In my new book, Wine Girl, I talk about being a woman in the old boy’s club of wine. I love wine because, like food, it brings people together. Which is probably why, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed places that sell wine and liquor “essential” businesses – and thus allowed to operate during the coronavirus pandemic – the decision was met with a collective sigh of relief and probably more than a few clinking glasses. It seems like everyone in the country is coping with quarantine and social distancing in different ways, and, for those lucky enough to be safe and healthy, nothing feels more relieving than a glass of wine at the end of the day.
But drinking right now can also be a virtuous act, one that could save a lot of small businesses from financial ruin. By drinking a bottle you purchased from your local restaurant or wine shop, you are helping these places stay afloat during the lockdown. As a partner and beverage director at Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York City, it was incredibly sad for me and my colleagues to shutter our doors for dine-in business. We all wondered how we’d survive. But our Chef and partner, David Shim, is scrappy and came up with a delivery menu within a matter of days, and we’d be allowed to sell wine to-go — just like a retail shop. Everything changed. We had hope.
Our regular guests flocked to purchase rare bottles for $200 and stockpiled magnums upon magnums of wine. Thankfully, every penny is helping to keep Cote afloat. My friends who own retail wine shops also mentioned that they were seeing a huge uptick in sales. “There were, like, five straight days that were like New Year’s Eve, people rushed in and bought everything they could,” said Jesse Warner-Levine, the co-owner of Convive in the East Village.
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier, and co-founder of Verve wine shops in San Francisco and New York City agreed, “We've certainly seen a surge since the lockdowns were put in place and people can no longer go out.” But, he adds, he’s “not sure how long that will last as more and more people are getting laid off, or keeping to themselves, [or are] on tighter budgets.” Wilson does point to a grim possibility that if lockdowns continue, many more people will continue to be out of work and unable to afford even the “essential” bottle of wine. How will this impact the wine industry that depends on a steady stream of clients? Will the market now crash after a brief surge in panic buys? “It's a bit too early to tell at this point,” says Wilson. “[We are] really just hoping that many of us [restaurants and retailers] can weather the storm and come out okay on the other side.”
Restaurants especially need our support. There are 26,000 alone in New York City and the majority of them have closed during the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates that between 5 and 7 million restaurant workers will lose their jobs by June. And while the Senate just passed a monumental $2 trillion stimulus relief bill, it will still be tough for mom-and-pop restaurants that will have to compete for financial aid with bigger places backed by deep pockets.
Ordering wine and food from restaurants doesn’t just keep them alive, it keeps the whole supply chain breathing. Specialty food purveyors, farmers, foragers, and wine importers that supply these restaurants are also facing a collapse of their businesses.
If restaurants especially don’t have substantial government assistance during this time, the post-pandemic landscape might become a country where massive chain restaurants are the most exciting dining experience. And while we all love the occasional round of two-dollar margaritas, that’s a bleak thought.
For now, the best thing we can do as consumers is to hunker down and support our local restaurants and shops we love by buying booze from them. Also, sign and follow initiatives like ROAR that are championing government aid so that these small businesses can survive.
While drinking at home, many wine lovers are also taking the isolation as an opportunity to become aficionados. Warner-Levine mentioned that he now makes himself available for “virtual wine tastings” with clients. Ashley Santoro, owner of Leisir wine shop on the Lower East Side notices her customers bulking up on knowledge, “without tastings, winery visits, and the guidance from sommeliers, customers are self educating — I think we’ll see a more confident and wine savvy consumer.”
So go ahead and have that extra glass (or two). There might not be any toilet paper left at the store but don’t worry — there’s plenty of wine.