Wine bar coming to downtown DuluthWith a growing number of brewpubs and tap rooms, Duluth is becoming a beer lovers’ destination. But a Twin Cities couple is betting there are enough wine lovers out there to make their new downtown wine bar a go.
By: Candace Renalls , Duluth News Tribune
With a growing number of brewpubs and tap rooms, Duluth is becoming a beer lovers’ destination. But a Twin Cities couple is betting there are enough wine lovers out there to make their new downtown wine bar a go.
Brent Johanson and Debra Fellman, who have homes in Duluth and Minneapolis, plan to open Minnesota Wine Exchange at 3 W. Superior St. in late October, featuring Minnesota wines.
“You wouldn’t think of Minnesota as a big wine state, but there’s more than you think,” Johanson said.
They’re aiming to serve wine at $4 to $5 a glass in an upscale setting where customers don’t have to talk over loud music, and Wi-Fi isn’t the focus.
“People are on smart phones all the time,” he said. “We don’t want to be a Wi-Fi hotspot, but a place where you can talk to the person across the table. We want to bring back this wonderful thing called conversation.”
The Minnesota Wine Exchange will offer a changing selection of wines from 40 Minnesota wineries, including Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, St. Croix
Vineyards in Stillwater and Alexis Bailly Vineyards in Hastings, the state’s oldest winery.
“We want it to be fun, reasonable; we want it to be an affordable luxury,” Johanson said.
They’ll offer hors d’oeuvres that pair well with the wines, including cheeses, fruits, chocolates and artisan breads that can be dipped in olive oil infused with garlic, basil and other herbs.
“People can sit and have a glass of wine and sample different olive oils on the bread,” Johanson said. “People can enjoy the wine, enjoy the food, enjoy the people they’re with.”
With the wine bar’s proximity to the Tech Village, Wieland Block, Maurices corporate offices, Minnesota Power and Wells Fargo, the couple hope it will draw many of those workers.
“We want our customer base to be local,” Johanson said. “We want people who work downtown to visit our business.”
The upscale setting also will be a good place to conduct business, he said.
“If you’re an agent and want to bring a client somewhere where you can talk without interruption, this would be the place to go,” he said.
The pair are taking their “local” emphasis even further by using locally grown and produced foods, local vendors and a local architect and contractor to adapt the former yoga studio space. Local tradespeople will use reclaimed lumber from an old warehouse in Superior and reclaimed redwood from a local project to build the bar. Wine barrels will serve as tables with the stools purchased locally.
“Everything we do, we want to do local,” Johanson said, “We want to invest in the local community so the local community invests in us. There’s a difference between being in the community and being a part of the community.”
A changing block
The targeted late-October opening should come on the heels of the early October opening of 7 West Tap House, a new craft beer and burger restaurant two doors down on West Superior Street.
“We think that’s going to be complementary,” Johanson said. “Obviously, what we’re selling will be a completely different product. But it will draw people there.”
But Rick Lampton, owner of the new tap house, thinks they’ll draw different customers and not have much impact on each other.
“It will bring more people down,” he said. “It will be another spot people can go on Superior Street, but I don’t think it’s going to make much difference at all.”
Jeff Schmidt, who owns Lizzard’s Art Gallery and Framing at 11 W. Superior St., however, expects a boost from the new wine bar. And, he said, he’s looking forward to another business opening in an empty storefront on the block.
“The type of clientele that would go there would fit perfectly with an art gallery,” Schmidt said. “It used to be a yoga studio. It’s a gorgeous space, great atmosphere, brick walls. I think it will be beautiful.”
Schmidt and Johanson have talked about collaborating for special events.
“It’s definitely something that Lizzard’s would be open to doing with them,” Schmidt said. “I’m familiar with that space. It would be a great space to display artwork. When we have receptions here, we have wine. So I’m sure something could be worked out to host events, whether there or at our gallery.”
Long time coming
Johanson and Fellman have been working on opening the Minnesota Wine Exchange in Duluth for more than a year. They previously owned a trucking company and a produce distributing business but wanted to work directly with customers in their next venture.
Both are wine lovers who enjoy visiting wineries, so a wine bar seemed a natural choice.
They considered two sites in the downtown area that didn’t work out before choosing 3 W. Superior St., which has been vacant for more than a year. At Lake Avenue and Superior Street, it’s in the heart of downtown where they wanted to be.
The owner of the 1883 building — Alan H. Zeppa’s limited liability corporation, Poohbah of Minnesota — previously had made improvements to the first-floor space they will lease. So not a lot needs to be done to prepare the site, Johanson and Fellman said.
The couple got a wine license early on from the city. But with each site change, it had to be transferred.
Getting the financing was a bigger challenge.
“When you’re a small business, all you hear when you go out and look for financing is ‘no’ from the bank,” he said. “So it’s wonderful when you find a solution to funding a small business.”
When attempts to get funding from Duluth banks failed, they looked elsewhere. They succeeded in getting a loan from Associated Bank in Minneapolis. That loan and one from the Entrepreneur Fund cover two-thirds of the $80,000 start-up costs. The couple are supplying the rest of the needed funding.
A five-year lease was signed Friday.“Were pretty excited; it’s been a long time coming,” Johanson said. “I never thought it was going to take this long.”
Greg Follmer, the broker who handled the leasing, said the couple have worked hard to get their business going.
“We saw their effort and felt they were a very good fit for the building,” he said. “It was easy to find people who liked it. But it was difficult to find the right tenant since the upstairs is a residence.”
He said Zeppa has maintained the building’s historical features while installing modern energy-efficient mechanical systems such as solar panels and flat, space-saving radiators.
“It had the great atmosphere they were looking for,” he said of the new tenants. “We are fortunate to have them.”
Johanson expects the site work, inspections, hiring a small staff and getting the wine bar stocked and ready to go will take six to eight weeks.
“We certainly want to open as fast as we can,” Johanson said. “We missed the summer business, but we’ll catch the fall and holiday business going into winter.”