Back in 2013 I quit my 9 -5 job to follow my passion, wine. We sold our dream home, picked up roots and moved to Bluffton, South Carolina, a quaint historic Southern town just off Hilton Head Island. We opened a wine bar. Of course, we still needed a regular income so hubby went to work for the Town of Bluffton while I focused on getting the bar built out, designing the layout for everything in the bar, buying all the kitchen and bar supplies AND tasting lots and lots of wine to build our wine list from.
The bar, Latitude Wine Bar, only lasted two years. We opened the doors the first part of February, 2014 and closed them the end of January, 2016. Some would call that being successful in this type of industry. The majority of restaurants and bars close within the first 6 – 12 months. I still question every operational decision I made over that two years wondering if….
Tina Morey from Wine Studio invited me to be the guest host on her weekly virtual Twitter Chat discussing passion and the paths we choose to follow our passion.
Our Focus for #winestudio:
I’d like to talk about the concept of passion and how it can move us in certain directions without sometimes knowing the full scope of what we’re asking it to do.
Q: Passion is one thing, but executing is quite another. Jean, how did it all come about?My husband suggested (on a whim) that because I had such a passion for wine and loved talking about it with anyone who would listen that we should open a wine bar. He didn’t have to suggest it twice. Of course, we put a lot of thought into this before we actually put the wheels in motion.
- Originally we had planned to locate the wine bar close to our home in Winston Salem.
- But we ended up moving to Bluffton at my daughter’s urging as she had moved here a year prior. She thought I would never have any time off to come visit and spend time with her and the grandkids. She was right about that; living just up the road from them, it was still very difficult to find a lot of free time so it was really good that we were close.
- I originally planned to keep my job and hire a manager. I was only going to work weekends and let the manager close every night through the week. But after I quit my job and we moved the location for the bar, it was only logical for me to manage it.
Q: When did you realize that it wasn’t working out? Early on we realized the environment and customer base were different than what we had anticipated. We had to overcome hurdles that were not part of the planning process – things that I don’t know that we would have realized even if we had lived here prior to starting the wine bar.
- People that have moved here from areas where there was a true wine culture tend to live in private neighborhoods that include private golf clubs. These clubs offer wine tastings direct from the distributors and then allow the members/residents to purchase wines at cost. There’s no need for them to buy in bulk from someone like me or to even frequent wine bars very often because it was cheaper and offered the same quality wines through their private clubs.
- People who frequented the Promenade (the historic district where the wine bar was located) wanted more than just a wine bar. There were a few other bars located in the Promenade – one specifically referred to itself as a “wine boutique.” They had sports tv’s around the bar so you can watch your favorite game and as soon as you walk through the door, the bartender starts offering shots. The locals were shocked that I didn’t offer tv’s and sports and even more shocked that I didn’t serve hard liquor.
Any particular pivotal moment? Yes. Last fall we had reached the point where I had to have help at the bar 1 or 2 nights a week, but you can’t find anyone to work only 1 or 2 nights, everyone needed/expected more hours. So I hired someone to work 3 nights/week (Thurs – Sat). When I was the only one working the front of the house, all tips that came thru on credit cards stayed in the company and helped cover the bills. Once I started paying tips out to my employee, there wasn’t enough money to cover everything. We were personally putting a few hundred dollars back into the bar every month – and this was almost 2 years in. We felt like we were putting in money we didn’t have just to keep the wine bar afloat and we were literally doing without at home.
Q: How much does public perception weigh into opening a wine bar? Can we change it? I think perception depends on where you live and the wine culture that surrounds that area. For example, there are only 17 wineries in the state of SC. Typically when someone here says they love wine, they really have no concept of what wine is.
- In my mind, a wine bar is just that – a wine bar. You serve great wines, offer a great selection of wines to please a variety of palates. You serve charcuterie and flatbreads and create simple pairings and small plates that bring out the best in these wines. But here, people wanted hard liquor and sports TVs all around the room. They wanted to come in to watch the game and do shots. A true wine bar concept was not what the locals were looking for and they thought that I didn’t understand what a wine bar was supposed to be. They also wanted a true dinner menu with heartier food selections.
Q: Social Media. Jean admits her social media became nonexistent because of the demands of the bar. Where does that leave you now? Way behind the eight ball. I’m trying to get back into it, but things have changed over the last 3 years. Because there is no real wine industry here, I can’t seem to find the motivation to write on my blog again. I gain Twitter followers everyday, but am probably about 10K followers less than where I should be. I’m not even sure where people generally look to find out about wine(s) anymore.
- I am spending more time with my FB page, trying to get it moving in the right direction. Hoping to start live video streaming while I talk wine.
Q: What advice do you have for others who talk of their wine passion and wanting to open their own business? I think my biggest mistake was moving to an area where I wasn’t familiar with the wine culture – or lack thereof. I truly believe had I opened my wine bar in Winston Salem where my alter ego of “Red Wine Diva” already had a reputation of knowing wine and where I was connected in the wine industry, we would be having a different conversation today.
If having a wine bar or restaurant, owning your own winery, making your own wine, or even working in some other capacity in the wine world is your passion, you have to give it a shot. You have to try. Even though I had to close my wine bar, I don’t regret trying. We were there for 2 years – most restaurants and bars close within 6-12 months. If you look at it that way, we were successful.
- Nobody here knew who Red Wine Diva was – and truth be known, they really didn’t care. Don’t give up who you are – that’s what has gotten you this far and it will go a long way on carrying you through.
- Occasionally I would get a call from a winery who had found out I was pouring their wines thanking me for doing so. I actually received a call from the PR rep for Chateau Tanunda in the Spring of 2014. John Geber, the owner of the winery, was taking a yacht up the East Coast and inviting distributors and buyers to cruise for an evening with him to taste his wines. They wanted me to come for a private tasting and spend the afternoon on the yacht. Naturally I accepted. Thrilled, I immediately called my distributor that carried these wines to let her know. Turns out she already knew about the East Coast tour. The distributorship had invited “select customers” to join them for an evening. I wasn’t one of those customers. Immediately the distributor wanted to know who invited me and why. Then they started apologizing for not including me and suggested I give up my private tasting and join their group for an evening out. I opted for the private tasting.
Q: Jean, what are your main learning experiences for you personally? What have you gained from this major experience? Wine was and is my passion. Some people are fortunate enough to work with the things they are this passionate about. If you can do that, by all means go for it, but just know that it is okay for your passion to be your hobby and your pastime – a time where you can relax and truly enjoy what you love. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you become so stressed that your passion starts to lose its glimmer.
- Even though we’ve had to close the wine bar, we still had fun. We met some GREAT people – people that are dear friends today. And the wines that I had the privilege of tasting – OMG! We carried a great selection of wines – wines that typically would not be within my budget. And yes, I brought some of those home when we closed! 😉
Q: Where can we find Jean now? I am trying to put together a couple of different things. Nothing big has materialized yet, but you will definitely see posts on FB and Twitter as (if) these things unfold.
- If you are ever in the area on a Thursday, come join me at one of the local watering holes where a group of us go out to celebrate #ThirstyThursday and Happy Hour!
This update just in – South Carolina has some very restrictive laws pertaining to alcohol. Since we don’t have wineries that come to events and pour wine, the distributors do this. Then sell the wines through the licensee (private club, restaurant, etc.). Our most recent law now prevents the distributors from pouring at these tasting events/festivals. I have been asked by some distributors if I would like to start pouring. YES – Will Work For Wine! (or money…)
Some questions from the participants were:
- Dezel Quillen (Twitter @myvinespot): How much did the wine list really matter? In reality it didn’t, especially not here because of the limited wine culture. We would have people come into the wine bar and simply ask for a Chardonnay. They wouldn’t look at the list. They had no idea if they wanted oaky and buttery or crisp and clean – they just wanted something familiar.
- Debbie Gioquindo (Twitter @hvwinegoddess): What didn’t you find in all of this? My whole reason for wanting to open the wine bar was to be able to share wine experiences with people. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I was able to sit on “the other side” of the bar and just talk with customers.
- Melissa Vedrin(Twitter @VedrinMelissa): Is there one thing you wish you had done? I spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to come up with something GREAT that was going to take us to the next level. We tried a lot of different things. The best thing we did was offer cooking classes. We would have guest chefs come in and prepare simple dishes at a prep table in the seating/lounge area using an induction burner showing step-by-step how to prepare the foods. We would have enough of each item already prepared in the kitchen so that we could serve each guest a good sized sample portion of the food along with a predetermined wine pairing. The menu, the recipes and the wine tasting notes were printed up and given to the guests to take home after the class. Participants could order the wines at a significant discount. These classes were very popular and always sold out. But you could only do them once a month because it took so much to put them together.