How much do you know about wine? If you had to rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being, “I think wine can be red.” To 10 being, “I can tell you which valley the grapes are grown in, by taste.” What would you rate yourself?
Well, Domacin Restaurant, Wine Bar, and Wine Shop (Domacin) is an 11 in their knowledge of wine. And with about 725 bottles between the restaurant and their wine shop, they KNOW wine.
Walk into Domacin, and there is an instant warmth about the establishment. The exposed brick, the prominent wine bottles displayed on the bar, and the gorgeous woodwork all say: stay here, let us feed you, let us pour you fantastic wine, let’s have a great conversation, let’s make a wonderful evening.
Am I a bit biased with my love for Domacin? Yes. But it’s because I have drunk, cheered, and laughed with friends and loved ones over wine, cheese, risotto, or one of their simple yet exquisite entrees. And that is what a dining experience at Domacin is all about.
I sat down with one of the owners of the Stillwater restaurant, Aleks Pantic. We talked about the current conditions with the COVID-19 restrictions, their new adventures in the wine shop (the wine club is a MUST), how their much-loved and loyal regulars have stood by them through unparalleled times, and of course – wine.
What does Domacin mean?
It’s not a modern word; it’s an “old school” Serbian word. Loosely translated, it means “host of the house.” My great grandfather had a vineyard in a tiny town in Serbia. He was president of a local church, and all the events took place at his house because he had the best wine. He was referred to as Domacin. When we were picking out names for the restaurant, we wrote down 12, and my partner Rich picked Domacin.
Let’s talk about the COVID-19 restrictions and the “sucky” part of it.
There are two aspects of the restrictions. First, there is the financial side of things. It just sucks to tell people who have worked here for years, ‘you have to be furloughed, I hope to bring you back.’ They are extended family; we are used to seeing them week in and week out. They are part of the cloth that we are made of. I am hoping to bring back most of my employees.
The second aspect is the social part. The whole interaction has been taken away. You try to substitute it with the two minutes with takeout, but it’s not the same.
What is the most frustrating part?
The lack of socialization. It’s not the same experience. You can’t have the same experience with the food in a takeout box. And I still want the food to taste really good when our customers get home. You can’t put scallops in a box and hope it taste the same when you get home. It’s why we have had to change our menu.
The key thing is to focus on us. It’s being able to adjust and accept and do our best with the circumstances we have had.
How has COVID-19 affected your business overall?
A lot. The PPP money was great, but without our customer base we have had, there is no way we could have made it. We have customers come in and order this and order that, purchase wine from the wine shop. It’s been amazing.
During the COVID time, it’s a different gig, but we have been creative. I never thought we would get into pizzas, but we did. We have people keep coming back for our pizzas. So now, we think, why not?
The silver lining is our wine shop. It has increased by about 300% during COVID. And we have made it a more custom approach to wine. The price isn’t how we recommend the wine. Yes, we can always upsell a wine, but that’s not how wine works. It’s dependent on what you are eating or the occasion. If you make people happy, they will come back.
Domacin has a pretty big following. How has that developed?
Our regulars are St. Croix Valley locals. We love tourists, but that’s not our customer base. Part of it is we have developed different groups that come here. We have our Tuesdays group, our mom group, our happy hour group, our date night group, our (lack of a better word) older gentlemen group. This isn’t something we planned; it’s just more of a feel of the place.
The other part is our customers dictate what we get and bring in. We have taken a minimalistic approach to food, but with excellent quality. I was never a fan of complicated dishes. It should be simple, good quality food to start with. We try to be seasonal on the fish for flavor and consistency. We don’t want fish that has been frozen for 3 months. It doesn’t taste the same. Same with our vegetables. It has worked for us.
Let’s talk about the wine shop. I love the wine club you guys have (it’s a steal, FYI.)
The first couple of years we had the wine shop, it was a sleeper. It was almost like storage for extra wine. Now it has really taken off. We have a Wine Blitz that we do about every other week. It’s a case of wine that’s about 50-60% off the case, all the same grape. We work with 25 different distributors so can feature wineries that most people haven’t heard of. You buy it if you like that style.
We have two tiers with the wine club: the Founders Tier and the Collectors Tier. The Founders Tier features 12 wines with a theme around them. You maybe have had some of the wines, and you can see it fit with dinner—more “playful” or everyday wine. The Collectors Tier is something you have that’s really special. It is 3-6 bottles of rare wines that you open on special occasions.
Your staff seems to be really knowledgeable about wine. Do you have a Sommelier on the team?
Ethan and I are certified, but I don’t really think a Sommelier certification matters all that much.
Our servers KNOW our wine. And I think most could easily pass the exam. In fact, I would be disappointed if some couldn’t.
What is more important to know is what to recommend for wine. You have to ask the follow-up questions with wine to narrow it down to what the customer wants. You can’t just ask, ‘do you like red or white?’ You need to ask, ‘what do you usually drink in terms of grapes?’ ‘What flavor profiles do you like?’ Being wrong about wine is the worst; you can see when the customer is not enjoying it. But it happens.
I always encourage our team members to ask, ‘do you really like the wine?’ If the customer doesn’t, take it back and get them something that they will like.
How do you get better at knowing wine?
To know wine, you have to constantly taste it. This is not the same as drinking heavily. We will open a bottle for the whole team to taste the wine and know where the wine is at. Is it in its prime? You have to understand where the wine is at.
When you take a sip of wine, you want it to coat the whole mouth. And each grape is different. Take a grape such as Pinot Noir, one of the most challenging grapes to make; the skins are super thin. So when you drop a grape, and it cracks, you impact a winemaker’s ability to make a wine that lasts. Unlike a Cabernet grape where you can drop and pick it up with a shovel.
We also go directly to the source, the wineries. We will email the winery, give them our wine profile, and ask them if it matches theirs: how it should taste, its longevity, and the prime time to open the wine.
What is your favorite wine?
Well, that’s kind of like asking, ‘who is your favorite child?’ I tend to be partial, though, to a few regions. Piemonte in northern Italy. I love Malvira wines. I like Willmett Valley in Oregon and their Pinot Noirs.
I recently had some Spanish wines in the Ribera Del Duero area made with the Tempranillo grape, really earthy and complex. The Kerner wines, a highly acidic white wine, comes from the Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy, bordering Austria and Switzerland. And there is a spectacular wine from the Dei Winery in Tuscany, Vino Nobile Montepulciano ‘Riserva Bossona.’
Lastly, what do you want people to know?
Secondly, we are ready to open. The wheels are in motion, and we have been planning. We have the ideas, the wine, and the menu is done and ready – conceptually. We miss the social aspect of this so much.