A little slice of wine, cheese and life

By Robyn James

A little over 20 years ago, I was an on-premise sales rep for a large North Carolina wine distributor. I sold wine to wine and cheese shops and upscale restaurants in the Piedmont area. It was a great job. I trained at many popular wineries — Robert Mondavi, Sterling and Jordan. My company sent me on recruiting trips to California wine country as well as trips to France and Germany. If I wasn’t necessarily married to my job, I was married to my boss. When we decided to divorce I moved into my parents’ basement in Whispering Pines with my 10-year-old son in tow.

I couldn’t find work, and it was becoming clear that my mother was descending into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I got a referral to a new doctor in town to be treated for depression. I filled out my paperwork, and Dr. Bobby Maynor stepped into the room. He said, “I see you say your interest is in wine. Where do you go to take wine classes?”

I said, “Oh, I don’t take wine classes. I give wine classes.” We had a long discussion about our shared passion for wine and speculated about creating a cool project in town. Three days later he phoned me and said, “If you want to do this, I am on board and I know someone else who may be interested.”

Bobby introduced me to Dr. Charles Durell, a true wine aficionado and diehard Francophile, and the three of us opened a small retail wine shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southern Pines. In the early days we were just sliding by. I worked mostly by myself with Charles filling in as much as he could. I met Andie, a graphic designer with an office next door to our store. She told me she was looking for a smoke-free place to meet her friends for drinks one night a week and wondered if we would consider being a little wine bar on Wednesday nights. I thought, sure, why not?

We started opening one night a week, calling it Wine on Wednesday. The crowd started to grow, more people catching on to it, enjoying the varied selections of wines by the glass. We tried staying open Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It bombed. People came for Wine on Wednesday. That was it. We tried serving food and nobody bought it. We threw it all away. Sometimes timing is everything.

Our space was small, and I felt like we didn’t offer much in the way of ambience. Parking was a serious challenge for our customers. One day, my Dad called and said, “Guess what, the building you always wanted on Broad Street next to the ABC store is for rent.” I said, “Grab the number!”

But we were struggling, and moving a business is a serious expense. That was when Bobby introduced me to his friends Neil and Sole Griffin. They became our third set of partners, and we moved across town knowing there is no better location for us than next to the ABC store. We had great landlords who were awesome supporters of our business and worked hard to convert it from a nasty, dive bar to a cool, shabby, chic wine bar.

Today, we’re a 50/50 retail store, wine bar open seven nights a week, selling tons of food. We’ve added two additions to the inside space and extended the patio three times. We started offering a printed menu of the foods we offer and the wines by the glass and half glass, a balanced, eclectic selection that changes daily. In 2011 we purchased the first set of Napa Technology machines in Moore County so we could offer eight different very high-end wines by the taste, half glass and glass. Preserved by argon gas, they allow the customer to try wines they may never have had the opportunity to taste.

Three years ago, Taylor Norbury joined us as manager of the store. She and her husband added an edgy craft beer selection, hunting down awesome draft equipment so we could offer an ever-changing selection of craft beers on tap. She streamlined the staff, recruiting personnel with sharp customer service skills.

Two decades of life and work. And the doors are open.  PS

Robyn James is a certified sommelier and proprietor of The Wine Cellar and Tasting Room in Southern Pines. Contact her at robynajames@gmail.com.

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