"You know the song Killing Me Softly? That's the soundtrack to my life right now," says Pat McInerney. The co-founder of Willie the Boatman has had a quiet day of sales at his small brewery in Sydney's Inner West. Like so many wine and beer wholesalers who typically supply their beverages to hospitality venues, the brewery has experienced a massive profit loss since a Federal Government edict forced pubs and clubs to close on 23 March.
Pre-COVID-19, the brewery serviced 200 pubs across New South Wales a month. "Kegs were a big part of our business – they drive volume, and keep everyone employed," says McInerney. He's relying on retail sales to stay afloat.
Wholesale wine suppliers, too, have rapidly shifted their focus to retail. Since mid-March, business has dropped off a cliff when restaurant owners, grappling with ever-changing government restrictions on indoor gatherings, the four-square-metre per-person rule and takeaway-only trade, ceased their wine orders or closed altogether.
The hospitality industry is an ecosystem – when frontline venues suffer, the domino of suppliers who depend on them also fall. Campbell Burton's eponymous wine supply business, which he co-owns with his wife Charlotte Ryan, has dropped 95 per cent in the past few weeks. "It's close to a trickle," he says. "In a month, we've sold almost nothing in wholesale." Wine importer Giorgio De Maria agrees. "From one day to another, literally there were no more orders," he says. He used to supply some 150 restaurants across Australia through his business Giorgio De Maria Fun Wines; now, he's opened his home-delivery service for the first time. In metro Sydney, orders are delivered by De Maria himself; in Melbourne, they're delivered by Raffaele Mastrovincenzo, GT's Sommelier of the Year for 2016.
Campbell Burton and Giorgio De Maria.
What's surprising though is how spirited these suppliers are. Perhaps they've reached the final stage of grief, moving through the initial shock and disbelief at the ferocity at which the effects of COVID-19 hit their industry, through to acceptance, and hope for the current situation which looks to stretch on for several months.
McInearney, for one, is miraculously upbeat throughout our conversation. We joke about how the current health crisis is flattening the curve of his profits; his chortles speckle the conversation like full stops. "You can't just be doom and gloom," he says. His brewery rapidly built its online shop in a matter of days and has released a number of social media videos – one styled à la Sam Kekovich's lamb commercials, another the style of those madcap discount-carpet warehouse ads – to promote its pick-up and home-delivery services. It helps that he has a background in television production. "If we can make people laugh, they'll remember us and buy our beer."
And these drinks suppliers are supportive of their compatriots too. The day after pubs closed, McInearney re-accepted 60 kegs of his beer that had already been delivered to venues. Likewise, De Maria is empathetic for restaurants that, for insurmountable reasons, have hit pause on operations, leaving wine invoices unpaid. This is despite the fact he has a shipment of wine on the way, and is due to pay those import taxes. "I'm in a sandwich right now [...] This puts me in a really difficult cashflow situation." Still, his mind strays to Italy, the epicentre of the health crisis, and the country from where many of his wines are sourced. "For the moment, I need to freeze the imports and not buy any more wines, but I want to support those in Italy who are in a worse situation."
These suppliers are thankful for those who have supported them thus far. McInearney says customers who typically buy four-pack tinnies are now buying beers by the case. Burton says delivering wine to customers' doorsteps satisfies his need for face-to-face contact, a hangover from his days as a sommelier at Melbourne's Builders Arms Hotel and Moon Under Water. "Any opportunity to talk about wine I'll absolutely take – and I just want to sincerely thank customers for their support and business." He keeps it brief though, being mindful of physical distance and all.
For now, they want those who can afford it, to support them. De Maria's and Burton's businesses have some top-shelf drops, many in the organic, chemical-free and wild-fermentation categories, for mid-tier prices, while Willie the Boatman has just released a limited-edition "Sex on the Beach" sour ale.
"This is not going to last forever. We will survive, and everyone will go to normal again in six to 12 months," says McInerney. "And when that happens, they better bloody come out with a beer in hand."
Campbell Burton Wines
Giorgio De Maria Fun Wines
Willie the Boatman