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How do you operate a wine bar in the Covid 19 World?

As pandemic-related closures and modified openings have continued to play out across the country, businesses have been forced to adapt quickly with new ways of serving customers and generating much-needed revenue. Cocktail bars and coffee shops have found creative ways to keep their businesses afloat, and many wine-focused restaurants are doing the same. We checked in with three Imbibe 75 alums to find out how they’re shifting in this ever-changing environment, what sorts of wines their customers are seeking out right now, and how they’re keeping hospitality alive while adhering to physical distancing guidelines. Here they share their firsthand accounts  in their own words. The interviews have been edited for clarity.

Ungrafted, San Francisco 
Master Sommelier Rebecca Fineman and her husband and partner Chris Gaither opened Ungrafted in 2018. Known for its hospitality-focused approach to wine, Ungrafted was our 2020 Wine Bar of the Year. Here, Fineman shares the changes they’ve made over the past few months.

We have always been a combination of a restaurant and a retail shop, but the restaurant sales naturally dwarfed the retail sales; now we see the opposite happening. What really helped our business was quick thinking and hard work. In short, we have the following right now: Sunday online classes; blind tastings on Mondays (through FaceTime), retail options for wine/beer/saké/cider/non-alcoholic drinks; wines by the glass to go; and a reduced restaurant food menu for takeout.

We wanted to maintain our regular Sunday wine classes and Monday blind tastings, and I’m happy to say we’ve created quite a following doing these our way. We put all the wines into 2 oz. hermetically-sealed vials, and we offer free deliveries within San Fransisco. This way everyone gets to taste 6 wines, without having 6 bottles open going to waste on their countertop. If people drink something they like, they can then come in and grab a bottle (or two). It takes days to put all the wines into vials, but we think it’s more than worth it.

Most people are buying bottles that are $30-50 on the retail side. We have wines that are under $20, but those sell slowly. The wines over $70 also tend to move more slowly. I think most people just want delicious wines they can sip on everyday, with less of a focus on building a wine collection right now. Some of the neighborhood folks like to buy one or two bottles at a time, but they make us a regular destination on their quarantine dog walks/kid walks/solo walks. For those who live farther, most are stocking up. Everyone seems to be running out of beverages faster than they are expecting, and we are always happy to help.

Our guests like to have a combination of familiar and unfamiliar. Most people will pick up an everyday wine like a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, but then say “what’s that?” pointing to a wine/grape/region they’ve never heard of before. We’re lucky because we have asked them to trust us, and they do. Our guests reach out to us all the time through phone, email, text and instagram, so we’re very much here to help and make suggestions. That hasn’t changed in the least. We are starting to get set up for online ordering right now. One reason we held back was that we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to talk with someone about their purchase, but we also have a business to run. I am certain we will find a way to make sure we’re still communicating with our guests, even those who have purchased wine online.

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