Chicago heads to local essential business BottlesUp! for a safe and friendly wine fix

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

Ella Raymont’s first wine pickup of the pandemic involved leaving an envelope containing $100 in cash on a table in exchange for a box of thoroughly sanitized wines and beers.

Raymont, a part-time wine sommelier at local wine store BottlesUp! in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, had texted BottlesUp! owner Melissa Zeman earlier that day asking for a contactless wine order. It was March, the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun, and Raymont was unsure if it was safe to go into the store.

Now, these contactless pickups and wine orders are an everyday occurrence at BottlesUp! as Zeman and her customers adapt to the new realities of the pandemic.

Zeman opened BottlesUp! in September and sells a wide variety of wines, many of which are produced by women in a nod to Zeman’s entrepreneurial female spirit, and other beverages like Japanese rice sake.

As BottlesUp! entered its first spring, Raymont said lighter wines like rosé have become popular to match the warming weather. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic caused most businesses to shut down under new stay-at-home restrictions across the country.

Illinois declared BottlesUp! an essential business with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s first executive order on March 15 that closed most restaurants and bars to the public, and the store was allowed to continue operating just as the country’s thirst for wine and other drinks spiked. Alcohol delivery service Drizly Inc. reported its sales in the first week of May were five times higher than the same week in 2019.

Similarly, research company Nielsen Holdings PLC found a 27% increase in off-premise alcohol purchases, or sales made outside of a restaurant or bar, for the week of April 6.

Michael Wangbickler, president of Napa Valley, California, marketing company Balzac Communications & Marketing, said grocery and retail sales of wine are the only categories that are expected to grow this year and do so by an estimated $1.3 billion.

However, the Wine Institute of America, a lobbying group for the industry, expects the continued lockdowns of bars and restaurants to lead to a loss of roughly $2.5 billion in revenue for the wine industry this year.

Fitting these trends, BottlesUp! has seen an increase in sales, Zeman said. Though the store has only been in business for eight months and isn’t able to do a typical year-over-year sales comparison, Zeman said sales increased 48% from February to March of this year. In March, BottlesUp!’s sales were 83% higher than she expected.

“It’s been consistently overwhelming,” Zeman said. “People aren’t able to go to bars and restaurants right now. They’re drinking a lot more at home, and they have to get that alcohol somewhere, so we are really busier than ever.”

Zeman, now running the store without any of her usual staff of seven part-timers, has tried to shift her store’s usual wine tastings and community events online, using tools like popular video-conferencing platform Zoom Video Communications Inc. She also began enforcing social distancing in the store even before Pritzker ordered most bars and restaurants in the state to end dine-in services in mid-March.

After the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, Illinois became one of the first states to enact social distancing orders to limit the spread of the virus. Pritzker announced the first stay-at-home order on March 20, banning gatherings of more than 10 people and only allowing essential activities such as getting groceries or going on socially distant walks.

A modified stay-at-home order took effect May 1, allowing some previously non-essential businesses like garden centers to reopen and requiring everyone to wear a mask in public spaces. For Zeman and BottlesUp!, face masks and hand sanitizer are already part of the store’s decor.

Zeman wears a mask and gloves every day. She requires her customers to wear masks inside the spacious and colorful store, and shoppers are also asked to keep six feet of distance among themselves. At the front of the store, Zeman set up a pickup station for orders placed over the phone or through email, where customers can get their orders without going more than a few feet inside. The pickup station is also stocked with plenty of additional antibacterial wipes and sanitizers.

For those who are extra nervous about entering public spaces, Zeman has also brought orders out to customers waiting in their cars and delivers throughout the city after her store closes at 8 p.m. In between all of this, Tina Strasse, a customer and management consultant, said Zeman can frequently be seen disinfecting the store.

Rebecca Sutich, a healthcare analyst and customer, used to visit BottlesUp! about twice a month but has since increased her trips to roughly once every week, picking up three or four bottles each time instead of her usual one.

“I feel totally safe, even more safe than at some other grocery stores because they’re able to limit how many people are coming in and how people are behaving,” she said.

Since the lockdowns began, Zeman has seen many customers come in more often than before and buy more wine than before so that they have plenty at home. As a result, BottlesUp! is selling a lot more wine and buying a lot more from suppliers too. From February to April, Zeman said she nearly doubled the amount of inventory she ordered.

Between working six days a week and keeping herself safe, Zeman said it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed but she tries to keep things in perspective.

“It’s just wine after all,” Zeman said. “It’s just what we got to do to get through this crazy time.”

Photo at top: Independent wine store BottlesUp! opened in September, and the pandemic has led to increased business and more sanitary precautions. (Courtesy of Melissa Zeman/BottlesUp!)