ON THE EVENING of July 14, 2010, the customers at A Grape in the Fog, a new wine bar in Pacifica, California, were being treated to a live performance by singer-songwriter Kate Gaffney. As her voice filled the room, representatives of a French winery poured glasses of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and waitresses wearing peasant tops and berets (it was Bastille Day, after all) passed chocolate truffles, olives and nuts. The cedarwood bar, decked out in red, white and blue streamers, picked up the French theme. At the center of it all, Beth Lemke, the bar’s owner and host, chatted with her customers, making sure everyone had a glass of wine and a place to sit. Laughing and tossing her hair over her shoulders, Lemke floated around the room, her eyes lighting up whenever she recognized a guest. When Gaffney took a break, Lemke went to each table and whispered, “Shh . . . we’re having opera.” Within minutes the place went quiet, and a local performer, the soprano Elizabeth King, started singing a Puccini aria—for which she would later collect her payment, two bottles of wine. “The residents were already blown away that a wine bar opened here,” says Lemke. “To have high art was a double whammy.” Later in the evening, two guests with guitars launched into a spontaneous jam session. “People talked about the party for weeks,” says Lemke. “It was my hallelujah moment.”
Ever since she read Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place in college, Lemke had been dreaming of creating a friendly home-away-from-home where neighbors could gather to talk, listen to music, drink and snack. Lemke, then in her twenties, imagined a coffee shop, even though bars were something of a family tradition. In 1935 her great-aunt Mona Hood started Mona’s Club 440, a wine-and-beer joint in San Francisco. Lemke remembers at age 28 visiting Aunt Mona (“my kindred spirit”) around her 90th birthday: “She told me, ‘Don’t care what anybody thinks. March to the beat of your own drum.’ ”
Lemke didn’t have the confidence then to follow Mona’s advice. Instead, she spent the next several years in a series of managerial jobs, mostly at advertising firms and tech companies. On weekends she and her then-husband (they divorced in 2003) would drive from their home in San Jose into the wine country around Sebastopol, stopping at vineyards and learning about the different grapes. “We were happy, and our cares were far away,” she says.
At the end of 2006, she went to work for Cisco Systems, but was laid off in April 2008. The job market was bleak. “I had time to explore my interests and imagine owning my own business—which seemed like the only safe option,” she says. She took a four-month course with San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and learned how to put together a business plan. She also signed up with Vocation Vacations, a company that links people who want to change careers with mentors in professions they’d like to move into. The company matched her with Beth Boston, who owns Every Day Wine, a bar and wine shop in Portland, Oregon.
One Friday evening in February 2009, Lemke arrived at Every Day Wine to begin a weekend shadowing Boston. Customers sat at antique tables under high ceilings and unloaded their picnic baskets (it’s a bring-your-own-food place). Wine reps offered samples in a small tasting room while Boston circulated among her clients. Many of them came as much to talk with Boston as to drink wine. “The business was personality driven,” says Lemke. The trip sealed her decision to open her own bar. “For years I believed I couldn’t do this because I needed to learn more about wine,” she says. “But watching Boston allowed me to think that even with my goofy nature, it would be OK.”
Pacifica, the seaside town where Lemke had lived since 2006, seemed like the perfect location for A Grape in the Fog (she’d come up with the name while preparing her business plan). A 15--minute drive from San Francisco, Pacifica had just a handful of restaurants and hotels and no sophisticated hangouts.