The Good, First Year ~ A Conversation with: Nathan Hayes of Athens Uncorked

In almost any venture, the first year is one of the most difficult. Getting through it can be a test of strength, savvy and sheer determination. Nathan Hayes (and sister Kathryn Blake) of Athens Uncorked can relate. But through it all, they’ve persevered, learned much, and had a lot of fun. When I visited last year, they were still under construction but it wasn’t hard to imagine how great the finished project would look. Flash forward twelve months, the cosy surroundings are as I had pictured them; comfortable couches, great wines, and a warm, welcoming vibe.

Being on a field trip, with research being at the top of my list, I couldn’t visit and not try a wine flight. I chose ‘The Big Three Red’ which featured Chasing Lions Cab Sauv, Liberty School Merlot and finished with the Elouan Pinot Noir. Many wine flights I’ve experienced are served beginning with the lightest first, finishing with the bolder, more full-bodied. This flight was flipped. Nate’s philosophy is to finish a tasting on a lighter note. Who was I to argue?

But before I sampled some great wines, I sat down with Nate in a quiet corner of Athens, Ohio’s only wine bar to talk about their freshman year, the challenges they faced, and what’s next as their sophomore year approaches.

So you’re coming up to the first year anniversary. Congratulations! That’s awesome!

We are! Thank you! Yeah, I can’t believe how fast it went. Boom!

What’s been the most memorable thing for you this year?

Oh my gosh! It has just been such a learning experience. We’d heard from a lot of people going into this that the first year, especially, would be just a non-stop learning experience,and they were completely right. Lots of great lessons; some have been pleasant surprises, you know ‘oh, this is wonderful; we didn’t think this would work as well.’ Some have been the other side of the coin where we think, ‘Okay, we need to re-think this.’ It was a good year but a lot of learning.

What were some of the challenges you found this year?

You know, in hindsight, we’ve realized how fortunate we were in the process of actually just getting open. Everything, honestly, went very smooth. It took a little longer than we thought it would but in all honesty, everything getting to the door being unlocked went pretty easy. The challenges we’ve run into were that there aren’t many wine bars in this area; even the wine bars in the Columbus area are typically more restaurants so there’s a real lack of general knowledge as to what a wine bar is. Even the people that come in from the wine tourism industry, we often have to correct people that we’re not a winery; we don’t produce the wine. That being said, a lot of people that come in just have no idea how a wine bar works; the etiquette involved, the general layout of a wine bar, the wine bar menu. So that’s been a little more of a challenge than what we thought; getting people to understand what a wine bar is, how we operate. Also, when people live in an area where there’s never been a wine bar, the only wines they’re accustomed to are name-brand recognizable. One of the things we had to try to do is carry wines that you just wouldn’t see everywhere. With our demographic, generally over the age of forty, we have succeeded in bringing in an exclusively mature adult clientele; we’re very happy with that. There’s a problem with that, though, in that this market does not go out that often.They do like to go out, often they need to find child care, or finish their work; many of them are faculty here at the university. We love the clientele that we’re bringing in but that clientele group is not typically out every Friday and Saturday night. The other side of that coin too is, as one of our favorite clients observed, there has never been a bar in Athens for older customers. So that’s been a challenge; getting the word out. There’s an assumption in Athens that any bar that exists within walking distance of the college is a college bar. And we’re the first ones that aren’t. To specifically target a niche market is challenging.

Do you find this changes how you approach your advertising?

We’ve tried a few different forms of advertising: radio ads with the local radio stations, we’ve done some newspaper, and a feature in Sip magazine. We’ve done rack cards for some of the Hocking Hills cabins. We’ve also done, primarily, Facebook. It is fascinating how we hear, over and over again, “Oh we’ve been following you on Facebook for months. We’ve been following you since before you opened. Oh we saw you on Facebook.” The second thing is the local tourism. We get a lot people in here who saw our ad in their Hocking Hills cabin. We’re kind of surprised that we’re pulling in a lot regionally, much more than we thought we would. And we anticipate that growing next year.

And you’re on Twitter as well?

We’re not on Twitter. We’re on Facebook and Instagram. I find that for the primary market that I’m reaching, they typically just do Facebook, and occasionally Instagram. I’ve never heard a single customer say, “are you on Twitter?”

Last year, you were telling me that your plan was to switch up the wine flights monthly or bi-monthly. Did it work?

Originally, we were changing the menu every two months, right out the door. And honestly, it was a nightmare trying to figure out how much stock to keep in so you wouldn’t run out before your menu ended. Also, we found that every two months caused a lot of frustration between the servers and the customers. For servers, it takes time to get to know our wine menu, and customers would fall in love with a wine, and maybe only make it in a few times a month, and all of a sudden it’s gone. So then we decided every three months and even that caused a problem! It just was always too fast, expensive to print up new menus, very expensive to stock an entire wine menu ready to go. And it was causing a problem figuring out how much to keep in the back. So we decided every four months; three times a year it changes out and we can still be seasonal with it. That gives the customers more time, and the servers are loving it because they learn to pronounce everything and don’t worry about changing it up right away. Every month I’m featuring a special flight, so that’s just three extra wines instead of an entire menu. So with this month being October, we’re kind of going with a darker, Halloween dark red wines. Next month for November, we’re going to be doing some whites and reds for a flight that you could pair with a Thanksgiving dinner.

How do you choose the wines that you feature in your flights?

I try to figure out what I want the menu’s aim to be. For the summer, I wanted some really eclectic wines which were really fantastic. I wanted wines that you just wouldn’t ordinarily see. Italian whites but not a single Pinto Grigio; we’re talking Vernaccia, Soaves, more authentically original wines. We also did a Rosé flight and a Syrah flight. I wanted that menu to be kind of specific. Going into the fall, I decided to go more mainstream. This menu has the big three red or the big three white or the world of Sauvignon Blanc; kind of like your basic wines, varietals that people are comfortable with. I figure out what I want the overall goal of the flights to do. So if I’m going to showcase a varietal, for instance, next time around I’m going to do a Pinot Noir flight so you have to have your Oregon, your French. And then there are some crazy ones from Argentina. So you start with the menu, then condense it down into the flight and then into the ones that you think people will enjoy.

Have you ever put one together that you thought, “hmmm, not so much”?

The most notorious mistake that I’ve made so far was including a pomegranate ginger wine, the first sip you’d take you’d get this interesting pomegranate and then this zing from the ginger. I thought it was a great one to put on our main sweet Ohio flight. I think we made into four days of the first week before we pulled it off the menu. It was too outside the box for people ordering the sweet Ohio wines. So now the sweet flight only includes a Catawba, Concord and a Blueberry wine. And people love it! With my Sauvignon Blanc flight right now, there were two New Zealand’s with a California in the middle. The first was like drinking pure lemongrass, just phenomenal! The second one is by a winery called Parducci, it’s so light, it’s like drinking a breeze. And the third one is back to New Zealand but it’s got more of a flintiness to it.The problem with putting the Parducci in the middle is it got a little lost. I decided to put it at the end to end things on a lighter note. So there’s a learning curve to putting them together and going from what I like to what I think the customers will like.

Athens is a big Halloween town, any plans for Halloween?

(Laughs) You know we are finding that some of the bigger event weekends that happen are actually kinda bad for our business. Game days, Homecoming, Halloween, the town goes crazy. So what we’re going to do instead is Friday night we thought we’d offer some special ciders, I’m going to encourage my staff to dress up and we’ll just try to make it a fun evening. We’re going to be closed Saturday. But then on Sunday, November 1st, a good friend’s dad is a character actor/historical interpreter who does one-man shows, and one of his best is Ichabod Crane. So that evening we’re going to have some special sangria, and special hot cider with rum, and he’s going to do an hour long performance of Ichabod Crane visiting a tavern and telling his stories.

When did you start your book club?

I always wanted to do one and we started it abut two months in. And each month we’ve seen it grow. It’s really been a lot of fun. Last month we read “The Widow Cliquot.’ For this month, we’re doing ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ by Ray Bradbury and in November we’ll read ‘The Martian’ which is sci-fi, a lot of fun and a real page turner. A surprising number of teachers from the local schools come and they love it. Of course, I pair wines with the books, that’s part of the appeal (laughs). And I don’t think people care as much why I’ve chosen the wines, as long as the wines are good! They’re just excited to drink wine and talk about books.

So how do you pick your wines for the book club?

It’s just what seems to work, for ‘The Widow Cliquot’ that was easy, just sparkling wines. For ‘Something Wicked’ I chose a Garnacha, it’s a great wine from Argentina but it has this cool blue label with these black birds silhouetted over, it’s kind of spooky. Some books are easier than others. For ‘The Martian’ I’m just going to pick the driest reds I possibly can. We’ll do ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ some time in mid-winter and we’ll obviously choose some Super Tuscans for that.

What special things are you doing to celebrate your first anniversary?

December 5th, which is our one year, is also the repealing of Prohibition so we thought that’s a great anniversary for a lot of reasons. We thought we’d tie it in with a roaring twenties theme which is perfect. We’ll have some Champagne specials served in the coupe glasses. We’ll just create a Facebook event and see how many people we can pack in. The regulars we have are very, very loyal; they’ve been with us since the first day we opened. They fell in love with it right away and keep coming back very consistently. We’re hoping with the first anniversary that we can get the word out. We just hope that we can reach more people.

Do you think you’ll expand and include meals or just stay focussed on the wine?

That was one of the things that I was taken aback with, is how much food we actually sell, even though we’re not a restaurant. One thing we hear so much is that people wished we served entrées. A lot of wine bars that we researched, over time, morph into restaurants. And still, I doubt we’ll ever do that.I don’t think it’s something my sister or myself want to do. While it is spacious here, in terms of preparing dinners, we’re not zoned or licensed for it. I think we need to stay really focussed. One of the things I’ve been constantly reading about is experiences young business owners, particularly bar owners have; lessons learned and mistakes they’ve made. One of the things is: don’t expand too quick. Just because you’ve had a great year does not mean you just spend everything and expand. Preemptive expansion can really hurt a business; if you can’t sustain it you’re in trouble. Another one was: do not change your hours that first year. Some nights, especially Mondays, are generally slower. I might only have, say, ten customers but they’re the same ten customers every Monday. They come in and they love it. It’s really about working on the relationship I have with my customers. It’s challenging sometimes to keep in mind the big picture.

In the end, it’s all about the customer base that we’re growing. If we’re here every Monday, they’re here every Monday, and we fall into a good pattern. They begin to tell their friends and then I can build a relationship with them as well. Plus our place is cozy, people love it, especially in the winter. It’s all been good. It’s a blast!

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©TheWineStudent, 2015


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