to drink things they couldn’t find easily on other menus across the city. Because of that, we refresh our stock almost weekly to fill the expectations of people coming in to buy bottles. When COVID-19 first closed down our operation, the intention was to run through our inventory without purchasing anything new until we reopened, but it hasn’t happened that way. It’s summer—people want fresh, crisp wines! Everyone who buys from us wants the shiny new vintage of their favorite producers; they want the new rosés and the flashy new releases. We’ve starting buying wine again from our distributors, because shit, we want them too! COVID-19 has definitely not deterred our clients from wanting solid wine options for their homes, and we are fortunate that they trust our recommendations and keep coming back for more. I haven’t seen a dip in what people are willing to spend. People like what they like, and COVID-19 can’t take that away from them.

It’s humbling to know that everyone that is supporting us through this crisis is chomping at the bit to get back into bars. They tell us every single day. They tell us how much they miss their experiences, the way they feel when they are joining us for the night and how they feel like we are part of their family in a lot of different ways. We are trying to keep our personalities and expectations of our hospitality on the front of every takeout order that comes in; whether it be writing and drawing very personal details on their takeout bags, or meticulously writing wine descriptors for every wine delivery we handle, so that they feel like they know exactly what they are drinking even though we aren’t physically in front of them to describe it. People want to know that they are not only supporting businesses that they want to see emerge from this pandemic, but also that those businesses are staying authentic to what drew them to love them in the first place. We are trying to keep that energy alive, and so far I think it’s working. We are certainly anxious ourselves to get back to some sort of normalcy.

L’Oursin, Seattle 
Co-owner Zac Overman and wine director Kathryn Olson created a haven for French wines in Seattle when they opened L’Oursin, our 2018 Wine Bar of the Year. Here, the two share how they’ve shifted and where they’re finding success.

We have converted to a full-on market. That, of course, means wine, which we’ve been selling retail in addition to dine-in sales for several years, but it’s currently flying off the shelves in a retail-only capacity. At first, everyone wanted comfort wines; we could not keep big, Old World reds in stock. Now, with the season changing, it’s all rosé, funky ciders and light-bodied reds, and it seems that everyone wants orange wine all the time. There’s a balance of both versatile (usually French) classics offset by higher-end or more experimental bottles.

We get a lot of people that pop in for a bottle or two every other day, but we also have a decent stable of folks that buy 6 or 12 bottles every couple weeks. We don’t want to be tone deaf to the economic uncertainty we all face right now, or compromise our standards in the wines we carefully choose to work with, so as a general rule we’ve tried to keep our prices low while still emphasizing quality, so we’re keeping a collection of affordable—in the $16-28 range—but character-rich natural wines at the core of our offerings. Like we’ve always done, really. We’ve also had a lot of success with our “Recession Special,” which is a brown bag of three mystery wines chosen by us for $40.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’re excited to start building up the L’Oursin reserve cellar again with allocated or hard-to-find wines, higher-end products and one-offs from our connections in the Pacific Northwest. We have some collections available to shop online, and our wine club is going strong. We are looking forward to introducing our own special versions of winemaker dinners and tastings soon.

We prioritize wine education at L’Oursin, for the staff and consumer alike. Every bottle that comes through the door will have notes available for the staff to read over and a little tag on the bottle with basic insights into profile or origin. Transparency and education in our wine program is top priority, but we’re also here every day to talk with people about every bottle and food item, how to pair, how to cook with the ingredients we have in stock. It’s also been cool to have a lot of our regulars recognize each other behind their masks while they’re in line and get a little bit of (distanced) socializing in. It’s not a bar, but I think everyone is taking what they can get these days.


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