This New York wine bar launched a pop-up hotel amid the pandemic

In order to keep staff on payroll, the Manhattan wine bar spun up Supernatural Lake, a pop-up bed and breakfast, restaurant, and wine bar in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
March 20, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Caleb Ganzer is in the business of creating experiences.

As the managing partner of Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a wine bar in New York City, he has found countless ways to engage his community of guests since the restaurant opened six years ago. One can pull up to the bar for a “Sommakase” tasting—sort of like an omakase menu but with wine—or munch on snacks at the Hawaiian-themed pop-up during the December holidays. The ideas for the wine bar’s Mixtape nights, which invite different figures in wine to spin their favorite records, and wine boot camp classes, based on different themes or regions, all come from the team of sommeliers, who feel more like storytellers than a dry textbook. They have a weekly meeting to throw ideas against the wall and often find themselves ideating on bar stools until the wee hours of the morning after a night’s shift.

When the coronavirus outbreak instated the New York City lockdown in March 2020, that luckily didn’t change, even if the how and what of the engagement did.

“Why we do what we do is not just feeding people,” Ganzer says. “It is creating a vibe. It is creating relationships, emotions, memories. You have to create the soul.” 

Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is part of Experimental Group, a Paris-based hospitality company known for letting creativity reign. The group runs a ski chalet in Verbier, Switzerland; an agro-tourism property on the Balearic island of Menorca; hotels in Venice and Ibiza; and luxe speakeasies in London and Paris that all have such a distinct look and feel that you don’t really want to leave, ever. But while they are part of the same overseeing body, each property each has its own identity, which somehow feels related but not matching. For Ganzer, that means autonomous control over how he builds the only stateside business. After all, he’s on the ground in New York and knows his customers—and team of sommeliers—better than anyone abroad.

The Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels team outside the company’s flagship location in Lower Manhattan.
Kypo Karamas/Heneli Heritage Photography

All this culminated in a very standout way last year. During the unknowns of a global pandemic, Ganzer fought to keep his business afloat and his team employed to the best of his abilities. It was time to get even more creative than usual, so much so that no other restaurant in New York attempted so many new streams of revenue. That included conceptualizing, building, and launching Supernatural Lake, a hotel and restaurant in New York’s Finger Lakes region, in a matter of six weeks.

“From the very beginning, we knew that we had to adapt,” explains Vitalii Dascaliuc, a sommelier at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, who now runs its wine courses via Zoom. “The best part about being a member of Compagnie’s team is the confidence that we were going to figure something out.”

Ganzer believes in going into the corners that other people may not explore. He wants to turn over every stone and always push to be better, whatever the definition of that may be. He brings that philosophy to Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels every day in the way he leads and trains his team of 18. He leaves 20% of the time spent in any meeting to brainstorming. He encourages everyone to share their opinions, but insists they come with fully formed thoughts and solid solutions.

“I do not think of myself as having employees, for the sake of executing just the tasks that we all do,” Ganzer says. “I truly want them to be the leaders of tomorrow, and I want them to open up an awesome wine bar that I want to go to. In the short term, it helps us as an organization, but hopefully long term it helps them as people.”

If Ganzer’s attention to company culture hadn’t set this precedent, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels may not have been able to pivot and pivot and pivot again in 2020. When New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave restaurants a 24-hour notice that they’d be closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, Ganzer jumped into action. Thanks to a change in the law around alcohol sales, restaurants were allowed to sell wine to customers at retail. The team kicked off their plan to save Compagnie by selling wines from the cellar. They offered curated packs of bottles, like a Blue Chip Collector four-pack, a quartet of highly sought-after producers tallying $12,000, and a to-go version of their Sommakase, a tasting of six wines that arrive in paper bags so they will be a surprise to pour. They also sold any wine on the wine list for 25% off the printed price. Customers could place their orders on the website, and Ganzer and the team, all in masks, would drive around dropping off packages, from Manhattan to Brooklyn and the Hamptons. They chronicled it all on social media, with images of Ganzer’s car stuffed to the gills with boxes of wine.

The wine boot camps, once an intimate in-person experience, went digital with Dascaliuc. These classes touch on anything and everything, from common grape varieties and major regions to lesser known aspects of wine: wines of Sicily, wines of Savoie, and even the cheekily named What Would Jesus Drink? that details the wines of modern-day Mesopotamia. The team launched Dial-A-Somm, a subscription service that gives regular access to a Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels sommelier to ask anything about wine, including what to drink right now for dinner. The team partnered with a local CSA to deliver boxes of fresh produce alongside wines that pair with the ingredients.

The team spun up a shipping business in a matter of days, as soon as New York State further eased the regulations for restaurants to help them survive. That meant the boot camps and product offers could reach well beyond the tristate area. Boot camps grew nationwide, and they set up a monthly wine club focused on Burgundy, Champagne, and other French wines.

But none of these cool ideas compare to the apogee of the trials that Ganzer and his team kicked off in May. In just six weeks, they defined and executed upon a concept at a speed even the team cannot believe they achieved: a pop-up hotel and restaurant. Ganzer postulates that it saved their souls.

“Necessity is the mother of invention—that is definitely one thing that keeps us going,” Ganzer says. “Supernatural Lake, that was the gravy that gelled everything. It just made it okay for several months, because it was, ‘Oh, we get to play restaurant again and take care of people in this sort of very familiar way.’ Even though it is different, it was still close enough, and that was very crucial for us.”

The wine bar’s team dressed for their annual Hawaiian-themed popup during the December holidays.
Kypo Karamas/Heneli Heritage Photography

The idea of a pop-up wasn’t out of their wheelhouse. The team host the holiday pop-up each year, with their usual wine list but a completely new menu, Hawaiian floral-print staff uniforms, and plenty of colorful decor, right down to the soundtrack and bathroom scents. They spent pre-pandemic weeknights hosting parties, with themes varying from Tracksuit Tuesdays to Blanc de Blancs Summer Solstice, where even the wine was white.

However, the team had not ever actualized something as grand as a hotel property, and definitely not on a whim. Ganzer says, half jokingly, that they opened a restaurant due to COVID-19 because they could not have a restaurant due to COVID. It all began mulling in late May, when Ganzer found himself thinking about his time driving around Westchester County, New York, and parts of Connecticut delivering bottles of wine. He saw people eating outside and enjoying parts of life that weren’t possible in the city, because of population density. For less urban regions, it appeared that life had moved on in many ways. Like many New Yorkers, he hopped on Airbnb to look for places to rent, stumbling upon a listing for a campsite that looked a little worse for wear, but it had the bones: cabins, furnishings, a former restaurant on-site, and a dock, right on Cayuga Lake in Interlaken, N.Y.

It sparked an idea. What if they fixed it up, served food and wine, and generally spent the summer away from the city where they could breath fresh air? Maybe paddleboard in the morning and drink Champagne at night? There was already a mass exodus of city dwellers to more rural areas, including the Finger Lakes. Chances are, some of their wine bar guests would be down for a getaway.

The cons? The place needed work. Not only did it require sprucing up, but it lacked permits from the Department of Health, zoning as a restaurant, a liquor license, and other necessities to make it a complete business, including a wine collection. It was some five hours away by car from the wine bar, and the start of summer loomed.

Ganzer quickly found the owners, who had purchased the campsite as an investment property in late 2019. They were “super down” with the idea, so Ganzer rallied his team to take a trip north. The timing aligned with the temporary closing of the wine bar. Because of the unrest brewing in New York after the death of George Floyd, Ganzer had boarded the windows and told the team to stay safe away from nearby SoHo, which was seeing a bout of vandalism. They rented a house near the potential property and packed their cars for a week away. It was June 1.

Ganzer’s head of communications and events, Sarah Stafford, ran with the idea of calling it Supernatural Lake, a play on the English translation of Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels: “company of supernatural wine.” She says that they didn’t consider other names; it just felt like a natural evolution of the property in Manhattan. With a concept and a structure, they recruited seven team members to move there for five months and bought some paint.

“The reality of what was in front of us was at hand, and there was this hangover of being drunk on optimism, now knowing that you have to wake up and just do it,” Ganzer says. “There was so much to do every single day. We can all output, but I was not used to this level of organization and functioning.”

Activities at Supernatural Lake last summer included live outdoor music, a weekly Friday night pig roast, and, of course, wine tastings.
Kypo Karamas/Heneli Heritage Photography

It was truly a community project. Everyone worked on everything, whether that was liaising with the town clerk for rezoning or physically moving furniture. They had to fast-track the processes for a liquor license but also manage the ever-changing COVID-related protocols set by the state, while decorating and learning how to staff a hospitality property. At a coffee shop in nearby Geneva, Stafford found a local designer, Mike Jasik, to do the design work, like the colorful logo, and the owners of the property brought their A game, stripping paint. Ganzer handed his credit card to his interior designer friends to run with the decor idea for the rooms, and he called up the director of hotels at Experimental Group to get a primer on how to operate a hotel, which, he says, is much more involved than running a wine bar. Stafford says they had to learn best practices around cottage pricing and booking platforms, among other aspects.

“One thing that was easier about this than any restaurant I have ever opened is that we had all worked together before,” Stafford says. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It felt very organic, the kind of roles that people fell into.”

Though there were challenges living and working together 24/7, the team explain that the real hurdles were external, rather than interpersonal. COVID protocols made zoning a nightmare. The restaurant space was zoned for 200 people, which was too large for anything during the pandemic. They got creative once again, building a wall and installing an art exhibit that prohibited guests from walking in a huge part of the room.

One may imagine that the wine bar could just empty the cellar in New York City and drive it in a truck to Interlaken. Nope, that’s not the case. Liquor purchasing involves a draconian and elaborate three-tier system, with importers, distributors, and wholesalers. The team could not call a Finger Lakes winery five minutes away and buy a case of Riesling like a consumer could. Instead, they had to find that winery’s representative at a distributor to order through a middleman. It would then be delivered from the distributor’s stock. “Because of the three-tier system, a lot of [Finger Lakes wine] was sitting in New York City warehouses and had to be trucked back up there,” Ganzer says. “It was so ridiculous.”

The only part of the wine buying process that felt like a breeze was the fact that the team happened upon the sale of a cellar from a local French restaurant closing because of COVID. Because it’s a loophole in the law, they could purchase the wine from the restaurant, pick it up themselves, and immediately begin selling it at their restaurant. They bought it on the day that they received their liquor license. To add to the luck, the collection was full of old vintage European wines they would have served anyway—the vibe exactly fit what they were looking for. They simply added a few favorites they often ordered for Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels and go-tos from the Finger Lakes. They had a nine-page wine list in no time.

On July 7, just six weeks later, Supernatural Lake debuted. “Looking back on it, the physical transformation of the space in the Finger Lakes created by such a tiny team is just incredible,” explains Catherine Fanelli, a sommelier who ditched her Brooklyn apartment to work at the pop-up. “The pandemic also created such a microcosm of an experience there, because not many other places were open or functioning normally. It was an absolute joy to be part of the community and create regulars at the restaurant in such a short time.”

Fanelli was into the idea of being a part of Supernatural Lake because she genuinely enjoys her job alongside Ganzer’s energy. The collaborative nature of what she gets to do makes her feel like an integral part of the team, something she hasn’t necessarily experienced at other restaurants. “2020 was a year that forced everyone to truly rely on one another both in and outside of work, and it was very special to see peoples’ unique strengths shine,” she adds.

Inside one of the cottages at Supernatural Lake.
Kypo Karamas/Heneli Heritage Photography

Supernatural Lake ran through Oct. 31, 2020, and it was sold out every weekend. The property quickly developed a following. The wine bar drew locals and visitors alike, whether or not the out-of-towners stayed at the hotel. The Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels website still sells swag, like hooded sweatshirts, because guests still ask about it. Stafford says they were overwhelmed by the positive feedback of the guest experience, with several customers sharing it was “the highlight of the year.” For her, it reinforced why she got into hospitality in the first place.

Ganzer admits that they didn’t turn a profit financially, but they did yield something much more important: a happy team that made money to pay their bills. He felt an obligation to create jobs and kept anyone on his team employed who wanted to work. That alone was reason enough to undertake the project. If they had only the wine bar in New York City, he says, there is no way he could have rehired his furloughed employees for those five months.

“We had nothing to lose by doing it, Ganzer says. “I have been kicking around a lot over these last several months, just trying to make sure you are leading from the right place. We had two reasons for going up there: We needed to employ people and provide a guest experience. It has been reassuring to know why we do what we do and that we can do it again.”