Like most things (haircut quality, interfamilial patience, Netflix binge choices) alcohol consumption from household to household has varied over the course of the pandemic. But as we adjust to this next phase, both Phase 2 and the more figurative “long haul” phase of Covid-adapted living, we were curious what liquor and wine stores were seeing. How have wine, liquor, and beer-buying habits changed (if at all)? We talked to two distinct shops to find out: Court Liquors in Long Branch and Riverview Wine & Spirits in Jersey City.
Nick Pizzonia is vice president and wine curator for Court Liquors (where he’s worked for 22 years). The shop has been a Shore mainstay since 1977, family-owned and staffed with a bevvy of seriously passionate professionals who know everything from esoteric cocktail ingredients to natural wine to what craft beer you should try next.
Riverview Wine and Spirits in Jersey City is just a year into business, but in that time, owner Laura Marchetti has had to grow the business in more ways than she ever thought. From the outpost of their respective businesses, both Pizzonia and Marchetti have seen consumption change over the first phase of the pandemic. And while they’ve successfully adapted their business models—Court Liquors avidly recommends via Instagram and launched an app pre-Covid that’s proven extremely useful, Marchetti is using Instagram to share her recs as well—both outlets are looking forward to eventually returning to something closer to normal
In the meantime, here’s what they had to say on how New Jersey is drinking in the Covid-19 era.
Table Hopping: I’ve heard people did a bit of panic buying in the beginning, maybe bulk-buying? Was it indiscriminate?
Nick Pizzonia: There was a lot of panic buying, early on. Through the months of March and April. Then it subsided. Customers were willing to buy anything so long as it met a basic criteria, like “No more than $15, Cabernet,” and we’d say, “We have a great Cabernet blend at $15.99” and they’d say, “Okay, give me six, give me 12.” It really goes back to how we developed as a store—we do a lot of recommendations. Our client base depends on us to give suggestions. I will say, though, we have seen an uptick in customers buying familiar brands. This created a boom in commodity brands. Josh Cellars, for example. My sales of Josh literally tripled in a matter of a month. I never expected that.
Laura Marchetti: Consumption is up—it’s hard to say exactly how much because it’s my first year, but it’s definitely much more than I had anticipated. The first couple of weeks of quarantine I saw wine sales skyrocket. People embraced the shutdown and made elaborate meals at home paired with bottles upon bottles of wine. Then, as things slipped into the third and fourth week, beer sales started to replace some wine sales. By the fifth week, everyone was adding a bottle of bourbon to their orders as well!
TH: Are people buying more expensive bottles?
NP: Definitely, though I think it’s been more on the spirits side. People are trying that higher-age expression whiskey or seeking out a rare bourbon. In bourbon, a bottle I’d generally sell would be $30. Now you’re seeing that $70 bottle go. And higher marks of tequila. Coincidentally, there have been shortages because of the pandemic. On the wine side, things have remained more or less the same for me, not too many spikes. If anything, we’ve sold more magnums. Bubbles have been a huge uptick, mostly in the value-oriented side. $15 and $25 bottles. Prosecco, cava, those types.
LM: That hasn’t changed much. I find that people have a range they are comfortable with.
TH: Price is one thing, but are people stepping outside their comfort zones at this point? Experimenting at all with new bottles, new brands, new categories?
NP: Customers are definitely experimenting. I’ve seen a lot of big growth in gin. It can deliver a range of flavors, you can just explore within one drinks category. And craft beer sales have been up 20 percent this year. Our macro brands have been flat and out seltzers are up insane numbers—300 percent. Really, we can’t keep it in stock. It’s a weird trend. I have my opinions, I won’t go into it. But people know it now, it’s a go-to.
LM: People have been branching out and it feels so good. My customers have been endlessly thirsty for lesser-known grapes and lesser-known wine regions, to the point where when I try to suggest a perfectly made classic wine I sometimes get the eye roll! I thought I was pushing the envelope by having a lot of Balkan and Georgian wines, but I now have customers bugging me for Czech and Slovakian wines.
I should say, we have a very “fluid fluid” crowd. Though there will always be wine people and beer people and bourbon people, etc., my clientele seem to be primarily concerned with quality and authenticity above genre. So if a craft beer drinker sees a hazy pét-nat that piques their interest, it’s not been uncommon to see them grab one of those rather than the beer they came in to get. Since the beginning we have had a great crowd of curious drinkers, but during this Covid crisis their curiosity has peaked.
TH: It seems like customer demand is strong and even sometimes challenging, considering supply issues?
LM: Funny, it’s my dream to have such a fun consumer base at the store that allows me to get as esoteric as I want, but I gotta say, it’s been tough keeping up with them! The supply chain for wine was hindered in the beginning due to Trump’s tariffs, then hindered again due to lack of personnel during Covid. It’s finally evening out again, but Trump has just put his tariffs back on the table so who knows what the future holds.
NP: One interesting thing, we have a lot of specialty liqueurs, Amaros, bitter vermouths. During Covid, a large percentage of people gravitated toward at-home cocktail making. That group needed these ingredients and we were able to provide them. On the flip side, you had people wanting pre-made cocktails, ready to go. Those [products] have exploded as a result as well.
TH: Has Covid forced evolution as a business?
NP: During the closure, we were running 60 percent of sales through our new app and 40 percent walk-up. Now it’s 85 percent [sales] in store and 15 percent by app. I’ve always been a strong proponent of brick and mortar in the liquor industry. There’s something to be gained from it. It’s hard to learn and seek advice from someone about a product through an online digital platform. Until tech advances, anyway. People still want to browse and shop.
LM: This experience forced me into conquering things on my list I didn’t think I’d get to for another year, like online ordering and delivery. I feel like the quarantine has made a shop’s physical footprint a little less relevant. Maybe pre-Covid, people would have just shopped at the most convenient store, but now, and hopefully into the future, people seem to be shopping at the store within their radius that best caters to their needs.
TH: Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
LM: Look, I can’t wait for this to be over, but it’s also been such a trip. It’s been so inspiring to see how some people have refused to take a seat, but rather reinvented things to make them work.
You can find info on how to download the free Court Liquors app here. Both stores offer a range of delivery options. Court Liquors, 146 West End Court, Long Branch; 732-870-9859; Riverview Wine and Spirits, 43 Bowers St., Jersey City; 917-621-7912Click here to leave a comment