Airing between regular episodes of the “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at [email protected].
In this episode of “Next Round,” Zach sits down with Allie Nault and Jarad Slipp, accomplished sommeliers and new business owners. Their venture, Knead Wine, doubles as a retail wine shop and a takeout artisanal pizzeria.
Knead Wine is based in the quaint getaway town of Middleburg, Va., just an hour outside Washington, D.C. The wine store is a microcosm of escape in its own way, offering a wall of unique wines from all over the world curated by Nault and Slipp, as well as a wall of $20 wines, and a wall of $45 wines. Despite their extensive knowledge and accolades, the duo strives to make buying wine an anxiety- and judgment-free process.
Throughout the episode, Nault and Slipp explain how Knead Wine was conceptualized at the start of Covid, and how they’ve make their business model work in trying times. As it turns out, pizza and alcohol aren’t the worst things to invest in during a pandemic.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach: From Seattle, Washington I’m Zach Geballe. This is a VinePair podcast “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes so that we can focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Allie Nault and Jarad Slipp of Knead Wine. Thank you both for being here.
Allie: Thank you for having us.
Jarad: Super happy to be here.
Z: Excellent. So let’s start with the basics: What is Knead Wine? For those of you who are just listening to this and somehow didn’t read the headline on your podcast app, that’s k-n-e-a-d. So there’s a little bit more of a story here than just the obvious, which is that, yes, we all need wine.
J: Knead Wine was birthed in the middle of the Covid pandemic. We actually opened on Aug. 1. My background has been in restaurants for most of my life, and then I ran RdV Vineyards in Delaplane in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for six years. When I left, I could have gone all over the place, in lots of different directions. But I really, really love where I live … on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I can’t see my neighbors in any direction. We have a pet bear that comes around on occasion, and it’s fantastic. I wanted to carve something out right here in my own backyard — easier said than done in the middle of Covid. So unwittingly, we found a space, and we did gourmet takeout pizza and retail wine. And again, unwittingly, looking back, the only thing in the restaurant world that is actually ahead of the game right now is takeout pizza. I think the worse the world gets, the more people drink. So it was kind of the one-two punch. It wasn’t planned, but it was certainly welcome.
Z: Gotcha. Allie, maybe a little bit about your background as well?
A: Of course. So I am kind of a restaurant orphan. I’ve worked in Providence, R.I., New York City, at the top of the One World Trade Center down to Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and most recently at The Inn at Little Washington as their sommelier. In March 2020 restaurants closed, and Jarad and I were just sitting at home saying: “What’s next? Is the inn going to reopen? Will I even have a job?” Jarad just departed from RdV, and it was perfect timing at the perfect place. A spot opened up right in downtown Middleburg on the main street in this beautiful old building that needed a lot of TLC. But we were just so excited. A little bit more about the concept: When we say restaurant, we serve food and we can do intimate private events for up to 10 people by state law right now. But when you walk in, it actually looks like you’re at a retail wine shop, and then all of a sudden you start smelling pizza and these famous cookies we started making. Then you’re like, “Wait, what else is going on here?” Then that’s when the pizza comes in as well — it’s a whole entire sensual experience. Even with your mask on, you’re able to still smell Jarad’s incredible pizza as you walk in. They don’t let me back there in the kitchen.
Z: Fair enough. So let’s start with just a little bit more about Middleburg, because those people who are not in Virginia or nearby, like me, [might be asking,] “Well, OK, it’s on the map, but what kind of community is it? What has the reception been?”
J: It is a very interesting little microcosm. Middleburg is probably the wealthiest town in the wealthiest county in America — Loudoun County — which is to say it’s on the same par as Palo Alto and Jupiter, Fla., and so on and so forth. We have our fair share of multimillionaires and billionaires that stroll in on the daily. But that said, the median income is something like $56,000 a year. For every person that has a 1,000-acre horse farm, there’s probably 20 or 30 or 40, 50 people that they employ there. So we get all walks of life. It is this super-cute, quaint hamlet in the middle of horse country. We’re exactly an hour outside of Washington, D.C., so it’s a nice little getaway. Jackie Onassis used to come quite a bit when she was younger. But particularly with the current state of the pandemic, it’s been a nice getaway for people in the city to sneak away to, even if it’s just for an afternoon.
Z: I would love for you to explain a little bit more about what you’re doing. When it comes to wine, you have a very straightforward, very simple pricing structure; can you explain what that is, and why you went that route?
J: I honestly can’t remember what the genesis of it was, but part of what we’re supposed to do as sommeliers is demystify wine, and I wanted to keep it real streamlined and simple for anyone that came into the shop. Basically, you walk in the door and everything on the left-hand side is $20 and everything on the right-hand side is $45. It’s really that simple. We have some bubbles and some stickers that are priced as marked, and we have a small wall that rotates. It was originally intended to be our favorite wines from our wine travels, but there’s not a whole lot of traveling going on right now. It started out with Willamette Valley, which is the last trip that we took. Currently it’s our favorite dozen Pinots from around the world. Come spring, that will probably turn into our favorite local Virginia wines, so it’s always moving. So the large preponderance of the wines is either $20 or $45, but you can get wines up to 300 bucks.
Z: Do people vibe with that pricing? Does that make sense to people right away? I will say, I’ve seen a few restaurants do something similar, where everything is either one price or in one bucket, [but] I don’t think I’ve seen retail shops do that. I’m obviously not familiar with every last retail shop, but it seems like it’s the kind of thing that if done well, as I imagine it is, that people really appreciate. They don’t have to think about price tags on wines next to each other to decide which one to buy. They know they’re on the left or the right wall, so they know what the price is going to be.
J: Allie can probably speak to it better than I can, because I’m often in the kitchen. But the reception has been amazing — people adore the idea. And again, it keeps things easy for them. They have their two price points, and they can gravitate from one side to the other. Oftentimes people will get mixed cases with both price points. It makes things interesting and challenging for us in a good way in that it’s very, very curated. We very much have to stay in our lanes price-wise, and be able to find wines that fit those two price points. So you can’t deviate too far, one way or another. You have to give great value. But you also can’t bring in a wine that costs $19.95 and sell it for 20 bucks.
A: When talking about wine with guests, I feel like one of the hardest things to always break down is asking the tough question of, “How much do you want to spend tonight?” This makes it very easy. We have two price ranges: $20 or $45. Some people (very, very few) will be like, “Uh, I guess 20?” It’s perfect — there’s a time and a place for the $20 wall and for the $45, even for Jared and myself, who love wine and have tasted a lot of incredible things. Twenty dollars is such a great price range to find new and exciting things, but also at such a high qualitative standpoint. So it makes it exciting. We will blind taste to find the best Cabernet Sauvignon for the $20 price range. So when someone comes in, [they know] it’s the best thing that we could find right now on the market for a $20 Cabernet Sauvignon. People will come in and they’ll see it will rotate in like a month depending on stocks and inventory, and with what distributors are bringing in. They get super excited to see what the next Cabernet Sauvignon is on the wall a month later. Seeing that excitement over a $20 bottle of wine is something that I find so fulfilling. Having spent so much time with Wine Spectator’s grand award-winning wine list, I get more pleasure out of providing something that is affordable, a daily driver that makes people thrilled when they go home with their pizzas. It’s really rewarding.
Z: I’ve sometimes thought that with wine programs and things like that, constraints sometimes do more to breed creativity than having an unlimited budget and going for a Wine Spectator grand award, and being able to buy whatever you want. Does that ring true?
J: Oh, absolutely. If you give me a big enough check, I can give you a grand award. It’s just a matter of going out and finding all those blue-chip wines, whereas here it’s small, it’s curated, and nothing goes on the wall that isn’t vetted by us. If we don’t like it, it doesn’t make the cut. So when people come in, it’s pretty funny. They’re like, “Oh, what are your two favorite wines?” I’m like: “All of them. They’re all here for a different reason.”
Z: You mentioned at the beginning that you opened in August. When the beginning parts of the planning for this started, was the intention to be [like this], was it done in the knowledge of Covid, or did you have a somewhat different idea that had to evolve because the world changed pretty dramatically?
J: I think with the restaurant world, there is no going back to normal. There will be a new normal for us. This is all we know, because we got the keys to the building last April 1 (which is scary, it’s almost coming up on a year.) We opened on Aug. 1 and I did 90 percent of all the build-out in construction. We knew what we were opening into, or we thought we knew what we were opening into. So this strange paradigm is our normal, and it’s worked and it’s been great. We do have the ability to have some tables in there if we wanted to. Right now, we choose not to. It’s takeout only. We have done a couple of private events, like on New Year’s Eve and so on and so forth, which are super fun. But as far as navigating the current landscape, we kind of planned and built for it for that, in fact. So that makes sense.
A: Yeah, I love the way it’s set up. It’s a really great creative outlet for the two of us to figure out a way to do takeout hospitality. People come in for a split second to grab their pizza and grab a bottle of wine, or maybe they come in for 45 minutes. Will they grab a case of wine? They want to hear all about everything. But being able to give a very special experience through takeout has been a really intriguing challenge for us to come up with. I think for all restaurants especially. I’ve personally enjoyed it. I don’t know if Jarad’s enjoyed it as much as I have. We haven’t really talked about it.
Z: This whole time? That seems like, you know, maybe a conversation you should have.
A: I guess he likes it. We’re still doing it.
Z: Yeah. There you go. That’s some proof for sure. So I would think just in the abstract, that a wine shop/restaurant opened by two incredibly accomplished sommeliers would be potentially intimidating for a lot of people. We experience this issue as wine professionals where people want our expertise but are also afraid of it. Some of the things you’ve talked about — the focusing on pizza, which is, for most people, a pretty damn approachable food; having very clear prices (I think some of the fear is about getting talked into a more expensive wine than they’re comfortable with) — do those structural elements help people get over that fear factor? Or do you just not think that people are intimidated?
A: Well, I think when people walk in and they see me in the front of the shop, they think I’m probably like a college student just answering the phone. I look very young. I sound very young. They probably never in a million years thought that I knew anything about wine. That’s something that I’ve always had to break down the barrier with, at any place I work. If anyone’s ever intimidated by me, then there’s a real problem, because I’m not at all intimidating. I know you can’t see me — I’m a tiny 5’3, 100-pound girl. I don’t think that they’re intimidated when they come into the shop. I think that they become at ease when they hear about the price ranges. I mean, Jarad can be a little intimidating, I’ll say that.
Z: That’s why you keep him in the kitchen, right?
A: But I think once you’ve once you start talking to him, you’re like, “Oh.” It’s just like your friend next door, or someone that’s going to become your best friend because he’s just so warm and welcoming.
J: I’m the guy that’s in the kitchen that yells, “What you want is the second one on the left, the Pinot Grigio.”
A: We have fun.
Z: As Jarad mentioned at the beginning, pizza is one of the things, more than anything else, that people have been consistently going with during the pandemic (not that they didn’t eat a lot of pizza before). What are three or so of your favorite current pairings of wine with your pizzas? Feel free to explain the pizzas, too, because I am sure they’re not all just Hawaiian.
J: I have two hard and fast rules: No pineapples and no green peppers, ever. Barring that, if you buy it at the grocery store across the street and bring it over, I’ll slap it on your pizza. But I refuse [those] two things. The pizzas are kind of rooted in Neapolitan style, but Neapolitan pizzas are really meant to be eaten immediately out of the oven with a fork and a knife. They’re kind of floppy. Being takeout, we need a little more stability, and being in America, we use American flour. I think it actually tastes better. We sneak a little Italian flour in there for some silky texture, but American flour tastes better. We’ll do a pepperoni pizza, no problem. But we have more exciting things as well. Tomorrow we’re putting on a pizza with Bosc pear, crispy speck, gorgonzola dolce, and Korean chili flake, and we’ll pair that with pear cider. I hate when people — when I say people, I mean guys because it’s always guys — try to match up every little nuance of the dish to every little nuance of the wine. At some point, you just get analysis paralysis, and it’s just not fun anymore. So if you get a red pizza and you get a bottle of red Italian wine, you’re in the ballpark. Whether it’s Chianti, or it’s Dolcetto, or it’s Barbera, it’s really a stylistic preference. But it’s not like I say, “No, you have to get this wine with this pizza.” That’s just silly. Rule No. 1 is eat what you want and drink what you want.
Z: That’s very reassuring. That was always my rule as a sommelier but one that, as you said, is not always shared by colleagues. Allie: I know asking what your favorite wines are is really hard, but do you have a couple of things that you’ve put in that you’ve been excited to see the clientele really vibe with, wines that might have been a little more out there?
A: Yeah. I think when we started the shop, our regulars who joined us in the area (because we obviously have a lot of transient foot traffic as well) were huge on Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay— more of the classic options as a wine buyer, which is fantastic. I love people who know what they want. But as we’ve been open longer, they’ve wanted to venture out and try new things, which has been really exciting. So we actually brought in Guardians Saperavi from the country of Georgia. It’s a woman-made wine. Saperavi is the grape variety, and it has this crunchy and dried red fruit character, a touch of florality to it. It’s a very intriguing red wine that has pretty nice acidity, so it also goes well with pizza, but it’s delicious to just chug on its own. I had this whole entire shift of, “I like Pinot Noir. I’ll try Saperavi. Oh, I love Saperavi. That’s now my new favorite wine.” Then when we were able to order more, because it was out of stock, I had a list of phone numbers to call when it came back in stock. So that’s something that’s been really exciting, and for $20.
I feel like people are really excited to take a chance, and maybe $20 was the peak of what they’ve spent on a bottle of wine before. But once they see how incredible the world of wine is, for Thanksgiving they ventured over to the $45 wall, which is really also exciting — to show the entire world of wine at both price ranges to them.
So that’s probably been the most exciting part for me with all of this, is just watching the transition of the community and their wine preferences. But when it comes to pairings, I always just say, “What grows together goes together.” So sticking with the Italian wine that Jarad was talking about. But whenever someone comes into the shop, it’s not like in a restaurant where you commit to, like, 3 ounces, and if it wasn’t your favorite wine, you just chug it and move on. It’s a whole bottle. So I always ask first, “What do you typically enjoy?” Then I find something along the lines of what they enjoy that will also go with the pizza, because I’d hate to send someone home with a Zinfandel if they like Old-World Bordeaux. It’s not going to go well for them at the end of the night.
J: I think when we opened, we wanted to make sure that we had all of our bases covered, and all of the classics represented. Now as we’re seeing [what] the clientele’[s] bandwidth is, we’re beginning to push the boundaries a little bit and say, “OK, let’s try some Greek wine, OK, Greek Chardonnay. OK, that worked. Let’s do Assyrtiko. OK, that worked. Let’s do a Retsina.” Retsina’s a tough sell, but you push up until the line, and then you draw back a little bit.
Z: Yeah. Then you drink Retsina for a few weeks if that’s where you end up.
J: Oh it’s lights-out, by far-and-away the best Retsina out there. But it’s still an acquired taste.
Z: Well I want to thank you both so much for your time, I really appreciate it. It sounds like a really cool project. It makes me sad that at the moment, I am very far away and can’t come visit. But one of these days I will make it out there. I’m sure we’ve got some listeners in the Virginia area who, if they haven’t been in already, are looking forward to it. I can almost taste the pizza, and I’m very glad to know I won’t have to ever get pineapple. Thanks again, and best of luck going forward.
J: That’s very kind. Thank you so much.
A: Thank you, Zach. We look forward to welcoming you at some point.
Adam Teeter: Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or whatever it is you get. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits: VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Washington, 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 keep Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings 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.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.