IN EARLY JULY, a couple dozen people gathered on the patio of Surrell restaurant to celebrate the launch of a new subscription wine club, Bottles by Surrell. They mingled on the flagstone courtyard under Japanese-style pergolas, nibbling miniature tacos and duck rillettes on toast, while tasting their way through the club’s first monthly picks, poured by sommelier Zach Geballe, former wine director at Dahlia Lounge, which shuttered forever this past March.
Geballe and Aaron Tekulve, Surrell’s chef and co-owner, met years ago doing pop-up events. Surrell was originally conceived as a mix of tasting-menu restaurant and private dining venue with an a la carte wine bar. Tekulve was all set to welcome guests into Surrell’s new permanent home — the little house at 2319 E. Madison that long ago was Crush — but the March 2020 opening night never happened because of the pandemic. Instead, Surrell swung to takeout, and Tekulve spent the spring working with World Central Kitchen to deliver meals to hospital workers. By last summer, with the help of Tekulve’s parents and his wife, Sarah Harper Tekulve, they had readied the backyard for safely distanced, weather-protected outdoor dining. They expanded the patio this year, and it opens to the public this month as an al fresco wine bar. Indoor dining will finally start in September.
After a rough year and half, the wine club is a way to “use the restaurant space to build community, now that we can,” says Geballe, who produces and co-hosts the podcast VinePair and has long offered wine classes and events through his website Disgorged.
The garden party in July was a coming out in more ways than one. For many of the guests, it was their first maskless outing in the company of strangers since the pandemic began. Michelle Yonce dressed up for the occasion, wearing silvery sandals and a fringed sleeveless sheath that matched her aquamarine eyes. She and her husband, David, longtime fans of Surrell pop-ups, drove up weekly during the pandemic from their home in Kent for takeout from the restaurant. “We wanted to support the small businesses that we knew were struggling,” she said, between sips of Roussanne from Seattle-based Latta winery.
While Surrell’s wine list focuses on the Washington wines that are Tekulve’s passion, Geballe plans to take the wine club into broader Northwest terroir. “People don’t know the full range of Northwest wines,” he says, noting that with more than 1,000 Washington wineries and 500-plus Oregon wineries, there are still unknown, affordable areas to explore.
The six bottles showcased at the launch party all happened to be from Washington, and illustrate the state’s wide range of varietals. In addition to the Roussanne, Geballe poured Cairdeas Winery’s Viognier-Roussanne blend Nellie Mae; Upsidedown Rescue Rosé, made from Nebbiolo grapes; and three red wines: Damsel Cellars Cabernet Franc, àMaurice Grenache and Two Vintners “Some Days Are Diamonds” Syrah. (Fun Fact: The syrah was labeled especially for Surrell, and the design matches the murals in the restaurant’s restrooms. Seattle artist Brittany Archambeault created both.)
Two of the winemakers were on hand for the event: Two Vintners’ Morgan Lee and Damsel Cellars’ Mari Womack. Access to winemakers is one of the club’s member perks, along with tasting notes, discounts and free admission to special events. (Find out more at bottlesbysurrell.com.)
Other Seattle restaurants have wine clubs that became integral to their pandemic survival.
Jen Doak established a wine club to attract new customers and stay connected with former customers while her Ballard restaurant, Brimmer & Heeltap, was closed last year. It wasn’t a moneymaker at first. But the wine club grew, and she liked that it was helping the wineries and their salespeople. “The ripple effect was far greater.” She waded further into wine when she turned her second dining room (the old Sambar space adjacent to the garden) into Halfseas Wine & Bottle Shop. The shop is now the restaurant’s wine list. Diners can buy bottles off the shelf at retail prices, take them home or pay a $10 corkage fee to drink them in the restaurant. Wine director Janet Beeby curates an eclectic global selection that includes pétillant naturel and orange wines. They seek out wines with a “sense of place, a sense of varietal, where there’s a real person behind the wine, and it’s made with thoughtfulness toward the environment.” About 80% of the inventory is priced $25 or less.
Says Doak, “We’ve lost an entire dining room, but we’ve gained from the community connection you get helping someone pick out a wine, which is even more valuable. I would never go back.” (Find out more at halfseaswine.com/wine-club.)
Thom Koschwanez and his wife, Ashley Thompson, opened Mainstay Provisions in Phinney Ridge only a short time before the pandemic hit. As a casual daytime cafe selling grocery items and prepared foods, they were well-positioned for takeout, but Koschwanez went looking for someone to bolster their small wine section. He found Sarah Hankins, a former Canlis staffer, and together they started an every-other-week wine club. No subscription necessary, but preordering is required.
Hankins picks four wines from a particular region. Koschwanez researches the food and comes up with two or three savory items and a dessert portioned for two. Lamb meat pies and onion dip accompanied the New Zealand wines. For the Australian tour, he made “blooming cipollini,” paid homage to avocado toast with cherry pumpernickel bread and avocado dip, and riffed on an Aussie favorite called chiko rolls, themselves a riff on Chinese spring rolls.
Koschwanez says the wine club isn’t huge, but it has been profitable, customers are excited about it and the kitchen has lot of fun doing it. “I’ve learned a lot more about wine just by doing this, and I think our customers have too.” (Find out more at mainstayprovisions.com/wineclub.)
L’Oursin’s Vagrant Wine Club was well-established by the time the pandemic began. The French-inspired Central District restaurant introduced the club in 2018, about a year and a half after it opened. They had a retail license to sell wine, and, “It just made sense,” says co-owner Zac Overman. The wine club capitalized on the enthusiasm generated by L’Oursin’s entertaining and intriguing list of low-intervention natural wines. Each month’s “box of liquid happiness” has a theme and contains six bottles, plus tasting notes, recipes, and “extras and surprises.” At least a third of the people who originally signed up for the club are still members.
During the pandemic, L’Oursin morphed into market mode, something Overman and chef JJ Proville had wanted to do from the beginning. They made room for three refrigerators, bought a vacuum sealer and stocked more retail wine than ever. Even though dining-in has returned, the épicerie is sticking around. “It’s become apparent that this neighborhood is sort of a food desert,” Overman says. (Find out more at loursinseattle.com/vagrant-wine-club.)