Joe Catalino has spent the bulk of his sommelier career picking out wines for big-deal West Coast restaurants: Gordon Ramsay in West Hollywood, Michael Mina’s RN74 in Seattle, and, most recently, San Francisco’s renowned Slanted Door. Now, 16 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Catalino has no plans to return to restaurants. Instead, he and his photographer wife, Celia Catalino, are settling into their chosen roles as wine couriers, e-commerce operators, and personal sommeliers to a small but growing community of friends, family, and Bay Area wine enthusiasts.
Joe and Celia Catalino launched What to Drink, their Oakland-based wine club and online bottle shop, in September 2020. The wine club model is simple: for $50 a month, Celia and Joe personally deliver two bottles of wine to members the first week of every month — it’s $5 for delivery to San Francisco and East Bay cities, and $15 everywhere else in the Bay Area. Wine club members in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and San Francisco can order from the online-only Bottle Shop, which stocks different wines from those delivered through the club, for free delivery at any time. The Bottle Shop is open to everyone, not just wine club members, and ships across California and to Oregon. The couple says they donate $1 for every bottle sold to a different charitable organization; donations have so far gone to Creative Growth, an Oakland nonprofit that serves artists with disabilities; Unicef’s COVID fund for India; and Everytown for Gun Safety, among others.
One of the biggest perks of What to Drink membership is the hands-on, communication-based foundation the couple built their business model on. “We wanted an approach you don’t see too much in e-commerce: personal touch,” Joe says.
“All of our customers have our cell phone number, because of the deliveries, and we encourage them to reach out by text or email with questions,” Celia says. That open-door policy applies even when the questions aren’t in regards to What to Drink — the couple tells a story of two customers who got married in the Russian River Valley and texted them the venue’s list of wines to ask for help with their selections. “That’s what I’m proudest of,” Joe says. “That we’ve been able to build those kind of relationships.”
Hand-delivered wine across the Bay Area; an always-open line of communication with customers; and a staff of two. Eater had just one question: how? “We ask ourselves that every day,” laughs Celia. “It’s a work in progress. We’re new, we’re small...we’re learning as we go,” Joe says.
“Every month is an emotional roller coaster. The last few days of the month we’re prepping for wine club delivery. The first week of the month, when we’re trying to get all the deliveries out, is the most stressful time. And then we usually get a few days break, since so far most people buying from the bottle shop are also members, and they’ve just gotten a few bottles from us. Then it ramps up again about a week later,” Celia says.
The couple is still handling deliveries to wine club members each month, and even as they grow, that’s the plan for the immediate future. “It’s hard to even know what this will look like beyond that,” Joe says. “We’re in the process of scaling up with another person or two, but we’re not yet at a place where we’d be able to hire someone for the wage we’d want to.”
Beyond their capacity to continue making the deliveries themselves, the couple says their biggest priority is maintaining that personal feel. Joe emphasizes, “We want to be able to continue the open communication with customers. Forever, people have felt intimidated by wine and wine people, and like they can’t ask questions. We really want to create a community more than anything.”
So what’s next for What to Drink? “We’re kicking around ideas of pop-ups and collaborations; events around the Bay Area. We recently poured wine for a “welcome back” office party and really liked that in-person aspect,” says Celia. For now, though, there are no plans for a physical shop — the pair likes what they’ve built, and says they’re lucky they’re on the same page about it. “I feel incredibly grateful that it has worked out the way it did. This totally could’ve turned into a disaster, that’s the risk we took. Instead it’s really brought our family together, pushed us to do things we hadn’t considered doing but really wanted to,” Joe says.
As for Joe’s restaurant career, “Of course, I miss the team, the energy. I miss pre-shift, chatting about wines — I miss it all. But I don’t have plans to go back to it.”
Instead, Joe and Celia have one thing to say to Bay Area wine enthusiasts: “Ask us! We are happy to have the conversation. We just want to make it fun — I mean, it’s alcohol! It’s supposed to be a good time.”