Calgary Wine Life: Meet Jesse Willis @ Vine Arts

29 06 2012

[Cross-posted at]

Calgary, Jesse. Jesse, Calgary.

I walked into the Vine Arts retail space for the first time a couple of weeks ago and, like I do in most wine stores, I looked for the Germany section.  There wasn’t one.  No Riesling section either. Rather than sorting its vinous wares by country or by grape, the more or less universal ways of arranging a wine shop, Vine Arts had catalogued and displayed all its wines by adjective, grouping whites under headings like “Off-Dry & Aromatic” or “Light & Fresh” and reds under headings like “Bold & Structured”, “Spicy Earthy Funky” or, my favourite, “Smooth & Sexy”.  That simple but radical design choice is why I believe Jesse Willis when he tells me he’s trying to do things differently.

Like so many others that I know in the wine industry, Willis came to his grape-soaked calling from a completely different vocation:  he had an established small business as a personal fitness trainer in 2006, but a major shoulder operation had him looking at alternative career paths.  Willis’ first interaction with the wine business wasn’t an overly pleasant one — “I worked at a little neighbourhood liquor store when I was 20 years old while going to college and was pretty much convinced that ‘wine people’ were full of it when wine reps would drop by and start describing flavours of tobacco and pencil shavings in their bottles” — but with more exposure and tasting opportunities came the inevitable passion for both the drink and the industry.  Leaving the fitness world behind, Willis first worked for a wine and spirits import agency and then for a local specialty retail boutique, and in 2008 he obtained his Sommelier Diploma from the International Sommelier’s Guild.  His rapid ascent in the Calgary wine world continued when he and business partner Jeff Jamieson branched out on their own and opened Vine Arts on 1st Street SW earlier this year.  Willis also acts as the Wine Director for Taste Restaurant, a dynamite small-plates spot just down the street from his new shop.

Wine By Adjective: consumer-friendly retail?

Although it may seem like a dramatic progression to go from industry neophyte to store owner in a span of less than six years, for Willis the end goal was in sight almost from the beginning.  “I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial edge and knew fairly early on that one day I wanted to open up my own shop.  I saw that there was a growing number of young, educated professionals who were getting interested in wine and food.  Being a young wine lover myself I realized that although there are a number of great wine shops in Calgary, none of them (in my opinion) were really catering to this audience.  I wanted to push the envelope and create something that nobody had seen before.  Above all, I wanted to make wine fun and inviting.”  As a member of Willis’ target demographic, I was interested to see how the Vine Arts store carried out this vision; to me, it did so both by attention to design detail and by reducing the fear of the unknown that so many people face when walking into a wine shop.

The circus is now definitely in town.

With its dark wood panelling, polished concrete floor, industrial-inspired ceiling and smart period touches — a pair of 19th century church doors in the back, a harvest table for tastings made from an antique snooker table and surfaced with wood from used whiskey barrels — Vine Arts looks as much like a contemporary design store as a wine boutique, complete with a posh mini-library along one wall.  This look was intentional, designed to highlight the pedigree of the product.  As Willis puts it, “when people walked in I wanted them to feel like they were in New York or London rather than what people normally expect to find in Calgary.”  While these parts of the store’s layout play up wine’s role as a luxury product, they are expertly balanced by other parts of the design meant to cut through snobbishness and make the bottles on the shelves accessible to anyone.  Case in point:  the entire store is based on an old-time turn-of-the-century circus theme, as evidenced by the old school moustachioed strongman who can be seen on a gigantic original mural on the back wall of the shop and who doubles as Vine Arts’ mascot.  The adjective-based wine organization is another casual nod to make each bottle seem less alien to the person buying it:  you may not know what kind of wines come out of Portugal or Chile, but everybody knows what “Smooth & Sexy” means.  “I wanted people to feel comfortable walking into the store,” Willis says.  “I wanted to create an environment where people could learn about wine and shop without feeling intimidated.”  This is an important bridge for many young professionals (myself included), who want to experience the finer things in life but who may need some guidance about how best to appreciate them.  And as for the circus theme?  “I truly believe that wine should be an experience, and I think the circus is the same.  I imagined a small town in the midwest USA, 1920s/1930s, when the circus rolled into town.  I think wine can bring the same excitement and play the same role, taking us away from our hectic lives and forcing us to slow down and smell the proverbial roses.”

The mural, like the store: fun, hip, original.

Vine Arts was an idea years in the making, with Willis and Jamieson starting work on the business plan for the shop 3 years before the doors finally opened to paying customers.  Some of that time was spent haggling with the legalities and regulations that go along with selling liquor for a living, but much of it was devoted to finding the right place to set up shop, and Willis is convinced that the newly-gentrified Victoria Park area of the Beltline is an ideal spot for a specialty wine store.  “With the kind of boutique concept that we envisioned with Vine Arts, location was absolutely critical.  I’ve been watching the development of Victoria Park and 1st Street SW for the last number of years and recognized that it was one of the last Beltline communities with a high population density and a great demographic that wasn’t already serviced by a wine store.  We saw the direction that the area was going in and knew it fit perfectly with our vision.”  Some of that aforementioned density is literally sitting on top of the shop:  Vine Arts is located in the ground floor of the Colours by Battistella condominium complex on 1st Street and 13th Avenue SW, making them the downstairs neighbour to 209 units worth of paying customers up above.  Less than half a year after the doors opened, Willis couldn’t be happier with how things have gone with his first wine ownership venture:  “The response in the first few months of business has been overwhelming.  Jeff and I are totally humbled by the outpouring of support and positive feedback we’ve gotten so far.  We’ve tried to build a solid selection of unique and interesting wines that deliver value, and we really believed in the vision for the revitalized 1st Street SW and are glad that so far people seem to agree with our approach.”

Assuming that the above discussion (or the Zangief-esque mascot alone) is enough to make you want to check out Vine Arts for yourselves, what should you look for when you get there?  Well, I’ll tell you…or, more accurately, Jesse will, in the official PnP/CIA Vine Arts Buying Guide:

Q.  Let’s hit both ends of the price spectrum:  (1) What’s your bargain vino of choice in the shop for under $20?  Why?  (2) If money was no object but I wanted my mind to be blown by a bottle, what would you point me to?

Jesse Willis:  Hmmmm….I have a number of bargain wines of choice — I’ll do a red and a white.  Fod the red, the 2011 Casa Viva Pinot Noir is outstanding and has been a massive hit.  Anyone who’s tried to find a decent bottle of Pinot for under $20 knows it can be a bit of a tall order, but the Casa Viva is outstanding for $17.50.  My house white wine is the Telmo Rodriguez Basa Blanco from Spain. A blend of the local grapes Viura and Verdejo, along with a splash of Sauvignon Blanc, it’s crazy delicious, crisp and refreshing and outstanding value at $17.

If money was no option, I think I would chose the 2007 Avignonesi Vino Nobile de Montepulciano “Grandi Annate” from Tuscany ($90). This isn’t the most expensive wine in the store, but I can’t think of a wine that brings me as much pure joy every time I taste it as this one. Only made in the best years, the aroma is like no other wine I’ve ever tasted. It’s like sticking your face into a bowl of perfectly ripe black cherries and lavender mixed together. Absolutely divine!

Q.  What Vine Arts exclusive are you most proud of?  What’s something special that I can get from you and nobody else?

Jesse Willis:  We don’t have a lot of “exclusive” wines, but there are two I am pretty proud of.  The 2009 Manoir du Carra Fleurie “Vers le Monts” is an outstanding single vineyard Beaujolais.  Light and fresh, it stands up to a lot of Pinot Noir that is twice its price.  On the other end of the spectrum we have the Tobin James “Ballistic” Zinfandel.  I believe we are one of the only retail stores in Canada to get it. It’s been a massive hit, which is fitting as it’s a MASSIVE wine.  Big, silky and super rich.  Decadent and delicious!  Also one of the ugliest labels in wine, but I guess you can get away with it when your wine is that awesome.

Q.  I try to ask this question to everyone:  What’s your top “black sheep” bottle, the one that is generally ignored by customers even though you feel it should be flying off your shelves?

Jesse Willis:  I think that the white wines from Austria often get completely overlooked, but they are some of the most unique, interesting and delicious wines in the world.  We have the 2010 Rabl Gruner Veltliner “Spiegel” on the shelf and I feel like we are constantly fighting an uphill battle trying to get people to try it.  Due to the flute-shaped bottle and proximity to Germany, people often assume the wine will be sweet — in reality, it is bone dry, with a level of depth and complexity that is well beyond its modest $19.50 price point.

Q.  Finally, since Vine Arts groups its wines by flavour adjective instead of country, which of your wines best match the words (1) flamboyant, (2) brooding, (3) omnipotent, and (4) seductive?  Think of this as an alcoholic Rorschach test.

Jesse Willis:  (1) Flamboyant:  Tobin James “Ballastic” Zinfandel — Paso Robles, California ($35) [see above for more discussion of this wine]

(2) Brooding:  Paisajes Rioja “Valsalado” — Rioja, Spain ($46)

(3) Omnipotent:  Diebolt-Vallois “Prestige Brut” Champagne ($69) [Author’s Note:  I tossed this word in on a lark, but now I really want to try this omnipotent wine.  Omnipotent wine!!]

(4) Seductive:  Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria (sweet white) — Sicily, Italy ($38)

Vine Arts is located at 1310 – 1st Street SW.  If they put their mascot on a T-shirt, I would buy one.



One response

29 06 2012
Tom Booth

Good article and I particularly enjoyed the interview.


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