The West Coast Wine • Cheese owner did not see that cataclysmic change to his business coming, but when it arrived, it left no doubt, as it was driven by overwhelming data that charted the path forward. That route is at least a short-term blow to Mill Valley.
Wanner is selling his 700-square-foot West Coast Wine • Cheese wine bar business at 31 Sunnyside Ave. adjacent to Kitchen Sunnyside in downtown Mill Valley, which he opened in late 2018, four years after Wanner and his wife Lindsey opened their Union Street location in San Francisco’s Marina district. The Mill Valley provided a jolt to the community, which gravitated to the new space and a number of events it hosted featuring celebrated winemakers.
The decision to sell the business is a direct response, he says, to the overwhelming, sustained success of his ecommerce business; his ever-popular trio of parklets at his Union Street location; and his Mill Valley shop’s inability to reopen for nearly a year under the state’s guidance for bars that don’t provide sit-down dining service.
Wanner is vehement that the role of ecommerce in his business was not something he foresaw.
“I’ve always just been against online retail in the wine business because you lose the essential role of the sommelier,” he says. “It’s that education and the power of connecting with your customers. I’ve always felt that you lose that connection in the online world, and that price point drives everything. But once the pandemic hit, I didn’t have a choice – it was survival mode. Those were some dark days.”
Wanner, who has been in the wine business for more than two decades, says the lockdown allowed him some time for self reflection about his place in the industry. With no ability to do the thing that was the foundation of his business – gathering people together to learn about and experience great West Coast wines – Wanner dove into data-crunching and worked with Ships Co. Studio to create an fully integrated e-commerce ordering platform with beautiful design and functionality.
The results were off the charts, he says, driven by the firm’s ability to incorporate a “digital sommelier” component that allowed Wanner to “provide the education piece that I want but also the convenience that customers are looking for. As we come out of the pandemic, I have this ecommerce platform that is performing really well, with extremely low overhead.”
Coupled with an ever-growing Wine Club that has been driven in part by his Mill Valley customers who wanted to continue getting Wanner’s recommendations, the West Coast Wine • Cheese business model got a makeover with “two businesses with virtually no overhead,” he says. That model is right-sized on the heels of a pandemic that has caused consumers to dramatically shift their consumption habits, at least in part, away from longstanding traditional dine-in behavior towards much more digital ordered takeout and delivery.
This seems to be the “natural progression of what the wine industry is going to look like,” Wanner says. “It’s having a visible, vibrant storefront in a place like San Francisco and then providing as much of a footprint online as possible.”
Wanner is circumspect about shutting his Mill Valley location. “Losing the footprint in Marin hurts, for sure,” he says. “But I don’t make rash, knee-jerk decisions. This one makes sense. And at the same time, we’re leaving that Mill Valley in a much better than we found it. We did a lot of the dirty work,” wading through the extensive permitting process, installing all the plumbing in a place that hadn’t had any before as it was a retail shop.
“It’s basically turnkey – we’ve done the dirty work,” he says. “I still think a wine bar could be successful in Mill Valley. You’d probably need a bit more food for people to come regularly.”