After opening a 1,500 square foot wine bar in Fresno on the NE corner of Cedar and Shepherd, owners Chuck and Jen Van Fleet built quite a lunch and after-work following in 2006. They gathered with friends, tasted, toasted and favored bottles of wine together. By 2011, the couple believed their regulars were ready for an expanded food and wine experience.
This summer Vino & Friends Wine Store & Bistro celebrated it’s first anniversary and expansion in the new tasting room, August 4, 2012. The new digs are four doors down in the Via Montana Shopping Center. With chef Katie Parker creating the menu, and a 750 ft. private party room for big groups, food service is now carefully paired, using over 40 wines by the glass or a 300+ bottle line-up. The energy in the air vibrates as people come to meet and hang out.
I arrived at Vino & Friends for a visit with Van Fleet and Steve Lister of JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery to talk about JUSTIN’s award-winning wines, Sept. 22.
Van Fleet, a former Miller Brewing Co. rep. and General Manager for Auto Trader, was hosting Lister, JUSTIN’s wholesale sales manager. The bistro was abuzz. Lister was pouring and sharing tasting notes, so I spent my first 30 minutes with the Vino & Friends owner.
Chuck and Jen’s vision for a wine bar had its roots while they lived in Sacramento. The couple often traveled to Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Napa Valley, visiting favorite restaurants and wine-tasting before deciding to become entrepenuers.
“I wanted to own my own business,” Chuck said, “and after managing the Northern California Online Auto Trader for years, constantly traveling, I was ready to settle down. I wanted to do something I was passionate about. I looked at coffee shops and tanning businesses, but we both loved wine. Vino & Friends has become our passion.”
The bistro’s table and bar were filled to near capacity as Chuck and I spoke. I marveled how the staff energetically interacted with the patrons, serving food throughout my three-hour (2-5 p.m.) visit. The atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable and easy. I saw plates of butternut squash ravioli and specialty burgers go out all afternoon. This is not just a wine bar.
“We had a strong wine club membership at the first location and I was confident it would grow as we expanded,” Van Fleet said. “All they have to do is park in a new spot. And while the new store looked like it might be too big for us, the increased business has created a menu for success.”
The original Vino & Friends only staffed four employees and now Chuck has 26 folks on the payroll. When new hires begin, Chuck trains all of them in tastings and flavor characteristics in food, beer and wine. They all know how to pair the food on the menu with the wine in the shop Chuck said. Chuck believes this has gone a long way to guarantee a successful bistro experience.
“Opening a wine bar and then moving to a larger store didn’t seem risky at either time,” Van Fleet said, “because our growing wine club membership and five years of learning the business put us into a place that created a successful business. At the time we opened in 2006, there wasn’t a lot of competition or wine bars around, so we flourished. We are an independent wine bar and bistro without a corporate ladder to answer to. We listen to our customers and are not afraid to make changes to improve our service or selection.”
Today, Vino & Friends boasts over a 700 wine club membership that is growing each month and a wine list that has far exceeded the original offering.
Van Fleet was careful to point out that Vino & Friends is not trying to compete with the Sequoia Brewing Co. when it comes to beer sales.
“I have a great relationship with the owner, Jeff (Jeff Wolpert of Sequoia),” Chuck said. “We refer and share customers back and forth. In fact, I also enjoy going to Campagnia and appreciate what Tony is doing over there (both establishments near Champlain and Perrin). In fact, Jen and I had a glass of wine at Campagnia to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.”
When Chuck is not taste testing one of his 300+ bottles of wine for his inventory, he enjoys a glass of Heitz Cellars or Buehler Cabernet for dinner. In summer he enjoys a glass of Rosé or Pinot Blanc.
Vino & Friends continued to buzz as Chuck was called to the back for a phone call. The demographics this afternoon were over 75% women, chatting over a glass of JUSTIN wine and appetizers. As the Clovis High’s 30th anniversary reunion leadership group began to arrive with flowers and decorations for their private party, Steve Lister shook Chuck’s hand sat down at my table.
Lister immediately engaged with me, sharing how the Fresno wine market keeps him coming back three to four times a year. On this trip, Flemings Steakhouse was sponsoring a wine dinner and Chuck asked him to lead a JUSTIN wine tasting earlier in the day. Lister was quick to agree and was easily the star attraction this afternoon. He praised Chuck as a wine connoisseur and passionate about the wine business.
“I really identify with the local wine merchants and owners,” Lister said. “I’ve become friends with Chuck and Jen over the years and enjoy promoting wine with them. They are very knowledgeable about California wines, especially from the Paso region. We get together when I am in town and often share a meal as well.”
A Wine and Spirits national salesman, Lister met his wife, Beth, five years ago while she worked at Napa’s Trefethen Family Vineyards. They both happened to be at a wine shop in Los Angeles, hanging out at The Wine House.
Normally quiet and shy away from the wine business, Steve is riding the wave of success at JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery, despite the corporate purchase of the winery from Justin Baldwin. Baldwin, who originally purchased 160 acres in 1981, planted Bordeaux-style blends from estate vineyards in the hills just west of Paso Robles. Today Lister has the enviable job of promoting award-winning wines that came from No. 1 wine region in the world (Wine Spectator 2010).
But it wasn’t always that easy to sell JUSTIN wines.
“When I first started years ago, I used to have to try and convince people to check out what was going on with Paso wines,” Lister said. “Very few folks gave Paso Robles a second look but owner Justin Baldwin was a genius and purchased land that was perfect for the Cabernet Bordeaux-style blends he has made famous. Now people call me and ask what is going on in Paso.”
Lister has been around JUSTIN Winery for over ten years, watching the winery bottle 20,000 cases to 105,000 cases of wine last year. He started when the sales force numbered three folks to over a 100 this year, two years after the winery was sold to Fiji Water.
“My biggest adjustment is learning how to utilize the new tools, people and personnel and recognizing all the additional resources,” Lister said. “The new owners and management have been incredible. We no longer just try to maximize our share of the California market, but are still a small winery going after a national market share. I have found Justin Winery to still be focused on customer service. My passion for wine and people have not changed since Justin Baldwin sold the winery.
The winery came together as a result of Baldwin purchasing land west of Paso Robles when few wanted it. Lister said Baldwin always focused on quality and insisted on buying from partners in the area who had the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes blended them to express a Bordeaux-style for the ISOSCELES and Justification labels.
Their iconic bottle is the ISOSCELES Reserve. Sourced entirely from the home estate vineyard planted in 1981, this wine reflects the pinnacle of Baldwin’s efforts. Vines planted on native root stock, in nutrient depleted soils, are dry farmed and hand harvested. This label can only be purchased via the JUSTIN Wine Society.
Today that quality and patience in building a world-class winery is still a focus as the new corporate ownership has put in new acreage and is introducing a new line of wine called Right Angle: a blend with 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Petite Sirah, 12% Malbec and 7% Petite Verdot. The 2010 is now available for a short time for $30.
“I still believe in the winery and I still champion JUSTIN wine,” Lister said. “I think the sale of the winery was a perfect storm for all of us. We are thriving and have had our best years in consecutive order as the wines of 2008-2010 have been bottled and sold. And I agree with Justin Baldwin when he says, ‘I’m making wines, not trophies.’ Our wines are meant for consumers to consume at a reasonable price.”
After my hour with Lister, my wife, Geena, and I settled down for a tasting of the just released JUSTIN 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. The bottle ($25) had been opened for less than an hour and was delicious. The nose was of black fruit and its velvety texture was ready to drink without food. However, we paired a Trio of Bruschetta ($10.95) to go with it and experienced Vino & Friends from the sidelines for the next hour.
Today JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery is a 740-acre ranch, including 200 new acres of vines at the JUSTIN Estate Vineyard, DeBro Vineyard, the Adelaida Hills Vineyard and the newest addition: Templeton Hills. JUSTIN Winery is located at 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446 USA. Be sure to inquire for upcoming events, including the JUSTIN Wine Harvest Weekend: Friday, October 19 – Sunday, October 21. Be sure to make reservations! They can be reached at 805.238.6932 or 800.726.0049.
Vino & Friends Wine Store & Bistro is located at 1560 E. Champlain Dr., Fresno, CA 93720. Chuck Van Fleet brings in a new winery each Saturday for a tasting. The October 2012 line-up includes Jeff Runquist (Oct. 6), Rombauer Vineyards (Oct. 13) and Sextant Wines (Oct. 20) and Frank Family Vineyards (Oct. 27).
Van Fleet is also planning a Brown Bag, blind tasting wine dinner for the first 22 people who show up at Vino & Friends, Nov. 7. The men are to bring a Cabernet and women a Chardonnay. The group will vote and the winners receive a free dinner. The cost is yet to be determined. A Nov. 14 beer dinner is also planned so please check their web site for more information. Vino & Friends can be reached at 559.434.1771.
For more information on Vino & Friends, check out TasteFresno and their 2011 VIDEO interview of Chuck Van Fleet.