Disclaimer: This interview is normally only something I would post on my sister site: JacksonvilleWineGuide.com, since most of the discussion is very focused towards Jacksonville. However; I think that even if you don’t live in Jacksonville, there’s some very interesting topics of discussion here…
Chad Munsey has been a friend of mine for quite some time, and so when I heard he was opening a new wine bar (in the old Original Pancake House location in Jacksonville’s St. Johns Town Center), I decided to sit down with him at Taverna, order a glass of bubbly (or three) and find out what was going-on…
So…rumor has it you’re getting back into the wine bar business?
Well…let’s face it….it was always going to happen! Ovinte is the newest project that I have been working on with my business partners Jacques and Fraser. We are working with the team at Design Cooperative, they have given us so many great ideas, we are proud to be working with them. We have all been working very hard and are excited about this new concept.
So how did this whole thing come about?
Well, I was actually approached by the owner of the building last year, but the problem was I still owned my distribution business (Vingevity) and so I was unable – by law – to also own a interest in a restaurant/bar etc. His original idea was to model it after the Wine Room in Winter Park (Orlando), with just enomatic machines, but after a lot of thought we decided against the idea.
I’m not really a fan of the wine bars that only use those things. It’s killing the human element of service.
While we’re on the subject…Vingevity, your distribution business. Obviously you were trying to do something a little different there, that is, different than the “big boys.” So was the lesson learnt from this experience not to screw with the big distributors?
Getting into the distribution business is an EXREMELY expensive business to get into. You’re buying wine, and paying for it in full before you ever get the chance to sell it. Your inventory also needs to be huge so as not to constantly keep disappointing restaurants. We were really only doing business in North Florida, and to really make it work we needed to get into the South, but the cost of increasing our distribution down there was unrealistic.
So, as I continued to watch the distribution business I started realizing that there was really only going to end up being 4-5 distributors in Florida, and all the rest will be scrapping for the leftovers.
I just didn’t want to work that hard, just to pay the bills, just to break-even.
I think it’s something that consumers have a hard time understanding. I truly believe people believe wineries are making their wine for mere pennies and are marking-up their wine to a ridiculous level at retail. Much in the same way that a great number of clothing retailers make a shirt for $4 in – often in some third world country – and sell it in their store for $60.
Yeah, and my company Vingevity also never did liquor and that’s where the big distributors make their money. They’re able to heavily discount their wine and stay afloat. So we decided to close.
The funny thing was that almost immediately after, Selected Brands announced they were going to be sold to Country Vintner, and so my premonition started to come true. So you have RNDC, SWS, Opici, Premier and now Country Vintner, and they’re going to be all that’s left in Florida.
The main thing was that I’ve always worked in the restaurant industry. I like to see people having a good time and I want more of that in my life!
One of my college lecturers told me that no matter how much people in the service industry say they want to get out, they will ways come back.
It totally believe that to be true. The bonus with me is that I’m still single, so there’s nothing tying me down.
Ok, so you know full-well that the scale of what you’re talking about is pretty ballsy for Jacksonville, in that it will easily be the largest wine bar in town. What’s your rationale behind sticking to your guns and not taking this concept to somewhere like Orlando, Miami or Tampa?
Well, my family is the main thing, I grew up here. I love this city, It’s a very comfortable place to live. So many people – in order to try make it big in the restaurant industry – feel like they have to move away. I want to be one of the guys that stays here. Like what they’re doing here at Taverna, what they’re doing at Orsay, what they’re doing at Bistro Aix. Those are the guys that could probably go anywhere and do it, maybe even make more money, but they choose to stay in Jacksonville. I just want the opportunity to bring something cool to town.
In 2001, when I opened the Grotto, I had people saying to me: “Who’s going to go to a bar just to drink wine?” People are drinking a hell of a lot more wine, even than they were 5 years ago!
During the course of owning Vingevity you started your own wine brand: Huguenot Cellars. Are you still going to keep that going?
My partner Fraser and I decided that we would keep making Huguenot Cellars, we both love the wine and are looking forward to serving at Ovinte.
While I’m thinking about it, what does Ovinte mean?
Funny story. We actually thought we made it up and of course my mom emails me a tells me that’s a Portuguese word that means: “one who is a good listener.” Which is quite fortunate, as wine is as much about conversation and friends as it is the wine itself.
You mentioned you’re going to have a couple of outdoor bocce ball courts?
Yeah, that’s going to be one of our best features. We’ll have two full-size bocce ball courts off to the side of the building
You’re also going to sell wine retail?
The retail won’t really be our main focus, although you will be able to do that. We will have enomatics, so you can try before you buy. We’re not going to use a “retail plus corkage fee” pricing structure. People don’t understand it.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. You hear it all the time: “Why am I paying a corkage fee when I’m already buying it from you?”
Exactly. You already know. People don’t understand what that means. So basically we’re going to have very aggressive pricing. You’ll just take $20 off the bottle, and that will be your retail price.
That’s probably a better way of doing to. Backing-into the retail price, once you’ve already told people the restaurant price.
So, if it’s $35 for a Sauvignon Blanc, you may pay $15 to take it with you.
Are you going to allow corkage?
Errm, I’m not going to say no, but it’s going to be a $30 corkage fee if they do want to. With our aggressive pricing, I don’t want someone going down to the grocery store down the road, buying a bottle and bringing it in.
Well, that has always been my big thing: Bringing wine into a wine bar. It’s almost like a slap in the face. People don’t try and bring their own food into a restaurant and expect the restaurant to be cool with it…
Well, if someone brings in an old Bordeaux or Burgundy, and they offer a glass to the Sommelier, that’s different. There’s a classy way to go about it. Follow the typical protocol.
Ok, loaded question: Will you have the best wine selection in the Southside/Town Center area?
God, I hope so! Hopefully it will be one of the best in Jacksonville when all is said and done.
How many wines BTG/BTB are you planning on?
We’re thinking about 50 wines by the glass, we’ll also have more available in the enomatics, where we’ll feature the wines that are in our wine club. We’re thinking in the region of 350 wines by the bottle. I’m also big on Madeira in lieu of Port, so you’ll have the opportunity to have a 50/60/70/80 year old Madeira by the glass.
I think it’s a great opportunity. No-one else is doing it, at least around here. We’ll be allowing cigar smoking on the patio, and Port, as you well know doesn’t last very long when opened. Madeira is already beat-up.
Yeah, and you can get vintage dated Madeira from the 1920’s for a steal. The inspiration came when I ate at this really great restaurant in Vegas. The Master Sommelier (Paolo Barbieri) at restaurant Alex at the Wynn (NB: which is now closed…probably not based on their Madeira selection, it has to be stated). I’m actually – because we’ll have a full liquor license – toying around with the idea of creating a “craft spirits club.” So once, maybe every other month, you’ll get a craft spirit as part of the club.
So what about your wine list? What can people expect?
You can probably already guess, but I don’t just want a bunch of exoteric brands. We definitely want some stuff that people recognize. So we’ll have the “usual suspects” such as Caymus and Silver Oak etc., but we’ll also have plenty of “off-the-beaten-path” wines. We’re definitely going to stay away from the stacked wine at the grocery store, we want to be a little more innovative than that.
Any plans for a dance floor?
No. I don’t want to become a nightclub. We’re going for a little more of a quieter atmosphere, where people can comfortably have dinner, but we know that being in the St. Johns Town Center we needed to have spirits and cocktails to compete with the other restaurants.
Now that the Original Pancake House has closed, and you’re moving into their space, food will obviously play a sizeable role…
Yeah, food is certainly going to be a huge focus for us. We’re going to have a combination of tapas and share plates. Everything from a bowl of small olives, all the way through to maybe a small filet. Food will be under $19 a plate. Spanish and Italian influenced.
Open 7 days a week?
Errm, we’re still kicking that around. We’re not going to serve lunch, I’m thinking we’ll probably open around 1pm, and probably start serving food around 3/4pm until midnight. Since we own the building, we’re not really tied to following everyone else in the mall. Ideally, in a perfect world we would be closed on Monday, it seems to be a slow day out there. We are going to do Sunday brunch. Anything can change though. We’re obviously still in the planning phase.
What are your plans for wine dinners, tastings etc.?
I want to take a lot of the ideas that I saw out in California. They do harvest dinners. I want to do lots of cool events that fall in-line with what’s happening in the industry – not to say that I’m going to do a Beaujolais Nouveau release party – but maybe a harvest release party. We certainly are going to do wine dinners.
What are your thoughts on wine dinners? I know so many places try and do them, but have a hard time selling them. Not just in Florida either, but everywhere.
I think the term “wine dinner” is overused. So many restaurants just get in a regional manager from a distributor to host them, and they probably know less than I do about the wine. That’s just not the way to go. I don’t think there’s any value in that.
I totally agree. It takes a special person to be able to get up there and do those talks. You need to have charisma. We always had a hard time selling wine dinners at the wine bar that I ran, not in the beginning, but as the years went on. Would you blame the market or the economy on that?
I think the restaurants charge too much for start. They get support from the wineries to do these dinners! It has to be under $100. I also think the wine dinners that work are the ones that have winemakers present, and it also helps if the wine is fairly recognizable to wine drinkers. I’d like to shoot for $75 dinners and also have the winemaker there. Long-gone are the days when you can charge $125 for a wine dinner and have a waiting list. Those don’t happen anymore.
The dining scene in Jacksonville has come a long way, even since I moved here in 2004. What else needs to happen for the restaurants in Jacksonville to take it to the next level?
Even in the last few years I’ve seen some big changes. The dining-scene for the majority of people in Jacksonville revolved around Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s and PF Changs. I think people are realizing that they can do better. What I really want is for people that live in Jacksonville to dine like they do when they go out of town. When they brag about walking around New York and dining around. You never hear anyone complaining about the prices when they go out of town or how far from their car they have to walk to go to a restaurant. We’ve got ourselves into kind-of a “strip mall mentality,” where you pull-up and you’re eating 50ft from where your car is.
Ok, switching gear a little: What wine are you drinking most of right now?
I find myself drinking a lot of white right now. I’m a seasonal drinker. I’m drinking a lot of Sancerre and the delving into the sub-regions of the Loire Valley. A lot of sparkling.
Favorite food and wine pairing?
Bistro Aix’s Smoked Salmon Pizza with Rose Champagne. Without question. I also love Champagne and raw oysters. I’m picky about my food, but I don’t do the best job with remembering dishes from places, as much as I do with remembering who I’m hanging out with.