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So, you want to open a wine bar…

January 17, 2024

Learn why the wine bar business is perhaps a riskier proposition than most, through three fascinating stories

Did the thought ever cross your mind as a fantasy, a romantic notion or a planned escape? If, like me, the idea has appeal combined with abject fear, it might be comforting to know that we are not rare, or even unusual.

A quick Google search revealed that there are over 1,140 wine bars in business across the US as of April 2023. And, although it is currently a $2 billion industry, IBISWorld reports that the COVID-19 pandemic is driving revenue down, perhaps by as much as six percent or more at the end of 2023.

Read Also: Weighing in on the wine club experience

Be that as it may, those numbers are only part of the bigger picture. They display the overall state of the business, but they are not personal. They don’t give us any insight into the decision-making that individuals make when they take the first steps towards their wine bar business. Nor do they allow us into the final moments of the tough decision to close their shop for the last time.

I wanted to dig into the personalities and risk profiles of people who had taken the steps to open a wine bar, keep it open, and then ultimately, what led someone to give up the passion that led them into the business in the first place. I realized in searching for the information that it is a three-part drama. A play that unfolds differently for all the participants.

I found answers amongst three very separate and distinctly different wine bar owners, each of whom has a fascinating story of themselves and the path they chose to enter the world of retail wine. I saw firsthand some of the impacts that each set of decisions made on themselves and their families and friends. Some of this may resonate with you and will hopefully help inform your choices, too.

Open the doors

Napatini – Carlsbad, California. Opened in 2023.

Owners Lynn and Gary McLean met when Lynn was at Naval Postgraduate college in Monterey, California. As one of five children with a father in the Air Force, Lynn was not a stranger to the military world that led her through a graduate degree specializing in computer science.  Through her public service and master’s degree in computer science, she and husband Gary moved to multiple locations including San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. By the time they made their penultimate move to Sonoma County they were raising their sons and Gary, who was in the Army reserves, had been deployed to Iraq. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that both Lynn and Gary were working in the private sector. Each of them in their specialty fields.

Wine Bar

Napatini is a family operation designed to entice a variety of ages without being intimidating.

Through 2019, the couple had developed a close network of friends in Marin County. Their potluck group was nicknamed the “Last Minute Wine Club.” They were in the heart of wine country in California and the food, conversation and beverages reflected just that. One evening the grain of an idea developed amongst the friends. A wine and craft cocktail bar sounded delicious to the couple. Even the name came easily! – Napatini. From that idea sprang a series of logistic and financial decisions. Both very responsible and fiscally aware, they saw that the dream needed energy, planning, and certainly a long list of unknowns. They were retiring from the military and life-long careers in their own fields and this was a very different enterprise.

Moving to San Diego was the first step and they were happy to be back in a city they really loved. The series of steps that followed highlighted the difficult arena of beverage licensing and costs. It proved impossible to obtain the requisite liquor license in California and the apparent wait was so long it made opening the bar environment they envisioned an impossibility. Undeterred, they decided to switch Napatini to a wine bar without cocktails, and as they planned the wine bar, they both continued to work.  Gary at Amazon in the Bay Area, and Lynn as a senior vice president of sales for a cybersecurity company.

It wasn’t until November 2020 that they revisited the wine bar notion. They met with a Small Business Council representative in San Diego who could review their business plan and provide some advice. The income and benefits that their jobs provided while they flushed out all their ideas was critical. At that juncture they were looking at a mid-2021 opening date. The premises needed to be found, lease signed, and tenant improvement made to turn the idea into a reality.


Napatini Wine Bar owners Lynn and Gary McLean.

Having found their location, they signed a lease in July 2021 and began the design and construction of Napatini. As you will recall, this was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic which came with its attendant supply chain issues, distancing, restrictions, closed offices, and a litany of unavailable contractors and subcontractors. Again, their tenacity and grit pushed them on. They hired their own subcontractors, and a family member was recruited to serve as the General Contractor for the work. They slogged through mill work and set up oftentimes renting U-Haul equipment to get the job done. The target opening date had moved considerably, but they swung open the doors in January 2023.

Over 100 people attended the grand opening despite the rain! The old sayings are sometimes still apropos. “The best laid plans of mice and men” apply here. Almost two years after their projected opening and two times the planned budget, Napatini is now one year old. It is a beautiful baby. An Italian made wine wall features 42 wines ranging from zesty, sharp whites to deep and brooding reds from around California. The décor is warm and modern. The retail wines are stacked vertically on a wall to near ceiling height. The enormous windows open to let in light and breezes. Fire pits and sun umbrellas encourage the guests to sit and relax, enjoy a wine selection on their own terms, and add a morsel or two from a menu of soups, flatbreads, cheeses, and small bites.

They work with a sommelier in-house who curates the wine selections, and they both work at the bar, the counter and kitchen. This is a family operation and is designed to entice all ages without being intimidating. They have hit their stride and these early days are hard work. Looking to the future, Lynn and Gary want to offer more combined wine and food experiences and bring live music into the wine bar experience. Good Luck Napatini!

Keep them open

La Costa Wine – La Costa, California. Owner Michelle Velchek. Opened in 2016.

What does it take to keep the operation running after all the ideas and frustrations of a start-up are in motion? This next story is a case in point. Of course, there are many more versions of the trek towards success in the wine bar world, and what La Costa Wine represents is a migration from vague idea to reality and ultimately, longevity.

We start in Ohio and rural Tennessee where Michelle spent her early youth before moving to Maryland for high school and finally graduating early in Scottsdale, Arizona. In her early 20s Michelle moved to San Diego where she worked for a computer reseller. As a mom she was raising twins in Carlsbad, California. Michelle’s husband worked at that same company. By the time her twins were in 4th grade she decided that neither mom nor work were getting the full attention they needed. A decision regarding what was next for the family now included consideration of the twins prior to their graduating high school and whether the next step should be what Michelle wanted – a community gathering spot. Not a full restaurant per se, and not necessarily a wine bar either.

Michelle considers the early period when she and her husband settled on the wine bar speculation as “training wheels.” A trial period where they could see if they could co-parent and operate a wine bar while one of them also held a full-time job in the computer business. In searching for a place for their enterprise, Michelle discovered an existing wine bar that had moved to a new location in Carlsbad. By February 2016, her decision was made.

La Costa Wine Bar

La Costa Wine has a personal connection to its customers and welcomes newcomers.

She closed escrow on La Costa Wine and passed the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 credential in wine and spirits. She purchased the business as a Partnership, but as things kicked off, the General Manager began spending less and less time on premises or engaged in the overall running of the business. Because Michelle operates in a “failure is not an option” mode, she encouraged her husband to stay in full time employment to ensure all the bills were paid and the family remained stable.

In her own words, Michelle explained that it wasn’t until a full three years had successfully passed that she felt “I think I got it.” It was at that exact point that the landscape around her changed. In 2019 the plaza where La Costa Wine sits began a long-term construction undertaking. Let me paint that picture for you. Concrete rubble, wooden plank on the plaza paving and tunnels in and out of all the pre-existing businesses, bridges across open trenches, and limited parking. Not exactly conducive to access or community gathering. If you could make it inside, you could find loyal staff and Michelle offering an incredibly wide variety of wines from all over the world, and accompaniments of cheeses, flatbreads, sandwiches, and nibbles. It was a convivial atmosphere that belied the destruction of the hectic exterior.

It is difficult to anticipate customer tastes and what they will spend because there is no “normal.”

Michelle was approaching four years in business when COVID-19 hit with a vengeance. The community was no longer gathering and social distancing had become the norm. At that time, the property leasing company allowed outdoor seating, so Michelle reassembled her wine bar seating and tables outside on concrete patio decking. She added heat lamps, some quaint wooden fences, and masked staff who were willing to work in those different and challenging circumstances.

La Costa Wine has a personal connection to its customers and welcomes newcomers. In the face of inflation, Michelle explains that the “per sale” value is down from pre-COVID numbers, but the total number of sales is up. That’s enough to keep it successful. Her philosophy is not as a conglomerate buyer and if she decides to sell La Costa Wine, she wants it to be to someone imbued with the same principles. Right now she is continuing to build the business and will perhaps sell it when she is ready, on an up note.

Read Also: Four Toronto neighbourhood wine bars you need to visit

It is difficult to anticipate customer tastes and what they will spend because there is no “normal.” The wine bar has some local sales competition. It is close to a Costco that has the largest wine selection of almost all Costco locations and is also near the VONS grocery store that stocks more wines than any other VONS. Not to be deterred, and to be more attractive to customers, Michelle has added an online presence, educational and entertaining events that help the growth of La Costa Wine’s social footprint and keep existing customers returning.

I asked Michelle what her take away from this experience is so far. She gave me two answers – a benefit and a hidden cost. On the plus side, she gets to taste wines from all over the globe and is able to buy wines that other stores cannot stock in small quantities. On the other hand, because it all looks so easy, the hard work and energy that it takes to keep the business alive and thriving is invisible. She’s not looking for accolades, quite the opposite.

Michelle is always welcoming and willing to talk about whatever is on your mind, despite running the business, making payroll, and attending to family life – with twins who are off to college next academic year. Well done Michelle, you have achieved success in both worlds.

Close the doors

Casellula – Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, NYC. Owner Brian Keyser. Open from 2007 – 2022.

Brian was born in San Francisco and migrated south to major in film and television at UCLA. He worked in the movie business in his early career, and at Disney through his late 20’s. Having decided against the California version of movies as a long-term career, he left for Cape Cod and New York. Still with movies in his veins he continued to be engaged with the profession, on a smaller scale, all the while working in the restaurant business to sustain himself.

It wasn’t until Brian hit his stride in his 30s that he realized restaurants were his forte, and that artisan cheese was his passion. He started from scratch. Dedicating himself to learning the inside of business operations and finance, it took him over two years before he felt ready to turn his ideas into reality. He also knew from experience that he was a lover of hospitality, but not necessarily business. He needed a partner who would be the scaffold, and he would be the front of the house.

Wine Bar

Casellula survived 15 years before having to close in 2022.

Money, location, access and customers. All had to be scouted. Money came through friends, family, and a 2005 business plan that was strategic and optimistic. Brian was looking for a spot where his target demographic would make the place sing from the rafters. And he found it close to the theater district in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. A small space that was previously used as storage for hot dog carts. A space that with some money, TLC, and luck, he turned into “Casellula.”

The soft opening for friends and family was May 7th, 2007. On May 11th that same year, Casellula officially opened to the public. There was a lot of pre-opening talk about how it would work, who would work, who it would attract, and what would be on the menu. The concept was a cheese-focused establishment that paired foods with wines and offered guests an experience that would keep them returning. It sounded like a fun adventure turning a passion project into a business. Even accounting for the upsides there were long 16-hour days, ceaseless phone calls, zero time off, random emergencies, and the ever-present financial concerns. But this IS the restaurant business. Add to that the fact that the business partner Brian chose ultimately didn’t share his vision. Sadly, it turned out to be a problem that ended in a negotiated buyout of his partner only seven months after opening day.

Then, flying solo as an owner, Brian’s focus was all Casellula. The initial two years were a graft. Covering rent and little else so the business could thrive. Brian’s success at Casellula took 10 years to develop. He had a General Manager (GM) – a server he had promoted – who stayed with him at Casellula for five years. She ran the day-to-day operations which freed him up to be the people person he loves to be.

There are risks like any business, but the fickle nature of restaurant customers makes the wine bar world perhaps riskier than most.

Brian did so well that he considered two additional premises. The first was in the style of Casellula, but it had a full kitchen. The concept was brilliant but there were significant challenges; a difficult landlord, a utility company that would not work with him, and a city building department that made life very tough. Despite that, he opened the second spot and after a short fast forward, it “failed spectacularly.” The place was half empty while Casellula had a line outside the door.

Still looking to expand and build on the success of Casellula, Brian thought there could be potential in a different city. He entertained Nashville, San Diego, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco and Denver before settling on Pittsburgh’s new cultural center. The center wanted a restaurant, but it wasn’t until post-construction that the full picture developed. There was a performance space, a bookstore and a seating area, all open to one another. The communal concept meant diners were subjected to the noise of a bustling retail endeavor and the ability to play music in the restaurant was limited by the presence of the other entities and their preferences. The restaurant experience was far less than optimal and after a yearlong battle, the Pittsburg enterprise closed in 2017.

Wine Bar

There are over 1,140 wine bars in business across the US as of April 2023.

As all this transpired, his reliable GM quit. He was faced with the prospect of two failed restaurants and running Casellula alone. Then, in early 2018, Brain was approached by a potential buyer. The offer was shockingly low, and he was not motivated to sell. Prior to opening Casellula, Brian had worked in famous restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and the Union Square Café. He’s worked with James Beard Award winners like Danny Meyer. His expertise was running a restaurant. In surveying the working landscape he knew that restaurants were almost his entire resume. He had learned about wine, foods, and caring for customers and colleagues alike. What he couldn’t know was whether COVID-19 could force him to close permanently.

A new series of questions entered his mind. How to reopen? What if tourists don’t return? What if it doesn’t survive? There were a lot of unknowns. If he chose to end that chapter, he knew it was through no fault of his own. In truth Brian knew that any offer for Casellula was a thinly veiled lease purchase. After much deliberation, Brian re-opened Casellula post-pandemic and was introduced to a buyer with whom he agreed a price, and who would keep the name as Casellula. It had survived 15 years before Brian closed his door.

Although still active in the restaurant groups, Brian needed to focus on the next stage of his career so he decided on graduate school. In June 2023 he graduated from Georgetown University with a Master of Science degree in health & the public interest. While it sounds like a completely different world, the intersection is in service. Brian’s experience with Casellula seems almost like a torrid love affair that ended in tears, but he left a more well-rounded person with experiences that he will carry with him forever.

Final thoughts

All three of the stories have unique perspectives brought about by their respective owner’s inception of an idea. They also have a common thread. A desire to create a business around something for which they had passion, ambition and heart. As they each progress, their ability to withstand economic uncertainty, the push pull of family needs, and the evolution of ideas once the doors open, present different challenges.

There are risks like any business, but the fickle nature of restaurant customers makes the wine bar world perhaps riskier than most. When things are going well, it can be a roaring success, but when they are flirting with insolvency, the desire to hang on and turn things around can take a higher toll than anticipated.

For those of you who are about to embark on this wine bar journey, I wish you the best of luck finding the location, location, location, that will make all your dreams come true!


– Gillian Marks, PhD. is a contributing editor with VineRoutes, and currently lives in San Diego, California


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