Standing out in the sea of options available to potential customers is important for any type of bar. This isn’t any less true for wine bars. Let’s examine some ways you can laser in on your concept, perfect the details and make it a reality. Don’t worry – there aren’t any clever wine-related puns in this article. The point here is to help you dial in a killer concept that will have the grapevine abuzz with excitement. So uncork that bottle of inspiration you’ve been storing in your cellar, pour a glass and sip on this.
Harvest Your Ideas
Whether you’re planning to operate in a bustling metropolis or quaint hamlet, you won’t survive being just another bar. You must identify that thing, that hook, which will set you apart from the competition. The majority of eateries out there have at least a decent wine selection so you need to keep in mind that you’re entering the fray against restaurants and not just other bars. Even a somewhat broad concept can help you stand out among the crowd. Perhaps you want to specialize in wines only from South America. Maybe your concept involves offering lesser known or even forgotten grape varietals such as Norton, Nero D’Avola or Dolcetto. Whatever your concept, it must be fully realized to be executed properly. I hate to be the 17 trillionth person to say that patience is a virtue (particularly because there’s no prize in it for me) but, when it comes to bringing all the details together, if the cliché fits…
“I’ve been working on this project for about 4 of 5 years now and realized the concept a little over a year and a half ago,” says Mikey Consbruck of V Wine Bar, located in West Hollywood, CA.
Mikey spent more than two years just working on pinning down and putting the polish on the concept of his bar. He saw two specific needs and took the time to figure out just how to make V Wine Bar succeed.
“I wanted to give the small producers a voice in Los Angeles,” says Mikey of his concept, now in its 19th month of operation, “Conversely, I also wanted to give Angelenos the opportunity to try different, unique, really good small batch wines at a price that’s approachable as opposed to going to a restaurant and paying four, five, six hundred dollars for a bottle of wine because it’s unique and different and it’s a limited production. That’s really out of a lot of people’s range.”
Check Out the Roots
Just how is your wine bar going to fit into the neighborhood? Is the community in which you’ll be operating made up of enough of the demographic you seek to capture? Will your design aesthetic appeal to that demographic? Look into the history of both the neighborhood and the building in which you’re doing business. You may be offering the community something unique but you must still find a way to show that you belong. There’s a big difference and razor thin line between unique and novel and the latter can get old and stale really quickly. Do a little research and you might just find some fantastic details you can use to really pull off your concept and theme.
Using V Wine Bar as an example, the business occupies space on a historical site where there once stood a library. Mikey decided to pay homage to the history and incorporate it into his theme, going as far to offer customers library cards on which they can keep track of the wines they’ve tried and write down tasting notes. These are kept in a library card catalog and, as an added bonus, the cards capture guest email addresses.
Snip the Red Tape
Another critical element of your concept is the ability to explain it clearly and concisely to the people who can either make your vision a reality or scuttle the idea outright. That doesn’t just mean future patrons, either. If local officials can’t, don’t or won’t understand your concept, they’ll likely shrug their shoulders, label your idea “another bar” and decide the area has enough of those already. Potential landlords can also pose a problem – if they can’t grasp how you’re attempting to use their space, they may just shake their heads and tell you they aren’t interested. Mikey almost didn’t open in his current location because the landlord didn’t want a restaurant in the space. While V Wine Bar serves cheeses, berries, grapes, olive oils, olives, nuts, breads, pastries, charcuterie plates, coffees and teas, they’re no restaurant. That didn’t stop the landlord, however, from saying that he didn’t want a restaurant in his building and almost putting the kibosh on V. Learn how to articulate your vision to others and help them visualize and understand it. And let’s not forget to invite the people who “got it” to your grand opening.
Later this month we’ll get into choosing distributors or brokers. For now, let’s talk about relationships with wineries and winemakers. Yes, the juice is the star of your bar but let’s not forget the men and women who created the wines you’ve chosen to feature on your menu. Part of dialing in your concept needs to include visiting the wineries that produce the wines which fit within your concept. It should be safe to assume that your concept isn’t going to simply consist of offering a selection of the most popular, most commonly known wines out there since pretty much any chain restaurant near your business will have those on their menu. With that assumption in mind, it’s imperative that you and your staff visit wineries and get to know the winemakers.
The first obvious benefit is that being able to intelligently speak about the winemaker to customers can really ramp up their interest and confidence that you and your staff really know you’re stuff. Second, you can free up vital capital when it isn’t tied up in shipping costs, unwieldy case minimums and tier-based case costs. Developing good working relationships with wineries can lead to free shipping of cases, while visiting these locations offers you the chance to simply pick up cases on the spot and take them with you, once again eliminating the cost of shipping. Such relationships can also earn you incredibly valuable perks like access to first pressings, exclusive bottles, limited run magnums, wines normally reserved for the winery’s club members and visits to your wine bar from the winemakers themselves.
The Right Staff
The wine world is – and has been for some time – embroiled in a controversy regarding just what qualifies a person to serve wine. Several camps support various opinions on just what makes somebody a sommelier, also known as wine steward. There are those who believe a sommelier must be a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers (there are 4 levels to attempt to achieve, no big deal) while others believe the Certified Wine Expert or Certified Specialist of Wine certification is just as good as Court membership. Some feel that anyone with a thirst for knowledge and a love of wine who can effectively help customers navigate a wine list can be considered a wine steward. Still others think that sommelier and wine steward should be titles used to differentiate between certificate holders and those without formal certification.
Whether you choose to hire the formally trained, armchair oenophiles or engaging bartenders interested in wine, your staff needs to understand your concept and fit within it. Yes, those you hire must demonstrate a knowledge of and interest in (love for, really) wine, but do they “get” what you’re trying to do? A simple test when interviewing potential sommeliers/stewards is to ask them, after you’ve explained your concept, to explain their understanding of it to you. Do their eyes light up with excitement? Does their body language signal their eagerness to work the concept? If they’re enthusiastic about your concept they’ll be an invaluable asset in selling it to the community.
Just like grapes require time to ripen, your concept needs to be nurtured and given time to grow. Take it slow, get all of your details worked out and know when to strike. It’s important to conceptualize but vital to avoid becoming mired in your own thoughts. Make sure wine is the star and people will flock to come and crush a cup in your bar.