How LA wine merchants reach customers during the coronavirus


“Call 213 995-6090 to have a good time,” read the strip of paper affixed to a glass wall with blue duct tape. It’s the smallest in a series of directional signs posted outside Tilda, a wine bar and boutique in Echo Park, where employees strive to evoke an element of human connection in the contactless shopping experience they offer.

The unexpected luck of Tilda’s design – the transparent wall separates a closed atrium from the store and its inventory – allows for welcome face-to-face interaction during the coronavirus outbreak. People walk into the store one at a time to talk about their order, looking through the glass at a range of about three dozen natural wines. There’s an aromatic auburn-colored blend called Long Island’s Meditazione, for example, or a deep strawberry rosé made by Rachel Silkowski of Say When Winery, who lives nearby.

A single employee takes care of the store. Phone in hand, he answers all questions, smiling and making frequent eye contact from across the transparent barrier.

Customers wait until the purchase is placed on an isolated table with sterilized pens to sign the receipt; they’re on their way in less than five minutes.

“It’s a little weird and a little fun at the same time,” said Claire Goldberg, who drove from Sherman Oaks Thursday afternoon to shop at Tilda. “For my husband and I, wine is a reward at the end of the day during this time.”

Under current shelter-in-place restrictions, customers can no longer enter wine shops; instead, the owners are working on how best to bring their stores to people. On March 19, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control temporarily eased regulations, allowing restaurants, bars, and wine and liquor stores for take out and delivery.

Emily Koh takes an order from a customer at Tilda.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles wine merchants are pivoting hard to meet the ever-changing demands of the moment. They host online dating and increase social media engagement, advertise curbside service, and create sudden presences on delivery apps.

“I see so many creative ways that wine merchants stay alive,” Goldberg said. “It feels good to do something to help small businesses. “

Tilda has a growing selection of provisions; the 29-year-old menu developer also purchased bread and olives as well as three bottles of WonderWerk LA so she could join Tilda’s private virtual tasting with the winemakers on Sunday.

Businesses are devising distinct ways of reaching their audiences – there are plenty of thirsty drinkers sheltering during a pandemic – while trying to maintain the character that gives each place affability and heart.

Esters Wine in Santa Monica has marked down all of their bottles by 25% and will be assembling a “Quarantine Essentials” package that includes six staff favorite wines and appetizers. Argaux de Costa Mesa – an online store that offers appointment pickups and temperature-controlled wine storage – is compiling a “Quarantine Edition Blind Tasting Kit” available for free delivery via Postmates in County of ‘Orange.

Lou Wine Shop in Los Feliz sends out a daily newsletter listing inventory in quantity, with a handful of well-articulated daily picks from owner Lou Amdur. (Describing a 2018 René Mosse Chenin Vin de France, he writes: “From our favorite Loire curmudgeon, a perfect white Anjou, crunchy, apple-y and dry.”)

Helen Johannesen operates her wine shops, Helen's Wines, inside the two Jon & Vinny's restaurants on Fairfax Avenue and in Brentwood.

Helen Johannesen operates her wine shops, Helen’s Wines, inside the two Jon & Vinny’s restaurants on Fairfax Avenue and in Brentwood.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Helen Johannesen, owner of two tiny but powerful stores, deploys topical commentary on Helen’s Wine Instagram Stories while packing pink and white delivery boxes. “The guy in the hand. It’s real, ”she said on Friday, waving her fingers at the camera.

Tilda opened her bar and shop in February. The community of Echo Park had been watching the 1928 building renovation by owners Jason Goldman and Christian Stayner for months; neighbors immediately filled her crumpled seating area and crowded around her standing counter. Goldman and Stayne went retail only before the restaurant closed on March 15.

The special appeal of Tilda’s current interactive setup is testament to the enduring relevance of wine merchants in the digital age: wine is an obscure and overwhelming subject for most of us. We aspire to be guided. We want our heads to be buzzing with knowledge and tales delivered by a real soul, even if we won’t remember everything.

Coly Den Haan – co-owner of Silver Lake’s Vinovore, which focuses on women winegrowers – lacks in-store communication. “It’s spring and all the new wine versions are coming out,” Haan said. “We try to tell people about interesting new things. It’s difficult. If they were in the shop browsing, we would just tell them about it. To personalize your shopping, every online wine list includes an image of a handwritten presenter: phrases like “A day at the beach in a bottle” and “Rich, gorgeous and will age gracefully like Michelle Pfeiffer” written in slanted cursive. help connect the pixels to a person.

On Wednesday, I stood outside Psychic Wines, less than a mile from Vinovore, and called the number posted on his door; Zach Jarrett, one of the store’s three owners, responded. I told him I was looking for a wild orange wine and a balanced Old World style red.

In his bubbling stream of voices, Jarrett told me about the mavericks at Sete Winery making bold natural wines in Lazio, a region of Italy where viticulture primarily produces staple table wines for Roman trattorias. It tastes like herbs and smoked pineapple, he says. Then he told me about Domaine Léon Barral in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France. Jarrett said the family resisted industrialization techniques in the 1980s, when the wine industry was booming globally; they still wanted to be farmers, he told me, and the wine “captures the elegant grace of the woods.”

Quinn Kimsey-White runs Psychic Wines in Silver Lake with Zach Jarrett.

Quinn Kimsey-White runs Psychic Wines in Silver Lake with Zach Jarrett.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

I listened like a hypnotized child during story time, then read my credit card numbers to him.

In a follow-up conversation, Jarrett echoed the sentiments of other wine store owners I’ve spoken to: they’re slammed; out of a staff of five, the owners replaced their two part-time employees (both in the restaurant business) with full-time positions. But the big clouds of uncertainty hang over the restlessness.

“Will the momentum be sustained?” Jarrett asked. “We can’t know what the short term and the long term look like. We’ve had loyal customers, but what if the shutdown continues and customers start hitting a revenue wall? When we are done with the excessive shopping in grocery stores, if we start to endure a new reality, what impact will that have on our little store? Food is a basic need. Wine is not.

Randy Clement does not have time for such thoughts. He currently operates three businesses at full capacity: Silverlake Wine, Highland Park Wine (attached to Hippo Restaurant) and Everson Royce Wine & Spirits in Pasadena. (A fourth business, Everson Royce Bar in the Arts District, is closed for the time being.)

He opened Silverlake Wine with partners in 2003. His team spends an average of 90 seconds on the phone per order, he said. Many customers don’t even ask for specific recommendations. “A wine store is built on the philosophy of ‘What’s next? Answer this question long enough for a community to start trusting you.

Still, I asked him what’s hot right now. He gave me the same answer as the other wine merchants: natural wines and especially orange wines, those boldly acidic white grape varieties whose skins have been left to ferment with the juice.

“This is the great metaphor for spring 2020,” said Clément. “People want skin contact.”

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