Jessie Willis and Jeff Jamieson make choosing a wine an exciting and easy experience

I drove by a sign the other day, it was marked, “Baby Duck $7.99.”

It brought back memories of my first trek down the liquor store wine aisle. Seemingly endless rows of neatly aligned bottles featuring labels such as Baby Duck, Blue Nun and Black Tower, punctuated by beige boxes of Hochtaler are emblazoned upon my memory.

As I grew older and occasionally wiser, I noticed wines that were more than just “sweet” and “dry”, or “white” and “red”. Descriptors such as, “floral”, “citrus”, “oak” replaced the one-to-five scale, crept into my field of view. Wines were divided by country and by colour, and eventually titles like “bold” and “full bodied” were scrawled on the bottle sized cubby-holed wine walls at which I endlessly mused over.

I suspect that I’m not the only person whose interest in wine wasn’t immediate.

My suspicions were confirmed while sitting down with the owners of Vine Arts, one of Calgary’s newest boutique wine markets. Proprietors Jesse Willis and Jeff Jamieson both had similar experiences. Willis initially had little interest in wine when he started working at a small liquor store. When wine agents dropped by with samples he paid little attention to their treatises on wine, preferring to drink bad beer and hard liquor with his friends, as most twenty-somethings would.

As the agents continued to introduce Willis to more diverse and better wines, his curiosity was piqued. He started pursuing his ISG certification, teaching about wine part time and working as a wine rep. Willis met Jamieson at Bin 905 and became close friends. After a while, they began to plot their own foray into the world of wine. This culminated in March of 2012 when Vine Arts first opened their doors. It was not so easy to rent a space and open their doors.

Their Victoria Park location posted some inherent challenges to their dreams. “We were battling in Victoria Park…people were wary when they saw an application for a liquor store” Willis recounts, “There’s no sub-set [in the permit system] for a wine store. But we were able to get out and talk to business owners and people in the community, to let them know that we wanted to do something different and unique, to be an asset to the community. Everyone wants to make this community a success and there was an outpouring of support for us once they understood we wanted to be a part of that.”

The added benefit of this campaign was the local interest that was built up around the store. The predominantly younger residents of this revitalized area were coming out in support of having more conveniences available to them within the inner city.

It was not only this outpouring, but also their experiences with wine, which caused Willis and Jamieson to reach out to younger customers. Willis states, “We’re both young wine lovers and there are many of our peers who are young and interested in wine. There are many amazing wine stores but no one was specifically targeting the younger demographic” Willis notes, ”Victoria Park is a high density neighbourhood of young professionals; a young demographic in a vibrant community, with a group of people who are willing to learn more and try different things.”

Younger generations, who are now discovering wine, rarely feel bound by traditional wine culture. Willis observes, “Both Jeff and I have been in the industry for a long time, we have gotten a lot of support from the industry. People love that we’re young, driven, knowledgeable and unpretentious. I’ve been at the stage where wine is intimidating; it can be overwhelming to walk into a wall of countries and different types of grapes. People have responded well to our space where we organize by style instead of by region or grape. It makes things accessible.”

The approach of making wine open and accessible has the circular effect of increasing interest, which drives exploration, which creates interest in more unique and accessible products. It is this cycle on which Jamieson and Willis builds their brand.

Rapidly growing interest hasdriven their patrons to not just consume, but to learn more about wine, “[Clients] are coming in with an open mind. People want to learn more about what they’re drinking; they’re researching, reading and blogging. Rather than drinking for the sake of drinking, they want the full experience.”

To fill this demand, Vine Arts consistently holds classes on wine, spirits and all things related to imbibing culture. Two to four classes a week are held at their location on multiple topics, from an introduction to the basics of wine, to pairing wine with unorthodox foods like donuts. “People have really responded to the education. Our tasting sessions have become very popular” Willis asserts, “It speaks to the quality of people in Calgary right now. People are extremely excited; there is an abundance of energy in this industry. It’s exciting to see.”

Willis continues and theorizes on his customer’s motivations for seeking more information, “They want to walk into the restaurant and feel comfortable choosing off a list. People are becoming much better rounded. It’s forcing people to have a base knowledge about everything. They come in and want to try something new. We rotate our selection so much, no matter how good the last bottle was, they always ask us, ‘what’s new?’ It’s gotten people interested in quality product.”

If you were to walk the aisles at Vine Arts looking for a bottle of Blue Nun, chances are you would not find it easily… However, the staff would be able to recommend at least a half dozen bottles in the same vein that would surprise and delight your palate. Their shelves are filled with a multitude of wines from small and mid-sized wineries, covering the spectrum of tastes and stimulating the adventurous drinker who is always seeking the next best thing.

Jamieson and Willis go out of their way to build relationships to obtain high quality wines that may not be carried in more conventional stores. Willis explains, “We work with smaller importing agents who we have great relationships with, and that can source out unique and interesting wine. We meet with importers on a regular basis. It’s extremely rare that a wine goes on the shelf which we have not tasted first.”

Now that Vine Arts have celebrated their first birthday, they are expanding their selection so Calgarians can discover the near infinite number of products for the international imbiber. This includes an impressive array of scotch, whiskey and bourbon. They have become known among local bartenders for having one of the best selections of bitters in the city and they are amassing a wide range of micro-distillery gins, vodkas, vermouths and shochu.

Willis plans to continue expanding their selection, “Now that we’ve settled in, we want to find unique wines and spirits we can introduce to Calgarians. Jeff [Jamieson] was travelling and met New Deal Spirits, a small distillery in Portland, whom we now carry. We want to get feedback from bartenders and customers who are specialized in one area. We want to pull ideas from those people and listen to that feedback. There are still things we are missing.”

We often start off indifferent or oblivious to something we eventually fall in love with. As we start to explore what it has to offer, we find facets that enthrall us, it causes us to seek out similar experiences which send us down the spiral of fascination. My first bottle of Hochtaler might not have been a pleasant experience, but it was that introduction which caused me to learn more about why I didn’t like it and to find out what I do enjoy.

Having an innate understanding of the process of discovery, the staff at Vine Arts has created an environment where the newly inducted can develop their knowledge and palates, while experienced oenophiles can explore and be surprised. Calgarians have responded with their overwhelming support, making the trek from all corners of the city to Victoria Park just to draw on the personality and wisdom at Vine Arts.

Vine Arts is at 1310 1 St. SW,, @VineArts

Photo by Eric Mercer and Cody Willis

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