An inside look at the Washington DC ontrade

Washington, DC, seat of the federal government for the US, is an autonomous district, and as such it is unencumbered from certain state regulations, notably those which influence the import and distribution of alcohol — a twist that has helped create one of the nation’s most diverse and creative beverage scenes. The mix of universities and government representatives (and lobbyists in tow) keeps the District’s demographics skewed young, intelligent, affluent and out on the town, factors that no doubt have contributed to DC leading the nation in wine consumption per capita, and by a good margin. Scott Saunders speaks to wine scene representatives.

Eric Rohleder, Josh Pauley, Michael Warner, Phil Bernstein, Kate Chrisman
Eric Rohleder, Josh Pauley, Michael Warner, Phil Bernstein, Kate Chrisman

Eric Rohleder

Rohleder, former representative for wholesale wine distribution giant Glazer’s Distributors, is president and owner of Cordial Fine Wine & Spirits in Union Market, DC’s popular warehouse-like hall of artisanal foods and beverages. 

To understand the restaurant and wine scene in DC, you have to understand the distribution scene. We’re not a state, of course, so not being a state actually means we don’t have the distribution limitations that exist in other markets. A lot of people call our distribution scene the Wild Wild West, because we don’t have the three-tiered system. Restaurants and retailers are allowed to independently import on their own. And we have a really healthy scene of independent importers and boutique distributors who can represent a wide range of wines, beers and spirits from all over the beverage world. In this setting, DC is an incredibly fun place to play with all of these products. Of course it’s up to the individual buyers and the programmes that they’re trying to create, but a lot of us are trying to be eclectic with our selections. After all, it’s an eclectic city.

Every buyer has a different programme, and they’re very focused and specific about what they’re carrying, and not just regarding wine — it’s on the spirits side as well, with tequilas, mescals, bourbons, and even Sherries. There are so many different little niches in this city, and it speaks to the identity of DC as a place that represents so many different tastes and personalities and viewpoints and flavours. It’s really fun to be a part of it right now.

Josh Pauley

Beverage Director for Black Restaurant Group (BRG), Pauley oversees the wine programmes for BRG’s five highly acclaimed restaurants in DC and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Our five restaurants all have pretty unique concepts, so we see a wide range of guests in our dining rooms. We’re trying to emphasise sparkling wines more. We have a Champagne list, and we’re trying to keep our markup really low so people will come in and have a bottle of Champagne with their oysters and not be afraid of the price tag. I think DC is very sensitive to price in terms of mark-up. The consumers here are pretty savvy. They go out to eat a lot and they’ll see a wine on one list and then see it on another, and they’ll compare the markup, so we’re very sensitive to that.

Our other restaurants are in Montgomery County [Maryland], and it is structured very differently. All beer, wine and liquor is sold through the county, so it’s really hard for smaller producers to get distribution, and then, after getting a distributor, getting that wine into the county.

As far as trends that I see in the city, I think the big, 500- to 1,000-wine wine lists are falling by the wayside. Dining in DC is slowly getting away from the fine dining scene, and you’re seeing many more smaller restaurants with small, focused, seasonal menus, which in turn inspires wine lists that are shorter. You’ll see a lot of one-page lists with really value-driven wines.

I think it’s a market that has been consistently strong over the years. We’re pretty recession-proof here in terms of our clientele: a lot of government and a lot of college students, so our dining scene has really thrived over the years, and people are looking to experiment. People go out to dinner two, three, four times a week, and they’re trying new restaurants all the time.


Michael Warner

Warner is co-founder and co-owner of DCanter, a Capitol Hill boutique wine shop offering wine seminars, same-day local delivery, and a personalised wine concierge service.

There’s a willingness amongst the Millennial generation to explore beyond the blue blood regions that their parents may have drunk. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are definitely recognised for their classic styles and benchmarks of quality, but at the same time, for young wine-drinkers, the price commanded by a Napa, Burgundy or Bordeaux can sometimes be a bit off-putting. So there’s a huge willingness to explore other regions that may be producing similar wines. The lesser-known or less-popular wine regions have a real opportunity to break out and find some fans amongst Millennial wine consumers.

There’s also a big focus on personalised service, and beyond just the typical wine club. You see a lot of big services like Club W, Pour This or Winester, or some of the others, but, what we’re finding is that our consumers still want to have a personal connection with their wine retailer. We’re running what we call our concierge service, which is essentially a personal wine shopper, similar to an experience you might get from Trunk Club or Stitch Fix — we’re taking cues from what is working really well in the clothing retail trade and applying that to wine. Anybody who is in our concierge service gets tied in with a personal wine shopper who gets to know their tastes, and there’s a nice feedback loop where our customers can rate if they liked it or didn’t like it, and these recommendations can be continued to be refined over time, balancing the best of electronic feedback with the convenience of the Internet, with the personalisation of actually knowing the person who’s getting that information and reacting to it.

Phil Bernstein

Bernstein manages the buying for Rhône, Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon, Beaujolais, Germany, Austria, Spain and South America for MacArthur’s Beverages Fine Wine and Spirits, a renowned DC wine merchant and direct import specialist offering shipping and wine futures services.

The future of the wine industry, really, is the Millennials. They are using phone apps like Delectable, Vivino or Facebook, they’re seeing what their friends are drinking, or they’re trying cool, new wines at restaurants and then coming in here and looking for them. There’s a lot more interest in more esoteric wines. Customers are looking for wines that are more balanced, with lower alcohol and higher acidity, so we’ve seen an uptick in sales in Beaujolais, Loire, German Rieslings, Austrian reds, wines from Etna in southern Italy.

Years ago, when the new Wine Advocate came out, customers would walk in and they’d have all the different wines that they were looking for highlighted, saying, ‘Oh, this one costs $18.00 and got 94 points, so I want that one.’ But that’s changed a lot. I’m certainly not going to say points don’t sell wines, because high points and a low price still sells wines better than anything; but wines like that are easy to sell. Anyone can sell those. What I’m seeing more with the Millennial crowd is that they are branching out and trying stuff from everywhere, and they’re not so interested in whether it got 93 points from whomever. They’re being introduced to wines more by restaurants and wine bars than by reading Wine Spectator or Parker’s. Certainly I’m not trying to disparage The Wine Advocate, because I think what Parker’s done is extremely important — but it’s definitely less of an influence for the young wine-drinker.

Kate Chrisman

Chrisman is wine director and instructor at Vinoteca, a neighbourhood wine bar and bistro offering wine classes and boasting one of DC’s most extensive by-the-glass programmes.

Just a few years ago it seemed like you couldn’t compete as a bar in DC if you didn’t have some crazy craft cocktail programme where you were barrel- ageing your Manhattans and making your own bitters. A lot of people are still doing that, and that’s great, but it’s not something that every bar has to do to stay relevant. Certain bars specialise in that, certain bars specialise in wine, we even have a couple bars that are starting to open that are specialising in ciders. So there’s a place for everyone; and as a professional in the business, if you have something you are particularly interested in, there’s a place for you as well.



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