As a sommelier for the past twenty years, I have witnessed many changes in the restaurant industry: 9/11, the dot-com bubble of 2002, the 2008 recession, and now COVID-19. All of these moments forced the wine industry to change to stay relevant.

Food, beverage, and service is a part of my family ethos—it’s who we are. We have a great appreciation for this industry and our craft. It has supplied our family’s income stream for decades, but the global changes have altered our lifestyle and dining out has been very limited. Since March of this year, my wife and I have had friends over (with physical distancing and a limited guest count, of course) for dinner four times. We have gone out to dinner only twice, in Charleston and San Diego.

The silver lining in all of this has been an opportunity to provide a restaurant experience to our friends who do not want to dine out right now. As seasoned food-and-beverage professionals, we have graciously hosted multiple restaurant-style dinner services from a four-course meal to family-style plating and casual dining. We have incorporated different dish patterns, multiple cutlery, multiple glassware, and plenty of delicious food.

During this pandemic, we all have been revising our work and home life. In the wine industry, the direct-to-consumer and off-premise retail markets have become highly trafficked channels to help distribute wine, which was previously the purview of on-premise sites, such as hotels, clubs, and restaurants.

With this in mind, we asked other industry professionals, “What does the future of wine in fine dining look like? Specifically, over the next one to two years at a minimum.”

At the time this article was written, regulations had restricted dining, causing a major shift in the historical presentation and social enjoyment of fine dining.

The group of beverage professionals I interviewed agreed on three key points, which have allowed those in our industry to keep moving forward in the current climate. In no particular order, these points are distilled down to the following concepts: value, flexibility, and retail. These tenets have helped restaurants, clubs, and hotels redefine themselves in a new era.

The sommelier community has all interpreted and defined these different concepts on how they relate to their operations. Ultimately, they are hoping to offer the customer a new and convenient way to enjoy food and beverage by asking, “What more can we do here to maintain and reward customer loyalty?” The goal is to offer the customer the ability to re-create a soft version of what they could experience from their favorite restaurants, hotels, and clubs, such as local dishes that can be prepared at home.

“It’s that unique sense of place that defines an establishment,” says Cameron Tyler of Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. “We have to reinvent a different method to offer our service. We want people to tap into why they love our place and what can we do to offer our favorite menu items that they can take with them to help satiate that need and want.”

The Peter Michael team, Paul Michael and Peter Kay, cohost their first-ever virtual wine tasting with Ronan Sayburn of 67 Pall Mall.

Value

Restaurants with some years of experience are showcasing a small and cost-effective “best of” or “greatest hits” menu. Some are doing this at their brick-and-mortar locales, while others are taking the concept on the road, capturing clients outside of their city limits. Shelley Lindgren from A16 in San Francisco is doing a two-month A16 pop-up in Boonville, California. Without having the opportunity to offer regular themed events, such as a winemaker dinner, for example, Shelley is utilizing her new book The New Italian Wine as the vehicle for this. Her current food menu and wine offerings change weekly, following the chapters in her book. Brooklyn-based André Mack from &Sons provides his clients with a Spotify music list that he suggests to accompany the food from his restaurant, which he then pairs with wine from his retail store, Vyneyard.

New Yorkers Jeff Porter of Sip Trip and Hristo Zisovski from Altamarea Group have agreed that the prepare-at-home kits and commissary-exchange idea of restaurants selling food and ingredients are catering to a customer who wants established hallmark brands. According to Porter, “These customers regularly request, purchase, and reorder things that they know. Customers want something that is tried-and-true. Brand loyalty will take precedence.” The concept is symbiotic—your favorite restaurant is supporting their favorite local purveyors by selling bulk items such as pasta sauces, dried batters, cuts of meats, and cheeses in smaller “previously unavailable to the public unless you dined there” deli sizes. You can experience the restaurant at a quarter of the regular price.

Flexibility

This concept has taken on so many guises, breaking our idea of what was traditionally expected or could be expected from restaurants. Martin Sheehan-Stross of SipSend and Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco (previous sommelier of Gary Danko) offers an on-demand sommelier service. This includes an online video presentation of how he selected the wines that you just purchased, what to expect from them, and food-pairing suggestions. Martin has found that this type of out-of-the-box thinking has garnered a solid group of clients who have provided a steady stream of business. This virtual experience has played a new role in customer development, for which he is readily available. Typically, people were limited to making a reservation at the restaurant in order to have the opportunity to discuss wine with the floor sommelier.

“This concept has taken on so many guises, breaking our idea of what was traditionally expected or could be expected from restaurants.”

Retail

New and Developed Clientele Mailing Lists:

Offering luxury and allocated wines to their customer mailing list has been an indispensable way for restaurants to generate sales. These sales are making up for revenue lost to minimized seating. Luis Reyneri from the Grove in Palm Beach has converted the front seating area of his restaurant, which has been closed due to social distancing, to a pop-up wine shop for his customers. He also sends email blasts to new walk-in clients who stop by to see what his shop is all about. What he offers is much more robust than what local wine shops can provide, as the restaurant gives him easier access to allocated and luxury items. This has created a new market stream of revenue. This strategy has helped Luis purchase unclaimed allocated wine from distributors to sell at very reasonable prices, strengthening his loyal customer base and adding to it.

It is clear the rules of fine dining that we have come to know have changed for now. Servers are masking up, tables are spaced out, there are fewer staff members working to bring you the experience of excellence you have come to expect from fine dining, the energy and buzz of having a lot of people in the restaurant are gone for now—the list goes on and on. Fine dining has morphed into an experience that goes beyond sitting down in an establishment. Restaurants are now offering an augmented concept based on value and flexibility and sharing it with their loyal customer base while attracting new clientele.

The position of a sommelier is being retooled to a modern twenty-first-century version, incorporating a boutique wine-shop experience with online tastings, while setting the mood with a Spotify playlist to transport you to your favorite eatery. Sommeliers are still telling the stories of the wines they are passionate about but in a new virtual take-out home experience. Restaurants, hotels, and clubs are collectively offering customers novel and established ways to experience fine dining, with additional benefits they could never have imagined.

We are hopeful that what emerges from this unfortunate new reality is an industry even more vibrant and ready to adapt to guests’ needs and the cultural climate. This is why most of us got in the industry in the first place and why we are successful—we are always evolving, never settling for the status quo.