Washington recently relaxed some rules around booze during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing any restaurant with a liquor license to sell bottled wine for takeout and delivery. And some are trying to seize a potential opportunity to find more avenues for cash. One example is the Bainbridge Island-based Hitchcock Restaurant Group (HRG), which has opened up its cellars to launch “Pandemic Wine Club,” sort of an ad hoc remote sommelier service. The wines come from the celebrated restaurant Hitchcock and the pizzeria Bruciato on Bainbridge Island, as well as Downtown’s Bar Taglio.
HRG’s beverage director Alexandra Stang tells Eater Seattle that she currently takes requests through DMs on her Instagram and email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for curating a selection of wines, then has a phone call with each new interested client to tailor selections from over 1,000 varieties. The quantity ranges from 4-24 bottles, with an average bottle price of $20 at a retail markup. It’s a bit more than what some might pay at the grocery store, but she says there’s a personalized experience the group is trying to accomplish. “We’re not trying to be cookie cutter about it,” she says.
Stang emails notes about the wine, and says people “appreciate some interaction” as social distancing becomes the norm. Pickup is available at Bruciato for Bainbridge Island patrons, or at the recently-opened sandwich shop, Panino Taglio, in Georgetown, while delivery has a $10 fee with a turnaround time of 2-3 days. In order to comply with CDC measures, bottles are wiped down with a sanitizing cloth and packed with gloves on, and payment is accepted over the phone.
HRG follows the path of other restaurants with big wine lists around the country trying to adjust to the new reality. Many of New York City’s top spots are temporarily transforming into bottle shops, and in the Bay Area, three-Michelin-starred Manresa has opened up its entire wine list for retail.
In Seattle, the natural wine-focused French restaurant L’Oursin in the Central District is examining what may be the most appealing prices for its wines, featuring bottles mostly in the $22 and under range for takeout. “We’re only allowing one customer or family in at a time, using fresh gloves for every transaction, sanitizing everything constantly,” says beverage director Zac Overman. And since Washington state now allows any restaurant with a liquor license to sell spirits that are factory-sealed, the restaurant is also looking into how it can package some cocktail kits.
Up in Woodinville wine country, both Tinte Cellars and DeLille Cellars are experimenting with virtual tastings on Facebook to draw people in for takeout orders. And the new wine-focused restaurant Surrell in Capitol Hill is hosting a Social Distancing Dinner Party on Wednesday, as it features wines for pickup and delivery.
Meanwhile, the Hitchcock group — like others — is just trying to get by at the moment. And the Pandemic Wine Club, if it grows, could help bring back some laid-off workers. But when things return to a more normal routine, Stang believes there could be more long-term changes coming to the wine industry.
“Restaurants may have to rethink having giant inventories, and whether there’s a more sustainable way to do things,” she says.