Do you dream of owning your own neighborhood wine shop where you know all the customers by name and can pick out the perfect bottle for them because you know their tastes. The picture is completed by your chocolate labrador lounging peacefully behind the front desk. Learn what it really takes to turn that dream into reality with SwirlSavvy’s two-part interview with Alyssa Becker, owner of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn wine shop, Donna Da Vine.
SwirlSavvy: What did you do before starting a wine shop?
Alyssa: Believe it or not I was a corporate bond trader on wall street for four years and then went to work for Bloomberg’s financial technology firm for eight years. I didn’t really take the most direct route to opening a shop, but I’m not going to lie, being surrounded by a couple of thousand bottles of wine is a heck of a lot more fun.
SS: What’s the philosophy or style of Donna Da Vine?
A: I’m all about small production, unusual wines. Strange grapes...off the beaten path regions ... vineyards no ones ever heard of ... wines with production of less than 100 cases ... if it’s something funky and delicious I’ll bring it in. Of course I’ll always carry a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, or a California Cab, but my babies are the diamonds in the rough ... the dark horses of the wine world that most people don’t know about. That’s where my heart lies.
SS: How did it get that name?
A: I was looking to name the shop after my mom, donna, since she was the one who inspired me to really go out and do something I loved for a living. And my husband came up with Donna da Vine because it means woman of the vine in Italian ... we thought it was fitting.
SS: What kind of wine experience did you have before starting your own shop?
A: I have come to wine in kind of a roundabout way. I took my first wine class for my twenty-first birthday with a man named Willie Gluckstern (The Wine Avenger) and I fell in love ... with wine, not Willie. From that point on every opportunity I had for a vacation meant me traveling to a wine region to taste (everywhere from Tuscany to Tasmania). I took classes at the IWC (certificate and advanced cert classes), took classes at UC Davis, moonlighted evenings and weekends at a wine shop on the Upper East Side and at vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. I was fortunate enough to befriend some winemakers from the Barossa who allowed me to work part of harvest with them, as well as with some fine people out in California. I did this all while working a full time job. When my mom passed away 2002 it was the catalyst for me to leave Wall Street and make my love my profession.
SS: When did you open the shop?
A: We opened Halloween of 2008. I couldn’t have picked a better day of the year. People love to let loose and enjoy themselves on Halloween and my neighborhood is so great about coming together and enjoying as a community. For our one year anniversary this year we’ll be having a killer tasting to mark the occasion.
SS: What were some of the initial challenges?
A: The hardest part for me was getting the liquor license. It’s a long process and you never know until your finally called before the commission, about a six to eight month process(and that’s a conservative estimate) whether or not they’ll grant you a license. It’s a nerve wracking situation ... but lucky for me people on the commission saw my vision and knew that I would be an asset to the neighborhood and granted me my wine license. THANK YOU!
SS: What’s challenging now?
A: I think what’s always a challenge for me is sticking to that initial vision. When customers come in they have all kinds of special requests, suggestions ... etc., and I love to hear them because it helps me give them what they need. But the hardest part of my job day in and day out is staying true to my vision, my taste (which is really off the beaten track-and what brought the customers into my shop in the first place) and balancing that with what customers really want and what makes them happy. Every day it’s a juggling act, but with 400+ frequent buyers on my list it seems like I’m making it work. And I hope to continue to keep that balance between the wines I love and the needs of my customers.
SS: What do you like best about running a neighborhood wine shop?
A: What else ... the neighborhood, and the people in it. I love knowing pretty much every customer that walks in the store—their kids names, their dogs names and what the last bottle of wine they purchased was. I grew up in Brooklyn and I’ve chosen to raise my family here in Boerum Hill—I love being an integral part of the neighborhood and sharing my first love with the people who live here.
SS: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
A: Nothing else worth doing...no matter what I would have found a way to do this.
SS: How many hours a week do you work?
A: 24/7. Owning your own place is beyond a full time job, Even if I’m not at the store- I’m out tasting wine, updating our Web site or placing orders with my distributors (usually while I’m trying to entertain my five month old). But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SS: What advice do you have for others who dream of owning their own wine shop?
A: Patience is key when starting your own business ... especially a wine shop. It’s a lengthy process so don’t lose faith. And drink a lot of good wine along the way.
Originally published on Swirl Events