Sommelier Roundtable: Wine Service During Reopening⁠—What’s Changed

With restaurants in most of the country reopening for dining in, we asked five wine pros how it’s going (diners love it, but latex gloves and corkscrews don’t go well together)

Sommelier Roundtable: Wine Service During Reopening⁠—What’s Changed
Sommeliers are known to accessorize with pocket squares and tastevins, but masks and gloves are the must-haves now. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
Jun 17, 2020

It’s good to be back. After months of shutdowns that devastated much of the restaurant industry, America’s dining rooms are gradually reopening, welcoming guests back for what will surely be among their most memorable dining experiences of the year. But the COVID-19 pandemic is very much still ongoing, and restaurants have had to be diligent and creative in maintaining rigorous safety and sanitary conditions.

What does this mean for wine service? We asked five sommeliers from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners around the country how they’re reinventing intimate wine experiences, with plenty of PPE, sanitizing and social distancing. They’ve encountered some surprising challenges⁠—but unexpected upsides as well. And across the board, they say diners are just happy to be “home.”

Wine Spectator: What has the reopening experience been like, and how has wine service changed in light of the new health and distancing guidelines?

William Harris, wine director at Grand Award winner the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.

Reopening has been, in a word, amazing. After being cooped up for multiple months, our guests are thrilled to be able to escape to our beautiful property out in the Virginia countryside. Guest demand has been exceptionally strong. We’d love to accommodate everyone who wants to visit; however in keeping with our Virginia guidelines, and to keep everyone safe, we’ve limited seating. Our dining mannequins, who have lent an artistic flair to limiting seating capacity, have been a hit with guests. Many selfies have been taken!

The Inn at Little Washington interior with mannequins
She's no dummy: Can you spot human Inn employee Jessie Dawson? (Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington)

We’re fortunate that many of our guests are wine lovers and come to us for special wine. This is even more apparent now, as we’ve seen a strong increase in guests treating themselves to exceptional wines with dinner. Many of our guests have been coming for years or decades and are like family to us. It’s heartwarming to be able to connect with them, catch up and play a part in bringing a dose of happiness to their lives.

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

Once we found out we were going to be able to open our patio, I prepared a complete service and operations manual for wine service. I was ready to conquer that patio! Everything fell apart that first day. Where do I even start? I had planned on bringing our gueridon carts to the patio to recreate the wine service you get in the restaurant. There is no space. We need all extra space for tables. Which means I am opening bottles at the table⁠—not terrible, but we pride ourselves on great service, opening away from the table on a gueridon and tasting the wine for flaws.

The gloves I'm wearing get caught in my wine key and either tear or get caught on the corkscrew. The mask I'm wearing makes it difficult to see my hands opening the wine. I have to bend slightly to see what's going on. Opening at the table with a mask on means I can't smell the wine for flaws, so I have to say a little prayer each time I open a bottle. All of it is awkward. Guess what? No one cares about all of that formality. Everyone is so happy to be out, with friends, and socializing. The collective sense of joy is palpable, and a bit contagious. When my glove has just gotten caught in the corkscrew and my breath is blowing back on me due to my mask, I can't help but smile. Despite the obstacles, I'm so happy to be doing what I love again.

Swati Bose, co-owner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Flight Wine Bar in Washington, D.C.

Our [first] weekend reflected our week, but with higher covers. Of course, it is all relative. Higher covers now mean 30 covers on a Saturday versus 200! Currently, in D.C., we are only seating on the patio. The tables are quite far apart with the social distancing guidelines. In the past, on the patio, tables were close enough that guests could see what other tables ordered, and they could overhear or see some of the wine service that took place at each table. I think this contributes to the ambience. Now, each table is at least seven feet apart and so isolated in their experience. This really changes the vibe.

Flight Wine Bar patio
The evening scene at Flight Wine Bar last week, its first week of reopening (Courtesy of Flight Wine Bar)

As for service, we used to taste guests on wine quite freely and show them bottles of wine, etc. Now with the level of increased sanitization and efforts to reduce contact, we have to find other ways to make our guests feel like they are getting that unique wine experience. It is a lot harder⁠—almost impossible. We still chat with tables and explain our wine flights in detail. Servers are still highly educated in wine talk, but that feeling of personal attention, I feel, is harder to deliver. We will have to think outside the box to see how else we can bring these experiences to our guests. For bottle service, our initial service is the same but we do let guests refill their own glasses.

Our guests have been absolutely wonderful. In many ways, the atmosphere has actually become a lot more relaxed⁠—much more of a European style in terms of pace. Since we have to do significantly more steps of sanitization between single tasks and when we switch between tables, our pace of service has naturally slowed down. Also, with reduced capacity, we cannot staff up. Our guests seem to have accepted a much more relaxed pace of drinking and eating. There is also an attitude of, "Let's try it!" to a suggestion. I do hope the relaxed pace continues even when we do move on to Phase II in D.C., which will allow 25 percent capacity indoors.

Wendy Heilmann, wine director at Pebble Beach Resorts and its four Restaurant Award winners, in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Our bottles sales are good, and average bottle price is on par with pre-pandemic levels. We also are not seeing a huge spike in guests bringing in their own bottles thus far. Like all other fine dining outlets, we are working through how to present a 50-page wine list in a safe manner. Disposable lists are available, and we are looking at what the guests prefer: having it emailed to them at the time of the reservation, access to a QR code or another means.

Juan Gomez, sommelier at Grand Award winner HMF at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.

The wine service has changed in a few aspects. We now use a virtual icon [QR code] printed on the disposable menus, to scan [to access] the wine list. As a consequence, a lot of people need guidance from the sommelier to navigate through the wine list to select their wines.

I have found most of the people feel very comfortable with the six feet of social distancing, even though sometimes I have to get a bit closer to help them to select their wines. During wine service, we ask the guest if they would like to keep the cork. In the past, we automatically put the cork on a cork plate at the table. The idea is to have less physical contact with the guests. In addition, managers and the security personnel oversee and control the flow of the guests getting in the dining room and the bar. Overall, most of the diners are extremely happy that HMF is open, and they feel very safe at HMF and all the restaurants that are open at the Breakers.

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