How savvy somms are using social media to hype their wines.

By Carey Jones
Updated December 06, 2019
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Scroll through your Instagram feed, and you’ll likely see more cocktails than wine. After all, a vibrant cocktail can grab the eye in a way that wine just doesn’t. No matter how spectacular a given vintage, whether it’s in a glass or a bottle, it’s likely to look like all the rest.

But the wine world has, in fact, discovered Instagram in a major way. Both wine bars and wine-savvy restaurants have found ways to harness the immediacy and visual appeal of the medium. And in doing so, they’ve found ways to communicate directly with customers, in ways a static wine list can’t—whether that’s sharing wine specials, celebrating one-of-a-kind bottles, or creating a dynamic reserve list right on the app itself.

When chef-owner Anthony Strong opened his restaurant Prairie in San Francisco last year, he wanted a way to showcase the kinds of wines that he, personally, was interested in. “We wanted to bring in cool, random, fun bottles that might not necessarily fit the by-the-glass parameters we’re going for—or even a spot on the bottle list,” Strong says. “Cruising wine auction sites late at night after work is sort of our jam here.”

Restaurants might showcase their rarer wines on a “reserve list.” But that’s often the home of super-pricey, even ostentatious wines that only appeal to those willing to drop an awful lot of cash. Strong tried to envision another way. “I thought, What if our reserve list was a literal milk crate of bottles that we could bring to every table?” (That’s one idea that never came to pass.)

Instead, he turned to Instagram, snagging the handle @thereservelist. When Strong brings in bottles not on the standard list, he features them in an Instagram post. And when the bottles sell out, he archives the post. Simple. The result is an up-to-the-moment look at the wines that Prairie has to offer. Some stick around the “list” for weeks; others might sell out the night they come in.

“We don’t have to spend a ton of time on it,” he says. “Time and training hours are at a premium here in San Francisco, and we don’t have a sommelier. It doesn’t make sense to spend hours teaching staff about one-off bottles we might go through that same night.”

Often, these bottles are “what wine geeks want to geek out on”—like an “offbeat crazy Syrah” from Hirotake Ooka, a Japanese winemaker in Bordeaux. (“On a normal list, you might order that wine and be annoyed by it, because it’s so out there and weird. But when we can tell a story on the Reserve List, it’s perfect,” he say.) Other times, it’s an improbable deal, as when a distributor sold Strong a case of Barolo with wine-stained labels at an enormous discount. “People saw those bottles listed for $200 rather than $400, and said, ‘We don’t care if there’s wine all over it! That’s a sick deal.’”

Other restaurants have harnessed the real-time power of Instagram to advertise wine specials. Korean steakhouse COTE marks the beginning of each week with “Magnum Mondays,” by-the-glass pours from a large-format bottle. “We believe in small growers and big bottles,” says beverage director and partner Victoria James. “And Instagram is a great place to promote, gain a following, and keep people coming back for more.”

The first year of the program didn’t gain much traction, but more than two years in, Magnum Monday draws a crowd every week. “Slowly, we gained a cult following,” says James. “Upstairs it’s a popping bar scene, standing-room only, everyone clustered around the bar drinking this awesome wine.”

Large-format bottles keep wine fresher for longer, James says. “Wine from a magnum just tastes better. It’s a fact.” But guests are often reluctant to order a magnum, whether they’re intimidated by the price, the commitment, or just the volume. So COTE considers their Magnum Mondays an opportunity for guests to try something they’d have no access to otherwise. “We always pour something rare, not something you can pick up in a shop. Maybe it’s an old Champagne, maybe it’s a super expensive bottle, or maybe something we can only get two or three of a year.”

Similarly, Momofuku Ko turns to Instagram to advertise their #kobarpours by-the-glass specials of rare or otherwise notable wines. Social media allows them to be spontaneous. “We often don’t know what we’ll be pouring until day-of,” says beverage manager Arthur Hon. “But the overarching theme is that these are wines you’d never otherwise see poured by the glass in a restaurant.”

Some are very old vintages, like a comparison pour of the 1961 and 1964 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo; others are small producers, like skin-contact whites from Floral Terranes in Long Island. “We have a social media following, from people who really want to get something new and different,” Hon says. “People come in specifically for a given wine.”

And Instagram is the medium they’ve found to be the most effective, using the app’s Stories feature. “There’s something very powerful about the visual,” Hon says. “We try to change it up, keep it interesting. But it truly is about having fun—getting to share these rare bottles—and that comes across on social media.”

Aldo Sohm, wine director of New York’s Le Bernardin and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, also finds that the informality of social media deviates from the formality often associated with wine and fine dining. “Sommeliers are, of course, very traditional,” Sohm says. “But social media helps us to break that perception.” His eponymous bar offers a “9 p.m. Pour” every night—an unusual bottle they open that night only—advertised primarily on Instagram, as well as Twitter and Facebook.

Having gained a following on Instagram, he finds that customers often come in seeking a particular wine. But people also respond to his team’s own excitement about a given bottle, as expressed through their posts. Here, the sommeliers have a little fun, showing off the wines that they’re passionate about; and customers have a direct route to participate and connect. Sohm often receives questions about wine, from the basic to the esoteric, from followers.

Social media is, in a sense, an equalizer, a way of communicating without being preachy or didactic in ways that sommelier-guest relationships can often be.

“Sommeliers often think we need to explain everything about a wine, this or that vintage,” Sohm says. “But that’s way over most people’s heads. People shut down with that. We need to be more accessible.” (It’s a philosophy that drives his recent book, Wine Simple.)

“It’s like when I go to a computer store,” he laughs. “After the second sentence, it’s too technical, like they’re speaking a different language.”

“We’re trying to avoid that. We want to be approachable, we want to be fun.”

Most wine professionals, at the end of the day, want to connect with customers and share the bottles that thrill them. But that’s not always the easiest conversation to have at a busy bar, or in a quick minute before your first course.

In a way, Instagram just kicks off the conversation. The storytelling aspect draws guests in. And when sommeliers are proactive around individual wines, rather than responding to what an individual thinks they want, it creates an entirely different dynamic. If a restaurant is excited enough to open up a magnum, and you’re an adventurous drinker, shouldn’t you want a sip, too?

“We want to share these wines with people,” Hon says. “I don’t want a half-bottle left over at the end of the night. We want people to come in, have a glass, and have a good time with us.” And Instagram is the way to make that happen.