Phil Brenner (right) and Nathan Wheeler teamed up to bring the restaurant wine experience to customers’ homes | Photo by Ruta Smith

By the Bottle 

 The pandemic-prompted closure of several beloved restaurants last year shrunk on-premises wine consumption, simultaneously leading to an increase in retail sales, which shouldn’t come as a surprise — as folks were panic-purchasing toilet paper, they were also stocking up on wine. But, that initial spring 2020 surge doesn’t tell the whole story, especially here in Charleston. Twelve months later, wine club memberships are on the rise, retail shops are becoming more adept at using social media marketing and at-home diners are finding ways to incorporate wine into their social-distanced dinner parties.

“Early on, there was this massive shift. Especially in Charleston and places along the coast, we saw this huge drop-off in wine sales from anything on-premises,” said Marie Stitt, sales manager at Grassroots Wine, a local wholesaler. “What that has meant is, we’ll see a lot of wine that is being purchased that’s sub-$20 and then the big jump to the very expensive wines. That mid-range price point was a sweet spot on the restaurant list.” 

Marie Stitt, sales manager at Grassroots Wine | Photo provided

Edmund’s Oast Exchange general manager Sarah O’Kelley noticed a similar trend at her Morrison Drive wine bar and retail shop. 

“The theme of the year was that people are still sticking to budget friendly wines,” she said. “That allows people to explore categories you might not have thought of.”  

“Of course, retail sales were up in April and May — people were in panic mode,” O’Kelley added. “We saw a leveling out over the summer to more realistic numbers. It’s definitely still up, and I think people in this town specifically have heard the call that if you want to see a local business after this, you have to support them.”  

Local wine lovers aren’t just buying more — they’re more curious about what they’re drinking, O’Kelley said. The Exchange’s wine club has doubled in size in the last year, and O’Kelley’s “Somm School,” which went virtual due to the pandemic, has been a hit. 

“I was overwhelmed by the response to the Virtual Somm School — they’re very engaged,” she said. “I genuinely felt like people were kind of depressed looking at winter and knowing that it wouldn’t be that different than the rest of 2020. I figured people were really looking for something to look forward to.” 

Edmund’s Oast Exchange general manager Sarah O’Kelley says her wine club has doubled since spring 2020 | Photo provided

Graft Wine Shop is engaging customers with its email newsletters, a platform owners Femi Oyediran and Miles White would have never thought of utilizing pre-pandemic. 

“Miles and I kind of talk about how we don’t really read newsletters, so I didn’t have a lot of hope. But, it was really surprising to see that we’re in the minority,” said Oyediran, adding that the pandemic gave them the time to spiff up Graft’s website. “We try to make sure there’s a balance of it being informative and being a pleasure to read.” 

Graft Wine Shop owners Miles White and Femi Oyediran (above) are using a newsletter to engage their customers | Photo by Ruta Smith

In one recent newsletter, Oyediran and White raved about a French syrah wine they call a “dynamic gem.”  

“If you can manage to pull your nose away from the glass after popping it, you’ll appreciate the juicy black fruit, layers of savory aromatics, violets, alluring minerality, and gorgeous acidity,” wrote Oyediran and White. “So many darn uses for this wine, but I’ll be rocking this out with a burger on the grill this weekend for sure.”

“I think we handle the newsletter like we handle the social media. Nobody wants to read a newsletter about wines they can’t afford or won’t drink,” White said. “When you put a little humor and lightheartedness in it, you can kind of disarm people. A lot of the immediate response we’re getting is that people are reading the whole thing, which speaks volumes.” 

Graft co-owner Miles White | Photo by Ruta Smith

Staying home 
Once locals grew tired of cooking three meals a day, seven days a week, they turned to private chefs to amp up their family’s at-home experience. Phil Brenner, a chef who spent time in the kitchens at FIG, the Obstinate Daughter and McCrady’s, made private dinners his full-time gig in April 2020, turning to his former boss — Vintage Lounge co-owner Nathan Wheeler — to help out with the wine. 

“This was a side gig until around March, and in April 2020, it looked like I was going to be so busy that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything else,” said Brenner, who was running Vintage’s small plate-style food program at the time. The chef wanted to recreate a restaurant experience at his customers’ homes, so he asked Wheeler for help with wine pairings. 

“I’m a customer at Vintage, just like I am at Graft, and the people that work there can’t wait to get their wine in front of people,” Brenner said. “I figured that’s one more thing I could do that’s also part of the convenience experience.” 

“He’ll shoot me a menu, and I’ll look it over and see what’s been coming in, what’s been going out, and I’ll pull a couple bottles that I haven’t tasted in a while and just kind of play around with it,” Wheeler said. “The goal is to find stuff that, if I were eating the meal, that’s what I would want to drink with it.” 

Brenner serves four-course meals — the first three come with wine pairings, and the chef says there’s always wine leftover. A three-tier pricing model allows folks to spend between $25-$60 on bottles, and Brenner makes sure he relays customer requests to Wheeler before he selects the wine. 

“There are rules — I would say they’re more like guidelines,” Wheeler said. “Classic pairings are always a good starting point. If you like the wine and you think it goes with it, drink it.”  

The partnership works, as evidenced by Brenner’s hectic schedule. By upping his wine knowledge, the private chef is making his at-home experience stand out at a time when this type of service is likely here to stay. 

“I feel like a chef’s got a better palate than I do to begin with,” Wheeler said. “He spent years training his palate to cook and taste the nuances, so it’s just about giving him a bump on the vocabulary and being able to relate his cooking experiences.”