On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Jeff Segal and Meri Lugo, owner and director of operations for Washington, D.C.’s Domestique Wines, respectively. Listeners will learn how Domestique differs from traditional wine shops in terms of its physical space and focus on natural wine. Like many wine shops, Domestique was affected by the pandemic; Segal and Lugo discuss how Domestique adapted to the ongoing situation the world is facing.
Domestique Wines recently launched a program called the Major Taylor Fellowship. The fellowship was designed to make the wine world more accessible for people of color. Often, people of color are shut out from opportunities in the wine world. Domestique Wines seeks to change this problematic culture, providing opportunities for those who have otherwise been ignored by the industry.
Tune in to learn how Domestique Wine is working toward an inclusive wine culture.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We are bringing you these conversations between the regular roundtable discussions in order to give a better picture of what’s going on in the world of alcohol beverage. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Jeff Segal, the owner of Domestique Wine, and Meri Lugo, the director of operations of Domestique Wine. Jeff, Meri, thank you so much for joining me.
Jeff Segal: Thanks for having us.
Meri Lugo: Excited to be here.
A: Where does the world find you today, and can you tell us a little bit about Domestique?
J: Sure! Well, the world at the moment finds me hiding upstairs in one of my kids’ bedrooms with the hope that they will not come and interrupt this interview. So far, it seems to be working. I don’t know. Meri, where are you right now?
M: I am coming live to you from the basement of Domestique, perched atop some boxes. I am trying to lay low and find some peace and quiet among the phone calls and delivery orders that are happening upstairs.
A: Nice, so what is Domestique?
J: Domestique is a wine shop that focuses solely on selling natural wine as we define it, whatever that means, and we’re happy to get into that, of course. We also sell beer, cider, spirits, and otherwise but the focus for us has always been being the first and only natural wine shop in D.C. We opened the day before Thanksgiving in 2018, so it’s been about two and a half years now. Of course, then Covid happened, so about half of our lifespan has been a really interesting time. We are located in the middle of D.C. where a bunch of neighborhoods meet on a very busy corner there, but we are a wine shop that really cares about natural wine.
A: How large is the shop? For listeners who live all over the country, everyone has a different vision of the wine shop. Can you paint in our minds what the shop looks like? How many bottles are you selling? What is the square footage?
J: The shop is fairly large. I think one of the main things that we wanted to do is create a natural wine shop that looked a little different. Many natural wine shops, both in Europe and in the U.S., are pretty small. They are the classic shops set up with boxes on the floor, dark and intimate. Those are great. However, I think we’ve all spent a lot of time shopping in those places, so we wanted to do something that was a bit larger and had a different look and feel to it. To answer your question, Domestique is big. It’s over 2,000 square feet. It has very high ceilings. It’s in a former industrial space, in a very old building in D.C. We have a fair bit of wine. We have over a thousand skews. There’s a lot of wine on the floor at any time. It’s a shop, I’d say visually, that’s also defined by the way that it’s organized in the sense that we try not to overcrowd. We wanted a lot of space to showcase these producers and their bottles. There’s a lot of light. We have nine floor-to-ceiling windows around the shop. We were lucky enough to find a space in D.C. where none of those windows ever get direct sunlight. It’s all indirect, which, for the wine, is very helpful. Obviously, we have blinds and window treatments, but we wanted it to be a very light-filled experience. We wanted it to be a little more inviting and change what people are used to in wine retail, which I think can sometimes be intimidating. Opposite to that of a darker, intimate experience where you have to be in the same space as other people in very tiny spaces all the time.
A: OK, so you started in 2018. What propelled you to open a wine shop?
J: I moved here about five years ago. My wife got a job here, and we moved down. I’m actually from D.C. I never thought I would live here as an adult. Before that, I spent my entire life in New York and San Francisco. When I got here, I realized that the wines that I was used to selling professionally and drinking personally were not being sold in D.C. There wasn’t a retailer similar to those I was shopping in in those other cities. I spent a lot of time in New York with Chamber Street and in San Francisco, with Bi-Rite. There wasn’t anybody doing that, and that need felt apparent to me. Part of it was as simple as wanting to bring that to D.C. because it didn’t seem to exist. At the same time, D.C. has a really fantastic wine community, full of really curious wine drinkers. People who love food and wine. It was a combination of those two things, put together, which made it seem like the right opportunity. Of course, like any other business, it took years to get going and bring the process together, but that was the genesis of the idea.
A: Cool. Jeff, you had worked on the floor before starting this? Did you work at other shops? I know you mentioned that you sold wine prior to opening Domestique.
J: I did both. I started working in wine retail in San Francisco when I was 23 years old. I was a new, legal drinker. Then, in San Francisco, I opened up (when I was still young) a wine bar and retailer called Heart. It was in the city on Valencia Street. That was in 2010, and we were open for a couple of years. In New York, I was a sommelier at Del Posto.
A: Meri, what about you? What brought you to Domestique?
M: I got into beverage by way of food. I’m a food lover and I moved to D.C., like a lot of young, bright-eyed college graduates, to work in policy. Very quickly, I became disillusioned with that world and found my home in kitchens and in restaurants. Then, I eventually ran a restaurant called Little Serow, which is a Thai Restaurant in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. I really fell in love with the idea of connecting with people over food and wine. Also, curating people’s experiences, being part of their special moments, and their everyday weekday meals. That’s how I fell in love with wine. It could tell a story, brighten somebody’s day, share something new, or connect people who maybe didn’t have a ton in common. Domestique is built around people. It’s built around making people feel comfortable, making people feel safe, sharing new experiences, flavors, and ideas with people. That is very much something I identified with. It felt like a very natural fit when the time came to join and to grow. Those two things feel very part and parcel; wine and the experience of taking care of people, whether that be in the dining room or also on the floor of a white shop.
A: We’re talking a lot about the floor of a wine shop but then, exactly a year ago, Covid happened. How did that change your business, and what does Domestique look like now? Is it different than what it looked like before? What have you guys done to adapt to everything that’s been happening in the current environment?
J: Domestique looks hugely different now. I’d say it’s hard to even compare to what it was. At the moment, we are still closed for all walk-in shopping. We’re doing shopping by appointment only. We are really focused on local delivery, in-store pickup at the front door, and shipping to people nationally. We had gone from being a very busy brick-and-mortar retailer to essentially being a small warehouse. Like an Amazon that’s not Amazon. Staffed by people who come from restaurants and wanted to talk to customers about wine. I’d say overall — and Meri, I’m sure you have more to add to this — but in one day, like the flip of a switch, the whole business shifted massively.
A: Is the primary focus shipping now? Are you sending to customers all over the country, or are the majority of your customers still in the D.C. area?
M: The majority of our customers are still local, but we had a very small nationwide presence in terms of shipping prior to Covid, and that has grown exponentially for us. It’s still a smaller portion of our overall customer base, but it definitely has grown. We’ve had to develop systems for local delivery and nationwide shipping overnight. Those have adapted, evolved, and gotten smoother and less bumpy along the way. We were forced to grow up and be nimble in those ways to grow faster than we were anticipating in terms of those markets. We still have a very loyal and wonderful customer base in our own neighborhood and in the D.C. area. We have a huge amount of people who still come up, pick up their wine, and all of that happens outside of the store. We do have a system for handing off wine like many restaurants and shops in the country and around the world. However, it’s been a challenge. The challenges have been with the physical space like Jeff mentioned. We have this beautiful shop that’s designed for people to walk around. It has wide aisles, space, and light, but now it’s filled with packing boxes and bags with people’s names on them. It still doesn’t feel normal to have a space that’s not meant to be doing what it’s doing. Also, the challenge still is how to promote. That’s the human connection that we are so passionate about, that we really fed off of pre-Covid. Now, that takes the form of appointments. Since things have settled down, we’ve started to do appointments. There are one-on-one appointments that customers can book, even phone appointments. Then there’s off-the-cuff calls and emails that we get with people who would normally pop in and can’t do that anymore. How can we promote them? Asking those questions and having a bit of spontaneity in terms of our interactions. Sometimes that comes in the form of just a note, a doodle, or some sort of a whimsy that you don’t get these days, especially in these times when we’re all having to be far apart. It’s been a huge priority for us in terms of our staff in maintaining our customer base to continue that connection and reach.
A: I’m curious about this because Meri, you brought up the hotlines. Natural wine is very confusing to most consumers. It’s a term that people define very differently. For some people, it’s a taste profile. For other people, it just means by the name of organic wine. It’s a wine that I find you can’t really understand unless you walk into a wine shop or have a conversation with people about what actually you mean as a consumer when you say you like natural wine. I’m curious about how you’re dealing with that now, because obviously when someone walks into the shop, they would have gotten to have those conversations. Now, you set up a hotline. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what the process has been? Even now, when I’m on your site, going through all the different wines, I see lots of wines that I’ve never heard of before. How would I ask them about those flavor profiles? What are you both and the whole team doing to help educate consumers?
M: Right. It’s like you said in the appointments and the hotline bling. Our phone appointments are part and parcel of that, in addition to enriching those experiences that we do have face-to-face. Even if you’re six feet away with your mask and you’re handing off a bag to somebody, how can you inject a few moments of personality? It’s imperfect. It’s not something that is ideal by any means. This is also the case with our social media and website presence. Again, how can we inject a little bit of flavor of our voice in product descriptions or on Instagram that makes people feel closer to us? Perhaps a safer approach to give us a ring, sending a DM or an email. It’s definitely a work in progress and it’s tough for us, too. We feed off that energy. That’s why we all got into this business. Everybody on our staff signed up to talk to people, not to just to stuff bags.
A: Are people reaching out and using the phone line?
M: Yeah, people are really hungry for human connection right now. I think people are changing emotionally, psychologically, and structurally. People are hungry for that connection and they want to shop more locally. Now, people are more mindful about where they’re spending their money. We’ve had incredible responses in terms of our regulars and also creating new regulars. We are making connections with people halfway across the country because we were forced to grow in those directions, and that has been really rewarding.
A: Obviously, you’ve changed a lot this year in terms of how you’re reaching consumers. Also, you launched a fellowship. Can you talk a little about the fellowship?
J: We decided to launch the fellowship last year around the same time Covid started happening. That was coincidental and unfortunate in many ways, but also the fellowship is something we were very excited about. That came about because of what was happening around the country in terms of the racial justice movement and things happening after George Floyd. It’s something we’d been thinking about for a long time and decided to really bring to fruition as soon as possible. It was how to take the wine world, especially the natural wine world, and make it more accessible. Often we talk about accessibility in terms of consumers, but in this case, more accessible to professionals. The people who wanted to break into the wine world, specifically people of color who weren’t getting the opportunities to get a foothold in the wine world and in natural wine specifically. We wanted to create a fellowship that would give somebody all of the tools they need to go and start their own business at some point. I think one of the things that we face in the wine world is a lack of ownership by people of color. In order to help address that, I think there are a lot of knowledge systems that are hidden away and not accessible. We want to open that up, so we created a fellowship. It was called the Major Taylor Fellowship, named after Major Taylor, who was a cycling star. One of the first Black American sports stars on the global scene over 100 years ago. We have a cycling connection as a shop, so that was the namesake for the project. The idea was a month-long fellowship that would be paid well, because often these opportunities really are not. We would bring somebody into Domestique and would show them everything. You would see wine buying, how the business is run, learn retail, and how we do retail. You would also see the back end of Shopify and the online side of it and how we run our website. You would be exposed to everything. We also coordinated that with stages at three of the top restaurants in D.C. because we didn’t want it to be retail only. The idea was to have the fellowship serve as an intro to the wine world and restaurants. Again, this was pre-Covid in planning and took shape somewhat differently after that, but restaurants are a very important part of wine and part of what we do as retailers. Also, we set it up with restaurants, with three top restaurants, and stage there. The fellowship was a partnership with Street Sense, an organization in D.C. that does work like this. The partnership with Street Sense is really focused on designing spaces, whether it is restaurant design or retail design. How would you go about designing your own space? We got applications from all over the country from a ton of incredible applicants from everywhere. We were shocked by the volume and quality of applications we were getting from people in every nook and corner of the U.S. Our first fellow, Kayla Mensah, started with us later on in the summertime.
A: You only had one fellow so far?
J: So far, we’ve only had one fellow. We’re in the process of getting ready to launch the next round of fellowship right now. Likely in the next month or two, we’ll be rolling out the second part of the fellowship, where we’ll then find the next fellow. Actually, Kayla decided to join us after the fellowship. Kayla is now a full-time member of Domestique and is a sales and ops person for us who does everything. Kayla is incredible. She’s vital on the sales floor, on the website, doing hotline blings and appointments, and also does a lot on the operations side. She really wanted to come to Domestique and be in D.C. We found a really great fit for her, and she continued the work she started in the fellowship at the shop.
A: Does she still have plans to open a spot at some point on her own?
J: She does.
A: When you launch the next one, is there anything from the fellowship you will change? Will you improve or switch anything up at all?
J: I think the plan, as it was, works pretty well. The restaurant angle all depends on where restaurants are. I think given what’s happening with restaurants now with reopening, having a high level of takeout and delivery, wine service at restaurants looks different. We’ll likely want to talk to our restaurant partners in D.C. and see how they would like that element to be integrated. I think also we’ll try to incorporate more travel into it. We definitely involved some winemakers in Virginia, distributors elsewhere around the area into the first round, and I think we’d like to expand that a little bit. Travel and getting to know different people is an essential part of what we do in wine, and it’s something we want to push on as it grows.
A: I sit on a bunch of boards for entrepreneurs who are people of color, and one of the hardest things for people of color to open businesses is access to capital and raising money. Do you spend any time in the fellowship helping people figure out how you have access to capital? Where you can go to raise money, etc.? Banks traditionally have been very strict in giving loans to minority communities. There are investors that, for whatever reason, invest in people that look like them, which is a problem. I’m curious, because I know the goal is to have people open businesses down the road. That’s one of the clear things people need to be able to do. I want to understand how you guys help them understand that ability to get the money to open in the first place.
J: That’s a great point. It’s something we cover for sure. To expand on your question, it would be great to be able to form partnerships with people who could help there as we grow and continue the fellowship. Clearly, access to capital is the biggest or one of the largest barriers here. One of the things that’s not talked about in wine often is that a lot of wine retail is built on having access to a couple of wealthy investors. Bank loans are hard to come by. Retail margins don’t often support a loan structure, but there are some people who are lucky and get loans. However, I think you correctly point out that it is very hard to come by in this world. The other component of that is there is nothing about this that’s set in stone. It’s meant to be fluid. We want to know the people and what their plans are, but Domestique, as a business, is open to investing in these businesses. We talk about, as a business, how we can be involved. If a fellow has a great idea and a great concept, those are the opportunities that we as a retailer and a business in wine are looking to invest in. Both to increase equity and accessibility, but also for us as an investment in growing and making a better wine world. Financially, this is something we are looking to put our time and capital into.
A: Very cool. Obviously, the fellowship is very clear on the site. but how do you promote the fellowship to your own customers? For people who are either listening or are customers of the shop that want to give them support, are there ways that they can do that?
J: There are, and we’re going to try to have more formal ways. Our customers were the most amazing part of the fellowship. Once the fellowship launched, we had customers calling, emailing, and DMing us every single day, multiple times. “How can I help?” “How can I donate money?” We’ve had customers donate their time and professional help. We’ve had customers who reached out and said, “I’m a professional coach. Can I work with this person on professional coaching?” Our customer base really engaged with Kayla as a fellow and with the fellowship in general. We would like to find a way to formalize the ability to bring in donations and other investments, via capital or not, on a larger scale, because it was really heartening to see people’s responses there and how much people wanted to help. To this day, we have customers who will call the shop or book a hotline appointment and ask to speak to Kayla. Our customers want to interact with the person who has this role. They want to support it, but they also are just really excited about the prospect of playing a part in this.
A: Very cool. Well, Meri and Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and telling me more about Domestique and all the cool stuff you guys are doing in D.C. Everyone appreciates the hard work that you’re putting in. Hopefully, things change for the better very soon in terms of being able to open and having a shop full of customers again. In the meantime, where can people find you?
M: We are at domestiquewine.com as well as on Instagram. We are always excited and available for emails, DMs, phone calls, or book online for an in-person appointment. We’re hoping to get back to where we were and go beyond that.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.