Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
May, 2004 Friends meets Cheers at Iron Bridge
So you want to run a foodservice business. But which type? A coffee shop? A fine-dining restaurant? Maybe a wine bar, or a retail wine shop.
Why not all five wrapped up in one?
That's the compromise Steve and Rob Wecker agreed on when they decided to open Iron Bridge Wine Company last year in Columbia, Maryland. They bought an old roadside saloon along State Route 108 with a view of pastures across the road and dressed up the interior with urban-casual pizzazz. Think Friends meets Cheers.
The brothers wanted to break their home town out of "chain restaurant hell," explains Steve Wecker, and they appear to have succeeded. On a recent Monday night visit, the small parking lot was packed and patrons endured short waits as earlier diners lingered at the bar, the cushy sofas or the few scattered tables. (The restaurant seats about 40.) Friday evening waits have extended beyond an hour, Steve explains with a hint of satisfaction blended with astonishment in his voice.
As first time visitors, we got "the speech" from Steve, who presided over the house that evening with enough energy and cheer to light up a strip mall. The wines on the shelves were arranged from light-and-crisp whites near the door progressing to "big honkin' reds" along the back wall behind the bar. All of them were available for retail purchase, or we could select one to have with dinner for a $5 corkage fee. The menu featured 20 wines by the glass (a selection that changes every few weeks), three flights for comparative tasting, a few appetizers and a small but well-conceived selection of "Small Entrees." Not exactly tapas, these are restaurant servings scaled back to human size. You end up paying $15 instead of $25 and leaving without the doggie bag of leftovers that never taste as good as tomorrow's lunch anyway.
The small corkage-over-retail pricing for restaurant wine is not unique to Iron Bridge (Evening Star Café in Alexandria, Va., uses it, as does Tastings in Charlottesville), but it is a welcome relief from typical restaurant markups. The Blackjack Ranch "Double Down" Syrah from Santa Barabara County that we picked for dinner cost us $34; while I may have been reluctant to pay $29 retail for a wine I'd never tasted, $34 seemed cheap compared to $45-plus at typical restaurant markups. (The wine was excellent.)
The Howard County license that allows on-premise and off-premise sales pays off for the Weckers in other ways, too. One of the by-the-glass offerings that night was a Plozner Tocai Friuliano from northern Italy. Anyone asking for a Pinot Grigio was steered to this crisp but aromatic white. Many patrons who tried it left with bottles tucked under their arms as the cash register toted up the extra purchases.
The brothers hope to franchise their concept, though maybe without the coffee-bar add-on. They eyed Montgomery County, but that jurisdiction's Neanderthal alcohol licensing system poured ice water on that idea.
Rob Wecker is in charge of the wine selection, which boasts more than 400 wines with an emphasis on small producers. "To have the mass-produced wines didn't make sense," he says. "It wasn't the kind of game we wanted to get into. We're a privately owned small business, so we like to support the small, family-owned wineries. "
He doesn't shy away from offering expensive wines by the glass, either, with six-ounce pours priced at a quarter of the bottle's retail price. So while $15-20 may be a lot to pay for a glass of wine, diners are not insulted by mundane selections typical of many restaurants.
"We want people to have fun with wine," Rob says. "It doesn't have to be intimidating. We have people here who know nothing about wine and people who know everything about wine."
Iron Bridge Wine Co., 10435 State Route 108, Columbia, Md. 21044. 410-997-3456. http://www.ironbridgewines.com. Open daily at 8 a.m. Lunch service from 11-2; dinner service from 5-10 p.m. Sunday - Thursday; until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Now here's a retail concept that has me salivating: A theme mall, with the theme being wine and food. "Wine Country Mall" is coming to Northern Virginia. Or at least that's the plan for Larry M. Williams and Terry Marasco, founders of Themed Mall Holdings in Santa Rosa, California.
With the aim of opening sometime in 2005, Williams and Marasco hope to create an "adult" mall featured around the wine country lifestyle. Instead of the typical chain stores, they hope to attract restaurants and regional food producers and showcase the local bounty. The mall will be anchored by a wine retail outlet, and several "stores" will be offered to temporary tenants for several months. That will allow small artisan producers of cheese, breads or even dorky wine tee-shirts to gain exposure to customers, while offering more shopping variety and a reason for customers to keep coming back.
And what would a visit to "wine country" be without a winery tour? As part of an educational program based at the mall Williams and Marasco are planning a small demonstration winery, and even a cheese factory.
Sonoma Jack and Fumé Blanc, anyone?
Wines of the Month:
Palacio de Bornos Verdejo 2002, Rueda, Spain. A delightful quaffer for warm-weather sipping, this wine somehow manages to be refreshing and full at the same time. At about $6 per bottle, it can't be beat for value. Make it your "house white" for summer, and make your guests happy, too.
Recommended for: Aperitif, tapas, light appetizers or seafood dishes.
Imported by Kysela Père et Fils, Winchester, Va.
Pelee Island Winery Pinot Gris 2002, Ontario ($12). Too bad Franklin, Jefferson and Adams didn't draw the U.S.-Canadian border a little farther north through Lake Erie when they negotiated the Treaty of Paris; that way we might have more of this wine here in the U.S. This sports the coppery color of a good Gris (not the typical pale imitation common to many Pinot Grigios), with apricot flavors and a hint of refreshing mint on the medium finish. A good drinking value, plus the conversational value as a bonus.
Recommended for: Appetizers, seafood, stir fry, light chicken dishes.
Imported by Josulete Wines, Redford, Mich.
Pepi 2003 Pinot Grigio, Oregon ($11). Oregon simply makes some darn good Pinot Gris. This one from California-based Pepi, a Kendall-Jackson property, may be lighter in body (and price) than most from Oregon, and thus perhaps the Grigio label. But it has the flavor, balance and acidity that make good Pinot Gris/Grigios ideal for food instead of swilling.
Recommended for: Appetizers, seafood, stir fry, light chicken dishes.
© 2004 by Dave McIntyre
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.