Wine and food are known to go hand in hand.
But a special bottling from a Walla Walla winery made for local restaurant partners in the clutches of the pandemic shows how intertwined the relationship is.
Last week Sleight of Hand Cellars began bottling 300 cases of Lewis Vineyard Syrah that it plans to sell to its restaurant partners for $1 a case.
The “Restaurant Relief” wine can then be poured and sold by the glass at restaurants, and the money made from it used for everything from operations to helping employees impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project is a way to give back to restaurants during extraordinary hardship, according to an announcement last week from Sleight of Hand co-owners Jerry Solomon and Trey Busch and production winemaker Keith Johnson.
“A large part of our success over the past 13 years is due to the exposure that our wines have received in many of the restaurants around Washington state,” explained a post from the three on social media.
Busch said the cases will be offered to restaurant partners that carry Sleight of Hand wines in Walla Walla and the Seattle area.
The wine, he said, can’t be directly donated to restaurants for the resale. So the $1 price tag is offered instead.
For Hattaway’s on Alder, the offer of wine came at a crucial time.
Owners Richard and Lindsay Hattaway, like other restaurant operators, have been in a state of constant adjustment under pandemic restrictions that closed their restaurant, known for southeast fare and Southern hospitality, in March.
They changed their model to offer curbside service and had been adapting to dine-in service with social distancing guidelines when an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It was devastating, not only for the safety and health of our employees, but for our customers,” Lindsay Hattaway said.
They closed for two weeks, curtailing service for staff quarantine and a deep sanitation of the restaurant.
“We knew it was the right thing. There was no doubt in our mind,” she said.
The bottling and announcement of Restaurant Relief wine came just as the business reopened.
“Something like this — the generosity — it gives you hope,” Hattaway said. “It makes you feel optimistic. We’re all in this together and we’re going to do what we can to all get out of this together.”
At Colville Street restaurant TMACS, the wine offer comes at a time when the business hasn’t yet reopened its dining room. The downtown business continues to offer curbside service and has completed its outdoor “parklet” space created as part of the city’s initiative to invested federal aid funds into expanding outdoor dining and thus helping the restaurant industry.
The Restaurant Relief, owner Tom Maccarone said, is another example of unconventional ideas to help the industry overcome the financial hardship brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re appreciative of thinking outside the box as we get through this new way of business,” Maccarone said.
The drop in restaurant and food service sales is estimated to be $145 billion in the first four months of the pandemic, according to information from the National Restaurant Association.
Although sales increased in June with the reopening of economies and the lifting of restrictions, sales are still nowhere near pre-coronavirus levels. June, for instance, had the highest monthly sales volume — $47.4 billion — last month, according to U.S. Census Bureauu data posted by the restaurant organization. But that was about $18 billion down from sales levels posted in January and February.
Restaurants have been critical though to the growth of the wine industry, including Sleight of Hand, said Busch.
He said countless customers have found the winery through the menus and wine lists at local restaurants.
“I couldn’t even begin to tell you the percentage. It happens all the time in Walla Walla,” he said.
He said with five glass pours coming from each bottle of Restaurant Relief at a recommended $10 per glass, a case of wine could earn $600. The number of cases for each partner will vary, he said. But with a couple of cases at least for each, the help could be used to offset utilities, lease payments or food purchases. It could also be shared with staff.
“They can do as they see fit,” Busch said.
The wine, he said, is a snapshot of the 2019 Syrah vintage, aged 11 months in concrete tanks.
The Lewis Vineyard Syrah normally is used in the winery’s reserve Syrah known as “Levitation.” When the final blend for that label was crafted — it will be bottled next March — Sleight of Hand operators discovered they had enough of the Syrah left to create this project. Single-vineyard bottlings from the vineyard, one of the state’s premier Syrah sites, typically sell for $65-$70 a bottle, they said.
The Restaurant Relief name was added to the design typically used for Sleight of Hand’s Spellbinder wine. Bottling started on the special project Thursday.
Busch said the money made from pours may not solve all of the financial challenges for partner restaurants, but if it helps even a little then it will have been worthwhile.
“The restaurant industry is an integral part of what we do,” he said.
“If it’s going to help them stay in business, that’s what we want.”