With 2020 coming to an end, wine and spirits purveyors across San Mateo County say many of those looking to ring in the new year have set their eyes on spirits like whiskey and tequila while others have left boxes of Champagne completely off their grocery list. 

“You can tell people are not celebrating right now, especially in the pandemic. … If they’re celebrating, it’s not in large gatherings,” said Justin Mathew, co-owner of Silicon Valley Fine Wine and Spirits with locations in Belmont, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. 

Typically around the holidays, the three locations are selling cases full of sparkling wine and magnum-sized bottles but this year, Mathew said, people seem to be celebrating with homemade cocktails. Mixed drinks can offer a wide variety of flavor profiles and serve as a palate break for frequent wine drinkers.  

Noting his San Mateo County customers “don’t have disgruntled” attitudes when entering the store, Mathew said he takes the change in traditional sales as a good sign residents are abiding by health guidelines. 

“People are trying to be safe and get through this,” he said. “Everyone’s being affected one way or another.” 

At the company’s Belmont location, Carlmont Liquors, Peter Mathew similarly noted customers are opting for smaller gatherings and have picked up multiple bottles of hard liquor, suggesting the spirits allow for more creative drinking. Unlike previous years, Peter Mathew said the store did not stock up with extra bottles of sparkling wine. Some customers have purchased a bottle or two though, he noted, to share with a smaller group of family or friends. 

“It’s a completely different story compared to previous years. People are only with their families. They’re staying home,” said Peter Mathew. 

At the start of the pandemic, alcohol sales were high out of concern liquor stores would close, he said, but purchases trickled off as communities began to reopen. Now that cases are surging and restrictions are similar to those in place early on, it’s remained quiet, he said. 

In Millbrae, Quinton Jay, the owner of Bacchus Wine and Spirits said his online clientele has grown and customers that do decide to shop in person often hurriedly grab what they know they like instead of leisurely shopping for something new. 

Like others, Jay’s shop has sold fewer bottles of sparkling wine, he estimated down 25% from years past. He used to stock up on dozens of cases of Champagne but this year chose to offer about 10 cases with a greater variety of sparkling wines.   

But whatever revenue dip occurred because of low sparkling wine sales, brown spirits purchases made up for the loss, he said. While older shoppers look to consume a lower volume of alcohol that packs the same punch as a glass or two of wine, millennials have been intrigued by the versatility of craft spirits, said Jay, noting he’s sold hundreds of Scotch taster kits recently. 

“[Senior] consumption is different and millennials are more open minded than baby boomers in what they drink,” said Jay. “Those preferences are driving spirits.” 

Gerald Weisl, the owner of Burlingame’s Weimax Wines and Spirits, noted though that interest in brown spirits, particularly whiskey, has steadily grown over the past few years. He credits the growth partly to whiskey producers creating a sense of scarcity around high-quality spirits. 

“Whiskey producers figured out people,” said Weisl. “Everyday people are coming in looking to see a needle in a haystack and they’re all looking for the same thing.”  

Despite companies shifting to remote work, cutting down on outdoor trips, Weisl said his customers have continued to come into the shop to instead buy in bulk. But pandemic holiday shopping has shown more conservative patterns. Instead of purchasing hundred-dollar bottles to take to parties, customers have leaned toward less expensive items to serve during smaller family dinners. And magnum bottle sales have also been rare this season. 

As for sparkling wine, Weisl said he’s traditionally seen a modest uptick in bubbly purchases around this time of year, including this pandemic holiday season, but believes it should be enjoyed routinely. 

“Some people have the idea that sparkling wine is a celebratory beverage,” he said. “We have the idea you can drink sparkling wine any day that ends with Y.” 

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