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Minnesota Wine Exchange in Duluth plans new business strategy

Brent Johanson and Debra Fellman, owners of the Minnesota Wine Exchange, which closed in January, hope to reopen the downtown Duluth wine bar this spring. (2012 file / News Tribune)

For the owners of the Minnesota Wine Exchange, Duluth's winter was a killer.


The wine bar at 3 W. Superior St. in downtown Duluth closed in January due to slow business.

"We ran into some issues," co-owner Brent Johanson said. "A lot was attributed to the weather. The weather was brutal."

But Johanson and co-owner Debra Fellman say it's not the end of Minnesota Wine Exchange. They hope to reopen by May with a revised business strategy and the involvement of a likely new investor.

The couple opened the wine bar, featuring

Minnesota wines and light foods that pair well with wines, in late 2012 in the first floor of an 1883 building in the heart of downtown. After doing some remodeling, the wine bar combined a sleek, sophisticated look in the vintage setting. The two-story-high space featured an exposed stone wall, a custom-made bar constructed with reclaimed wood, and wine barrels fashioned into tables. The pair took a local approach throughout, using local materials, local tradespeople, locally produced foods, even bar stools acquired locally in addition to the wines made in Minnesota.

Although closed, it's all still there.

"It's a great concept, and it was well-received," Johanson said. "Our customer base was very excited. We just didn't have enough traffic to keep it going."

So halfway through their five-year lease, they're revising their strategy, learning from their mistakes.

"It's in the works right now," he said. "We're talking about everything we can do."

This time around, they're looking at broadening their wine and food offerings and keeping more consistent hours.

"Going into it next time round, we're looking at whatever we can do to generate additional business," Johanson said. "We're dealing with parking, which is always difficult."

They want to be in a position to survive the slow times of the year. So they're exploring working with event planners and new investors to create incentives for people to come downtown.

"If it's a 10-below day, people have no reason to go downtown and buy a glass of wine," Johanson said. "But if there's a retirement party or birthday party, they'll come down, regardless if it's 10 below."

One advantage they have this time is an established customer base, he said, which they lacked the first time they opened.