by Jim Arvantes
Photo: Tony Quinn, wine manager at Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits, checks on a bottle of wine for a customer.
The COVID-19 crisis has sparked a nationwide increase in the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, providing a steady source of revenue for Cleveland Park businesses specializing in the sale of alcohol.
“Our day-to-day numbers are much higher,” said Warren Leonard, general manager of Weygandt Wines, a wine shop in Sam’s Park and Shop on Connecticut Avenue that specializes in French, Italian and other European and imported wines. “Looking at our day-to-day sales, we are at least 20% over what we were last year at this time.”
Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits is experiencing a similar increase – liquor and beer sales are up 30% in recent weeks, said storeowner Jagir Singh. The store’s delivery business is also surging, jumping from five or six deliveries a day to 10 to 15 daily in the past six weeks.
The sale of liquor has spiked in particular, said Tony Quinn, wine manager at Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits.
“We are (selling) a lot of hard liquor,” said Quinn. “But we are also selling lots of wine, beer and cider. The sales are steady in all of those categories.”
In the liquor category, vodka, tequila and gin are selling exceptionally well, followed by bourbon, Quinn said.
Weygandt Wines’ top sellers fall into the $15 to $35 a bottle category, and include crisp whites, roses and Italian reds, along with the store’s regular portfolio of French wines, according to Leonard.
Although Weygandt Wines and Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits are both open, they are serving the community in different ways. Weygandt Wines is closed to foot traffic, and is taking orders by phone or on-line.
When a customer drives up to the store, a Weygandt employee puts the merchandise in the customer’s trunk. If a customer arrives on foot, an employee leaves the purchase on a bench out front, eliminating person-to-person contact.
“It has definitely been a pivot,” said Leonard.
He would like to go back to the old way of doing business.
“People liked coming in for the wine tastings and to browse the wines and to talk to us,” Leonard explained.
But the store’s new model of business enables Weygandt to better control the environment given the current restrictions, he pointed out.
Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits, by contrast, has opted to stay open to foot traffic. But like Weygandt, the liquor store has put its popular wine tastings on hold because of the current health crisis.
“We are just being, very, very careful,” said Quinn, who manages the store’s wine tastings. “We are sanitizing all of the time, wearing our gloves and masks, and telling people to move apart if we find they are too close.”
But physical proximity is rarely an issue because the store is long and roomy, giving customers ample space, and they have, for most part, been coming into the store two or three at a time, Quinn said. As he explained, “We haven’t had to go to the front door and limit the number of people who come in yet because we have had a gradual, constant trickle of people.”
Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits also makes deliveries and provides curbside pickups.
“We are trying to figure how to best stock the store with things that people can afford to buy,” said Quinn. “We have no idea when or if (customers) are going to be able to pay their rent, all of their utilities or their food costs.”
The increased sales of alcohol in Cleveland Park reflect national trends. Alcoholic beverage sales in the United States jumped 55% during the third week of March compared to the third week of March in 2019, according to Nielsen, a global measurement and data analytics company.
Increased alcohol sales and consumption are not hard to explain given the current environment, say experts. With restaurants closed to dining, wine and liquor stores are an even greater source for alcohol.
And there are other reasons why alcohol sales are increasing.
“Alcohol is one of the easiest ways to reduce anxiety,” said psychiatrist Larry Drell, M.D., whose practice is located in Woodley Park. “At the present time, there is an extraordinary, never before seen amount of anxiety in so many people’s lives.”
Drell said alcohol “quickly relaxes inhibitions, adds to celebrations and enhances the flavor of foods.” The danger is “some people don’t drink responsibly,” often failing to realize or accept they are not drinking in a responsible manner, he said.
“This is especially true when people are feeling stuck and stressed in potentially dangerous and definitely uncertain times, and when they don’t have the usual ways to handle anxiety or gain security,” said Drell, who provides therapy and executive coaching.
Drell describes alcohol as “an attractive, quick but temporary escape.” As a physiatrist, Drell takes calls from people who are drinking more to deal with stress, possibly creating a “slow but dangerous downward spiral,” he said.
Leonard of Weygandt Wines said it is important for people to be “mindful about alcohol” during the current crisis.
“There is always a risk at any moment for any individual, depending on what is going on in their life to abuse substances,” he said.
He believes the current crisis has prompted Cleveland Park residents to adopt “a more European model” of eating and drinking – having a glass or two of wine during a prolonged dinner, for example.
For some residents, in-house meals have replaced restaurant dinning, Leonard noted.
That trend worries some Cleveland Park merchants who say local residents should order take-out meals from Cleveland Park restaurants on a regular basis to support local businesses.
In mid-March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all non-essential businesses in the District to close in response to COVID-19. The Mayor’s office deemed wine and liquor stores essential businesses, allowing them to stay open.
There is a debate about whether wine and alcohol stores are truly essential.
“We are essential because we help to maintain a certain balance, and a certain perspective,” said Quinn of Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits. “When you drink something with alcohol in it, it relaxes you.”
Quinn is convinced that Cleveland Park would be much more stressful without Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits. Similarly, Leonard said recent increases in the sale of wine at Weygandt demonstrates that the store is needed, making it an essential business.
One Cleveland Park resident, who identified himself as Peter, wandered into Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits for the first time on a recent Saturday afternoon. Peter, who came into the store to buy gin to celebrate the weekend with his wife, said it is “a stretch” to call wine and liquor stores essential businesses.
“But I am not fighting it,” said Peter, who was wearing a mask like the other customers.
He said, however, “I realize I am talking out of both sides of my mask.”
Liz Allen, who was perusing the wine section at the store on the same Saturday, disagreed, saying alcohol stores fall under the category of food and beverage, making them essential businesses.
Allen, who lived in Cleveland Park for 10 years before moving to Adams Morgan last summer, stops by Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits on a regular basis to shop and visit with Quinn and other employees.
That need for human interaction has become even more important during the past several weeks as people seek a semblance of normalcy. Like other Cleveland Park stores, Cleveland Park Fine Wine and Spirits helps to fulfill that need.
“We are an oasis of warmth and community support, a place where you can come and be seen and have a quick conversation and regain some of what is normal,” Quinn said.