Wine lists — like everything else — have changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new off-sales provision, which allows restaurants to sell alcohol with delivery or curbside pick-up orders, was the biggest game changer for the industry. Most restaurants have introduced a lower pricing model for wines sold with curbside pickup/delivery orders, since off-sales puts them into competition with liquor stores as opposed to other eateries.
“Suddenly I wasn’t competing with other restaurants to have really interesting, unique or exceptional offerings,” says Caitlin Fulton, co-owner of RGE RD. “It was more about how I could dissuade people from buying from the liquor store and offer something different but still value-oriented.”
Off-sales were a much needed boost to the beleaguered restaurant industry and brought in critical cash flow during the lockdown period, and offered a new revenue stream once dine-in service recommenced. But it’s not a magic bullet of profit — off-sales are about more than just paying the bills.
“We tried to price our wine within the regular retail markups just to generate some revenue,” says Frank Olson, co-owner of Red Ox Inn and Canteen. “Curbside orders are not enough to run a business, unless it’s Mother’s Day every weekend.” Many restaurants have pared back their wine lists due to reduced cash flow and supply shortages caused by shipping delays.
“It appears that wine agencies are getting their stock and selection back to pre-COVID levels, but we’ve noticed some supply issues for sure,” says Glenn Quinn, who owns TZiN Wine & Tapas with wife Kelsey Danyluk. “We’ve reduced the wine list slightly but not by a huge amount; we’re known for having a good wine list and we still want to offer the guests as much choice as possible.”
Fulton is in the process of paring back RGE RD’s wine list and is aiming to get it below 100 different wines, down from its pre-COVID offering of about 150.
“We opened with our existing wine list and what we had in inventory, but we are also looking at revamping our list and it will be a process,” Fulton says. “I’m hearing that a lot of people are downsizing their lists overall.” Some restaurants are making qualitative changes to their lists, focusing on more well- known types of wine instead of esoteric bottles.
“We had a big focus on natural wine for a long time, but COVID has forced us to reconsider our customer’s appetite for expensive, quirky wine,” says Mike Angus, owner of Pip. “We understand that if our customers are on a budget, they might not be as open to taking a risk on a bottle of natural wine as they were pre-COVID. We still have three or four options, but they’re more affordable, approachable and straightforward; less risky and out-there.”
Restaurants aren’t shifting completely to a no-risk, bargain-bin philosophy, however. Customers are still buying wine — sometimes quite expensive wines, too. After re-opening to dine-in service, Fulton was surprised by people indulging in higher tier wine more than she expected.
Patrick Saurette, co-owner of The Marc, noticed a similar trend. “People may not be drinking as much, but they’re sure drinking well,” he says. “We’ve had to really up our game on some of our reserve wines.”