Wine Lists Permanently Changed By Pandemic

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been made widely available in the United States, life is inching its way back to us in the form of our new normal. While everyone is painfully aware of how the hospitality industry suffered during this time, many people are hopeful that a Roaring Twenties mindset will soon hit the masses. Restaurant beverage lists are among some of the things that will alter as we move forward. We spoke with two industry pros—Courtney Bunn (Hamblin), CSW, Director of Beverage & Nightlife at ‎The West Hollywood EDITION in Los Angeles, and Yannick Benjamin, former sommelier at The University Club and new co-owner of Contento in New York City—for insights on how those lists have evolved and will continue to do so in the coming months.

“I would say we made quite a few adjustments,” says Bunn, including a streamlined menu. “I think I spent a bit of time making strategic fits to our demographic and what’s popular right now. It was also important to find really cost-conscious options, not only for us, but for the consumer.” Doing so brought more of a focal point to the items that they did have. “We got creative, too, with our cocktail portion,” she adds. “Whether it was batching cocktails when we were short-staffed, or doing to-go options, those were all outlets that we actually utilized in the last year or so.”

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With the addition of those to-go options, Bunn says that the marketing is more like retail, so the price is a little more affordable. With that, she thinks you get more interest from the guest because it’s not this huge buy-in to step outside of their comfort zone. “It’s been great for us, too,” she says. “We still always have our staples—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and all those sorts of things—but because we’re trying to use inventory versus purchase, we’ve been selling more of those interesting wines to try and push the inventory we have. We’ve also been kind of putting more out there for the consumer to pick from. 

Over the past year, the University Club's wine list hasn't changed much, but, Benjamin notes, they didn't buy a lot of wine either. Instead, they focused on moving their existing product. “We were on a very strict budget. We were trying to sell what we already had in our inventory until events began again and things got busy in the main dining room,” he explains. “I’ve noticed that customers are more careful on how they spend their money. I do feel they are looking for wines that over-deliver for the price point but are also looking to try wines from emerging markets.”

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And while wine lists have been streamlined, revised, and altered to suit the current climate, for Benjamin, whose new endeavor launches this spring, there are several things his team will be taking into account as they develop their own for the future. “The most important thing about creating a new wine list during the pandemic is to make sure that it is thoughtful, creative, and economical. It will be diverse with producers that are not only environmentally sustainable, but also implementing socially sustainable practices,” says Benjamin. “The philosophy of the wine list has certainly changed pre-pandemic to what it will be now as we will shorten the amount of selections and we will add as we go.” 

So what do Benjamin and Bunn think will happen next in hospitality? “I truly believe that drinking habits will be different going forward, and people will be more adventurous and less rigid on how they drink their wine,” says Benjamin. “I think canned wine will continue to grow. It especially seems to be quite popular with the Generation Z and Millennial populations. When it comes to kegged wine, we will see more of this category in bars and restaurants incorporated into by-the-glass programs as it is very cost-effective and practical.”

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Bunn agrees, and predicts more flexibility with beverage lists throughout the industry. “I think you’ll notice for most places now that they’re tight around budgeting as far as what they’re purchasing, you are going to see wine menus changing a lot more frequently—really changing to the tide of business,” adds Bunn. “I think you’re going to have lists that are a lot more fluid just because everybody’s using their inventory much more strategically this year.”

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