(At Voilà, delicious red wines from South Africa, Sonoma, and the Burgundy region of France pair perfectly with the ever-popular entree, Beef Wellington.)

By Marisa Marsey

When 2020 began, the biggest headaches in the wine world were tariffs and hard seltzer. Then came the pandemic, and life tilted like a champagne bottle on a riddling rack. Innumerable businesses got hammered, especially restaurants and wineries. So when we asked local restaurateurs the question we typically pose around this time: “What can diners look forward to with your autumn wine programs?” we held our breath.

After all, many wine-centric establishments are scaling down supply. “Restaurants and retail don’t want to keep a lot of stock and tie up capital,” confirms Shana Cole, Eastern Virginia District Manager at Winebow, the national importer and distributor of fine wine and spirits that acquired Country Vintner. “So some restaurants are selling a lot of their cellars.” 

Marc Sauter, co-owner of Zoës, one of Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants in America 2019, says that he sold some of the restaurant’s $1 million wine inventory during shelter-in-place. But the lifesaving cash infusion (and boon to aficionados) transcends the transactional. He poignantly shares how regulars have cared for the staff, leaving overly generous tips and offering grants. “Through tragedy, it’s beautiful how the human spirit gets together to lift others,” he says.

Brian Williams, general manager at Terrapin, relates that regulars trusted him to put together cases, saying just, “You know what I like.” As we spoke, his list was beginning to lose the rosés and move into heavier reds and whites, and he was adding specials from South Africa and the Côtes du Rhône.

As wine lists trend leaner, limited offerings can solidify relationships. “I like the cooperation between restaurateur and patron,” says Adam Steely, Blue Talon Bistro co-owner, who seeks unsung heroes and values for wines-by-the-glass lacking name recognition. “I recall being at a café in Paris and the wine list simply listed Chablis – 9 euros. You’re being asked to trust the staff to know what Chablis should taste like and to choose one that delivers on those expectations.”

Tighter lists can still offer quality and diversion. “I see people willing to spread their wings more and try different grape varietals such as Chenin Blanc,” says Williams.

When Circa 1918 reopens this fall (the food truck out front operates while the restaurant’s interior is redesigned), general manager Kip Mullin wants to give diners what’s comfortable. “There will always be room for the big boys – the big California Cabs – but we’re conscious now of folks’ lighter wallets, so we’ll pare to the basics and grow as time goes by.”

Permission to sell bottles to-go, granted by Virginia ABC in March, is a huge win that restaurants look forward to continuing. “Our guests love the convenience. It’s one less store to have to go to,” says Maggie Tsouris of Voilà.

Sauter, already building back his robust cellar at Zoës, remarks that easy-to-swallow price points drive many to-go wines, but in-house guests aren’t averse to big-tickets. He sold out his dozen bottles of California cult $1,500 Maya Dalla Valle. “Perhaps because folks are dining out less when they do, they want to splurge,” he says.

Williams at Terrapin also sees higher-end wines-by-the-glass, such as Schrader’s Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon, still selling at $25-27. He’s found certain trophy wines that distributors were unable to sell in New York City are now available locally. Still, he notes that like at many other restaurants, liquor outpaced wine sales this summer.

The two, however, are not mutually exclusive. “It may sound geeky but I am really into vermouths this fall,” says Blue Talon’s Steely. He enjoys the fortified wine straight while admitting: “It’s changing the way I think about using wine products in cocktails.”

Also on the rise is restaurants engaging in social media, wine-wise. Sauter began answering questions in two-minute videos called “Ask the Sommelier” several years ago but observes a spike in activity since the pandemic. Alvin Williams of Cobalt Grille and Brady Viccellio of Steinhilber’s and La Bella Italia launched a podcast in May called “The Check,” dishing with other culinarians about wine and all things restaurant.

Wine events will happen this fall, though they may look different. At Voilà, Tsouris plans a Chilean wine dinner for September featuring Lapostolle and a Virginia wine dinner in October. With social distancing (including the inability to seat non-familial couples at four-tops), they’ll sell out at 28, rather than the typical 40. Other restaurants may follow a hybrid model with patrons synchronously attending wine dinners virtually or in-person. 

Sauter will resume his sensory analysis classes in Zoës’ main dining room but will conduct tastings virtually on Zoom with contact-less pick-up of wine cups. And while winemaker dinners will occur inside with guests spread throughout the restaurant instead of seated at one long table, Sauter also will continue virtual versions, citing regulars who find the flexibility well-suited to demanding schedules.

At Press 626, Lindsay Bennett hopes to host wine seminars and tastings on the patio she’s planning and is redoing the speakeasy lounge in the vintage 1906 building, replacing couches with pods. As far as trends, she’s excited about chilled reds including Italy’s Bonelli Bonarda. “They’re a change from rosé,” she explains. “Deeper, a little more tannin, more weight.” Ideal for autumn days that skew warm.

Pandemic or no, look for a sustained emphasis on sustainable wines. Chartreuse is the go-to for wines that, as co-owner Karine Varga says, “support the right practices for our environment and our bodies.” Among her favorite biodynamic producers are Austria’s Christina Netzl (“her Grüner Veltliner is out of this world!”), France’s Domaine Philippe Tessier, and Greece’s Domaine Ligas (new to Virginia). Toast has pivoted into a bottle shop with excellent ecologically/ethically-made selections, too.

Ultimately, there’s the natural excitement that the change of seasons brings to menus and pairings. At Circa 1918, Mullins anticipates bison meatloaf mating with a Petite Sirah or large Argentinian Malbec. “It’s rich with an element of spice, so needs something that holds up against it.” At Voilà, Tsouris envisions cozying up a Chablis to cream of wild mushroom soup. And Steely is excited about pairing Blue Talon’s braised lamb shank with a great Rhône blend: “My current favorite is Rasteau, bringing Châteauneuf-du-Pape style without the price tag.” So whether dining inside, outside, or at home, let’s wine instead of whine.