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With wine as the focus, 4 new Tampa Bay businesses find their footing

These new wine shops have adapted their operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kory Lynn works with a customer at CellarMasters, a new wine shop and bar in St. Petersburg, on May 25.
Kory Lynn works with a customer at CellarMasters, a new wine shop and bar in St. Petersburg, on May 25. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 29, 2020
Updated May 29, 2020

Late in 2019, before anyone knew what 2020 would bring, four new business plans were hatched.

One of them featured a European-inspired bar and wine shop inside a former laundromat. Another coupled a novel approach to wine sales with a trendy lounge. One business owner wanted to combine her passion for books and bottles into a storefront. And the other dreamed of a bustling pizzeria with a bottle shop attached where guests could sip and mingle while waiting for their table.

For all of them, wine was a focal point. The timing felt perfect: Plenty of people associated the Tampa Bay area with great craft beer, but there was a lot of room for the wine scene to grow.

Then the coronavirus pandemic forced all restaurants and bars to shutter, and any immediate plans these business owners might have had to open were quashed. The timing didn’t feel so perfect anymore.

A few months later, things are looking up. With wine as the anchor, these four new businesses have found a way to pivot to retail-heavy concepts while adapting to the new normal.

CellarMasters

Wines for sale at CellarMasters in St. Petersburg.
Wines for sale at CellarMasters in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Ryan Rugg and Kory Lynn always imagined that their concept would take a hybrid approach.

Curious imbibers could peruse the store and get recommendations, or hang out and stay for a tasting. If they found a bottle they liked, they could take it home or, if they felt like lingering, drink it in an adjacent lounge. There, a separate selection of wines by the bottle and glass would be offered along with small plates and charcuterie.

The key to everything was conversation, and lots of it.

Rugg and Lynn planned to open in December. A big “Coming Soon!” sign hung outside the white building on First Avenue S in St. Petersburg’s EDGE District for several months. On May 20, CellarMasters finally opened, although it’s a lot different than what they had imagined.

“I guess the one fortunate thing about opening during this and not before is that we can kind of curve to the current situation,” Rugg said.

For now, the business is focused on wine retail, with a trendy storefront and the entire shop’s inventory available for online ordering and curbside pickup. Instead of shelves, wine bottles are displayed on cardboard wine crates. A chalkboard displays current discounts and wine club details. Eventually, it will list weekly tasting events.

Owner Ryan Rugg is pictured in the retail area at CellarMasters.
Owner Ryan Rugg is pictured in the retail area at CellarMasters. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The pair behind the ambitious new project are both veterans of the wine business. Rugg, a certified Specialist of Wine who learned how to make wine in Sonoma, Calif., and Lynn, a sommelier, have both worked every aspect of the wine trade, from managing fine wine retail shops to the wholesale business.

The focus at the shop is what Rugg and Lynn refer to as “real wine,” with an inventory heavy on small-production and minimum-intervention wines — often called natural wines — and a large selection of bottles $20 and under. Once tastings start, a night playfully dubbed Natty by Nature will feature a rotating selection of natural wines to help expose curious oenophiles to new bottles they may have not heard of, from a Slovenian pinot grigio to a South Australian “pet-nat.”

“We want to expose people to natural wine but without force-feeding it to them,” Rugg said.

As soon as they get the green light to operate as a bar, they’ll start serving wines by the glass and bottle at the St. Pete spot, Rugg said. He’s already bought several picnic tables for both the front and back of the business for customers who might feel more comfortable sitting outside.

Since its opening fell during the coronavirus pandemic, the bar area at CellarMasters is still not in use.
Since its opening fell during the coronavirus pandemic, the bar area at CellarMasters is still not in use. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

When the indoor lounge portion of CellarMasters does open, guests will be able to cozy up to a long walnut butcher block bar with blue-and-white ceramic tiling or in one of the cobalt blue banquettes hugging the walls in the back room. Eventually, a long hightop with additional seating will divide the space, anchored by the building’s original terrazzo floor.

Rugg and Lynn envision their future business as a collaborative space for wine education and plenty of mingling. It’s tough to tell what that will look like right now, but they are optimistic that the state-mandated restrictions on bars will be lifted soon.

Part of what they planned is already happening. On a recent afternoon, Lynn manned the front of the store, chatting with customers while Rugg walked through the space, pointing out bottles to curious customers and talking with friends who stopped by to check out the opening.

“We really want to make sure we do what we do best,” Rugg said. “Get really great wine in front of as many people as possible.”

Where: 1005 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 289-9889

What you’ll find: Minimal-intervention wines with an emphasis on bottles $20 and under. Viña Echeverria “No es Pituko!” 2019 Cabernet Franc ($17); Lo Fi Wines 2018 Malbec ($26).

How to order: Visit cellarmastersstpete.com. Curbside pickup is available.

Book + Bottle

Terra Dunham, owner of Book + Bottle, works to fulfill orders on March 18.
Terra Dunham, owner of Book + Bottle, works to fulfill orders on March 18. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When Terra Dunham first started thinking about what she wanted her future business to look like, she was hoping to find something that was recession-proof. Bookstores were making a comeback, and she loved the idea of running a small wine bar. But leaning too heavily on one concept felt risky. So, she figured, why not do both?

Book + Bottle opened on March 17. For a couple of hours, Dunham greeted customers and refilled glasses. Then, she got the call to shut it all down.

Related: Can small businesses survive the shutdown?

There was a silver lining: Her concept ended up being just what bored, thirsty people were craving the most during stay-at-home orders.

Almost overnight, Dunham turned the business into a wine and book delivery service, toting books and bottles across town. It worked, but she longed for the business she originally planned and the collaborative atmosphere it would foster.

“I feel super fortunate that we were able to do the book and wine delivery,” Dunham said. “But that’s not the business that I wanted to start. I wanted to do this because I liked talking to people. I liked making recommendations about wine and about books and hearing about what other people were eating and drinking and having those conversations. It was really hard not having people around and coming in every day to this beautiful store that was just empty.”

Courtney Richards works to unpack boxes of books and display them on the shelves at Book + Bottle.
Courtney Richards works to unpack boxes of books and display them on the shelves at Book + Bottle. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In early May, when Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed restaurants and retail shops to open at 25 percent capacity, Dunham opened her doors.

Now, when you walk in there’s hand sanitizer on the right and shelves of books on the left. A wraparound bar greets customers as they enter, and racks of wine fill the rear of the space. Each bottle is labeled with a tiny handwritten description, and the carefully curated selection includes both more familiar brands and lesser-known wines from smaller producers, including a variety of natural wines.

“I’m trying to find a good balance between things that people know they like and (ways) that we can help people branch out and try something new and explore," Dunham said.

Her book collection is composed of bestsellers, classics and memoirs, as well as a section dedicated to Southern and regional authors. There’s also a wine and cooking section that Dunham said she plans on expanding in the near future.

Book + Bottle opened just before the pandemic shut everything down.
Book + Bottle opened just before the pandemic shut everything down. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For now, because on-premise alcohol consumption does not make up more than 50 percent of her sales, Dunham said she was given the go-ahead by the City of St. Petersburg to serve glasses of wine in the shop, too. There’s also a coffee bar, and in June, she hopes to add a selection of small plates to nibble on.

It’s hard to say how things will go, and what parts of the business will speak to customers. After opening, Dunham had to stop doing deliveries. But she’s happy to put together an order of books or bottles for curbside pickup.

“At the moment, it kind of changes by the week or by the day,” Dunham said. “ I don’t have any sort of normalcy to point to."

Where: 17 Sixth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 240-7448

What you’ll find: Books, including bestsellers, cookbooks and those from regional authors. And wine, like Lambert de Seyssel Petit Royal Grand Vin Mousseux ($19) and Weingut HUBER 2018 Riesling ‘Terrassen’ ($16).

How to order: Visit bookandbottlestpete.com. Curbside pickup is available.

MUST Wine Loft

Chris Chouinard, sous chef, and Raymond Cotteret, co-founder, at MUST Wine Loft in St. Petersburg.
Chris Chouinard, sous chef, and Raymond Cotteret, co-founder, at MUST Wine Loft in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

They had been working on the space for nearly 15 months. They were more than ready to open. But an hour after greeting their first customers, the owners of MUST Wine Loft were forced to close it.

“We had bought all this product to sell and we had to figure something out quick,” said Raymond Cotteret, who together with Jessica Arkwright and Alex Paunic runs the European-inspired wine and cheese “loft” at Second Street and Fifth Avenue N in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast neighborhood.

Unable to serve guests inside the quaint 1920s building with high ceilings, and with a large selection of perishable inventory on their hands, the owners had to shift gears — fast.

“We had to figure out how to put everything that we have in the store online, so we could move the product and get by,” Cotteret recalled. “That was really challenging, to say the least.”

Raymond Cotteret said the business has pivoted to wine bottle sales and menu items to-go during the coronavirus pandemic.
Raymond Cotteret said the business has pivoted to wine bottle sales and menu items to-go during the coronavirus pandemic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Quickly, they moved their inventory of fine cheeses, pates and wines online, and — like many others in the restaurant industry — launched a to-go and curbside pickup service.

The hardest part was not being able to talk to customers, Arkwright said.

“A lot of our products, people aren’t familiar with,” she said. “Raymond and I are very much storytellers and talkers and we’re very interactive, so having to immediately pivot from being very interactive with guests to not having any interaction at all was definitely our biggest challenge.”

Arkwright, a sommelier, and Cotteret, a chef and “cheese artist," met while working at Locale Market in St. Petersburg, where Arkwright ran the beverage program both at the market and its upstairs wine bar (which would later become FarmTable Kitchen and then FarmTable Cucina). The pair bonded over their mutual love of wine and cheese, and hoped to emulate some of the educational aspects of the wine program at Locale Market — mini classes, events and seminars — at their new spot.

A glass of white wine and hand sanitizer are offered to dine-in customers at MUST Wine Loft in St. Petersburg.
A glass of white wine and hand sanitizer are offered to dine-in customers at MUST Wine Loft in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

For now, those classes are virtual. Every Wednesday, they host a Facebook Live tasting called Learning to Flight, where they discuss a couple of wines and some suggested pairings, which viewers can later purchase as kits to-go.

The focus on the retail side is heavy on French, Spanish and Italian wines and gourmet food items, from Mantequilla olives to aged Dutch Gouda, pate and truffle mousse. The shop also has started selling picnic packs and curated gift baskets.

Now that the business has been allowed to open at 50 percent capacity, there are three small tables outside and two inside the space where guests can linger over a glass of wine and charcuterie boards.

Where: 442 Second St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 289-6418

What you’ll find: Picnic packs, imported and domestic gourmet cheeses and charcuterie, like D’Artagnan Smoked Duck Breast ($22.99), and European wine, including Forlorn Hope 2017 St. Laurent ‘Ost-Intrigen’ ($28.99).

How to order: Visit mustwineonline.com. Curbside pickup is available.

Jack’s Bottle Shop

Jack's Bottle Shop in Dunedin sells wine, imported and local craft beer and gifts.
Jack's Bottle Shop in Dunedin sells wine, imported and local craft beer and gifts. [ Courtesy of Jack's Bottle Shop ]

The idea for the pizzeria came first.

A brick pizza oven would anchor Jack Pallino’s, a Neapolitan-style pie joint in downtown Dunedin. Attached to the restaurant would be a bottle shop where both wines by the bottle and glass would be sold, doubling as a space where people could mingle and drink while waiting to eat.

After the shutdown, the plans for the new spot were flipped.

“We didn’t know how long the restaurants were going to be closed for,” said Traci Bryant, a local chef who together with her husband, Kurt Ferguson, and business partner Shane Bittaker also runs nearby Caracara, Taco Baby and the food truck Coattails Kitchen.

“We were trying to think, how can we change the shop into something that’s able to exist on its own? We started thinking — what do you need for a date night at home?"

At Jack’s Bottle Shop, which opened in late May, customers can now pick up everything they would need for an evening — or brunch — at home, from Thai dinner-for-two kits, board games, mimosa and Bloody Mary sets to cheese and charcuterie board accoutrements, snacks, cookbooks and more.

Wine and beer anchor the space, and the wine selection includes some of the Italian wines Bryant plans on selling at Pallino’s once it opens, as well as a rotating selection of customer favorites and those on the menu at Caracara. For beer, Bryant has curated a heavy international selection with imports including German Weihenstephaner, Thai Chang, Russian Baltika 9 and Estrella Damm, from Spain.

Jack's Bottle Shop in Dunedin stocks craft beers.
Jack's Bottle Shop in Dunedin stocks craft beers. [ Courtesy of Jack's Bottle Shop ]

The opportunity has also given them a chance to support local businesses hurting from the shutdown, Bryant said, including Flying Cloud Tea and beer from local breweries, including 7venth Sun Brewery, Green Bench Brewing Co. and Tampa Bay Brewing Co.

The store also stocks a selection of nonalcoholic drinks and mixers, including Monday Gin, a London gin alternative made from a blend of botanicals and juniper, and Rock Grace, a nonalcoholic drink that mimics a rose wine.

Bryant said plans for the restaurant are still on, and she hopes to be open in the next two months. In the meantime, she sees Jack’s serving as a one-stop shop for people who might not feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant just yet.

“It’s not just about, come in and buy alcohol and leave,” Bryant said. “There’s more to it, and people definitely are going to start spending more time at home.”

A selection at Jack's Bottle Shop.
A selection at Jack's Bottle Shop. [ Courtesy of Jack's Bottle Shop ]

Where: 716 Broadway, Dunedin; (727) 953-3177

What you’ll find: Wine, imported and local beer, gifts. Monday zero-alcohol gin ($39.99), Bibi Graetz 2018 Toscana ‘Casamatta’ ($15.99).

How to order: Call the shop or order online at jacksbottleshop.com. Curbside pickup is available.