Despite COVID-era tweaks, the hospitality inherent to restaurant wine service remains.
Few elements of the fine-dining experience are as intimate as the interaction between guest and server—and in many cases, wine steward. Restaurants known for their vino expertise had to find novel ways to maintain their wine program hospitality even during pandemic restrictions.
New York–based City Winery previously emerged as a multifaceted concept, blending elevated dining, concerts, and other live events within a space CEO Michael Dorf describes as a “temple to wine.” While City Winery has reopened for events, the virus initially halted all large gatherings like concerts. As a winery, City Winery quickly pivoted to pushing wine for off-premises consumption. Although the concept was unable to reach its pre-COVID, by-the-glass sales, off-premises sales were about four times 2019 levels.
When locations reopened, City Winery maximized its expansive outdoor areas by building fire pits and other shelter spaces to foster community while still adhering to social-distancing practices.
Given its dual role as a restaurant and event venue, City Winery took a more aggressive approach in curbing the spread of COVID-19. In November, the chain’s New York City outpost began conducting rapid-result testing at the door.
That location plus others in major cities like Chicago and Boston took precautions a step further and required all guests to show proof of vaccination before entering. For Dorf, the decision was part of a larger goal to provide the highest level of hospitality by making guests feel most comfortable and safe.
“If you know that 100 percent of the people around you [and] sitting right next to you are for sure vaccinated, you feel much better about taking your mask off,” Dorf says. “The psychology around safety has become integral to what hospitality is. I hope we don’t have to think about this in a year, but today we do.”
Dorf says the science around the pandemic became politicized, making it difficult to enforce vaccination requirements in some Southern locations.
“It would be very difficult and detrimental in those states,” Dorf says. “It’s just too hot of an issue. So that, to me, is a very sad state of the U.S.”
Sixty Vines, a wine-on-tap micro-chain based in Dallas, long aimed to bring the freshness and hospitality of wine country to its guests. But during the pandemic, staff also had to be cognizant of how close they were to customers, Sixty Vines director of beverage Gene Zimmerman says.
“During the height of COVID, we were still doing our very best to provide a high level of hospitality but while keeping a distance,” Zimmerman says. “You don’t want to be too up in the guests’ grill. It was an interesting and a very fine line that we had to walk.”
Sixty Vines strives to demystify wine and leave the snobbery behind, Zimmerman says. This focus continues in the post-COVID era, but now employees pay more attention to things like keeping their hands at the base of the bottle to provide cleaner service. Nothing is rushed and every move is careful.
Ultimately, the coronavirus gave Sixty Vines more of a reason to get it right, Zimmerman says. And its current sales, which have exceeded projections, reflect that belief.
“It gives you that much more appreciation for every single guest that comes through the door because there were many months when no one was coming through the door, and that’s as scary as it gets,” Zimmerman says.
For Argentine-inspired El Che Steakhouse & Bar, the wine program helped jumpstart business when it reopened. Like many restaurants, it endured a few slow days at first, but its wine selection presented an inroad for more interactions between staff and guests.
During the pandemic, El Che increased its quantity of South American varietals to the point that they now comprise about 99 percent of the wine collection. Because consumers aren’t as familiar with such wines, this update presented an education opportunity between employees and guests.
“Initially, it was a little different. [Guests] were a little wary of [staff] coming over,” says Alex Cuper, wine director and general manager at El Che. “I think as things begin to open back up again, it’s starting to go back to a pretty normal.” He adds that guests have resumed asking staff questions about the wines.
El Che Steakhouse has also seen a higher frequency of wine orders since reopening, surpassing earlier summer sales projections.
Sixty Vines benefits from the sheer size of its restaurants, averaging about 8,000 square feet. The size provides ample distance to space customers out. Since restrictions were lifted, sales are through the roof, Zimmerman says. Even the previously cost-prohibitive wines ($20–$30 per glass) are now selling in the hundreds per week.
“I know people keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like the Roaring ’20s,’” Zimmerman says. “I’m not seeing it like that, but we’re not done. It could get to that.”
When COVID-19 hit, City Winery’s goal was just to survive, Dorf says. But by this past spring, it had started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It was an 18-month recess and timeout that we took. But in terms of the business model, I think our idea of people getting together and gathering ... is stronger than ever,” Dorf says.