How to get great wine in St. Louis in the age of COVID
For wine lovers, perusing the aisles of a favorite shop or ordering a perfectly paired glass at dinner can be bliss. We relish the spontaneity of grabbing some cool, new juice off the shelf, taking the advice of a trusted server or sommelier or indulging joyfully in an old favorite. We used to, anyway. With many shops and restaurants closed to foot traffic or operating at low capacity during the pandemic, those memories risk becoming, to paraphrase a monologue from Blade Runner, lost in time like tears in rain.
But the public demand for good wine hasn’t diminished, nor has the need for restaurants and wine shops to move bottles. As a result, many have pivoted to online sales and introduced to-go menus that feature large wine lists. “We went straight to strictly curbside,” said Scott Stieven of Cork & Rind. “It was quite a struggle. We built an online store in like two days.” Cork & Rind’s website is set up to mirror the experience of being in the wine shop, a stylish, open space with massive walls stocked nearly floor to ceiling with natural wine, where you can get some of the most unique and interesting bottles in town. Its online store has cycled through dozens of categories, from “smooth and fruity rosé” and “light patio red wines” to “New World natural wines” and “the essential pét-nats.” They’ve even had spotlights on natural producers like Joe Swick, Milan Nestarec and Old Westminster Winery. “We’re trying to give people those experiences they would have had in the store, but at home where they are more safe,” Stieven said.
Though people are still buying wine, they’re doing it a bit differently. They’re buying larger quantities in fewer visits – orders have been about 50% bigger, in Stieven’s estimation. “The average purchase has gone up. They buy in bulk and sit on that for a while,” he said. Things have changed on his end as well, as customer interaction is down. “It’s definitely weird,” Stieven explained. “You’re used to talking to people all the time, and now you’re talking to people virtually.” Cork & Rind used to have about eight wines on tap and a steady flow of customers itching to try them. Now the shop is eerily quiet during the day, with fewer customers in the door, and those wearing masks and maintaining social distance.
In this new paradigm of scoring bottles from your phone or computer, customers have more choices, especially with restaurants. Matt Bone became Pastaria’s beverage director after COVID hit, and the pandemic caused him to rethink the entire wine program. “It was just classic Italian stuff. Probably 18 bottles in all,” he said. “I was having a difficult time finding wines that were really exciting to me. In the hunt for something a little more reasonably priced, a little wilder, a little more adventurous, a little newer, we thought we could just elaborate on our offerings a little more.” He said his focus is mostly on natural wine and recommended Union Loafers Café and Bread Bakery as another natural-focused local program with a solid to-go list.
In setting up Pastaria’s online system, some challenges of normal day-to-day wine sales carried over and some new ones emerged. Trying to figure out how to communicate what the wines are like, whether on social media or on the website, was a learning curve. “Wine’s such a personal thing – it’s easy to approach a table and talk to them about bottles, but that’s kind of shifted in the current atmosphere,” Bone said. “I also get that wine is not cheap, and to jump into a $25 bottle willy-nilly is a lot to ask.” Thus, he launched Pastaria Wine, an Instagram account dedicated to spotlighting and explaining the bottles on offer.
In other words, Pastaria and its customers have effectively started treating its program more like a bottle shop than a restaurant wine list. It’s a transition many are making – Vicia did so explicitly, launching the Vicia Wine Shop with retail prices on an expanded wine list online. Little Fox composes amusing, literary descriptions of every wine on its website; it has also launched a biweekly natural wine club that meets via Instagram Live. In May, Blood & Sand started a monthly wine club offering themed packages of four bottles along with 2-ounce samples so customers can participate in virtual tasting events on Zoom to learn more about the wines without opening all four bottles at once.
Many shops have gotten similarly creative online. Chateau Maplewood has taken to posting its entire wine list on Instagram occasionally, while 33 Wine Shop & Bar has its entire cellar contents – over 500 bottles – posted on the website, complete with to-go prices.
Naturally, some still prefer the analog way. Instead of going online, some shops have made changes to stay safe while keeping it old school. “Parker’s Table is doing an amazing job right now,” said certified sommelier and wine consultant Alisha Blackwell-Calvert. “You can’t go inside Parker’s, but the offering that they do have, it’s like legit curbside. They brought a lot of their favorite things outdoors.” There, customers can talk to experts, score recommendations and order from a sidewalk storefront, with attendants running in to grab bottles.
Buying from somewhere like Pastaria, you’re assured to get something that pairs well with the dinner you’ll inevitably order alongside it. “A wine director’s job is not just to pick cool wines but to pick ones that fit the restaurant and fit the food program,” Bone said. “There should be intention behind everything going together.” But picking up from shops like Parker’s Table and Cork & Rind means you can also make use of their vast selections of curated cheeses and spirits. At the end of the day, good juice is all we’re looking for, regardless of who carries it. Through overcoming the obstacles of COVID-19, St. Louis shops and restaurants have made it easier than ever for customers to get their hands on exciting bottles.
33 Wine Shop & Bar 1913 Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.231.9463, 33wine.com
Blood & Sand 1500 St. Charles St., St. Louis, 314.241.7263, bloodandsandstl.com
Chateau Maplewood 7326 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.899.0105, chateaumaplewood.com
Cork & Rind 555 First Capitol Drive, St. Charles, 636.896.4404, corkandrind.com
Little Fox 2800 Shenandoah Ave., St. Louis, 314.553.9456, littlefoxstl.com
Parker’s Table 7118 Oakland Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.645.2050, parkerstable.com
Pastaria 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.6603, eatpastaria.com
Union Loafers Café and Bread Bakery 1629 Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314.833.6111, unionloafers.com
Vicia 4260 Forest Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.553.9239, viciarestaurant.com
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