“It’s all wine & no whining @ BellaVino!”
Page 6 Innovations The Messenger, Athens, Ohio
Messenger photos by John Halley
Lili Chandler, owner of Bella Vino wine shop on Stimson Avenue, poses with a small portion of the selection of wine offered at her store. The 24-year-old Athens native opened the store last year.
Sometimes you get lucky, and
sometimes you don’t, and I feel like I’ve gotten really lucky.™
It’s all wine and no whining at Bella Vino
Bella Vino offers a large selection of organic, sulfite-free and low-sulfite wines.
By IAN ABBOTT
Special to The Messenger
Lili Chandler admits she’s inherited a legend at 22 W. Stimson Ave. The old two-story white building may not be much to look at from the outside, but Chandler is aware of the undercurrent of history.
Still, she won’t dwell too much on the past. She’s too busy trying to create a legend of her own. Boasting the biggest selection of organic wines in Southeast Ohio and a highly unique carry-out selection to boot, the Bella Vino wine shop has enough personality and, as Chandler puts it, just needs TLC to become legendary in its own right.
“I like wine, so I have personal motivation, but there definitely isn’t anything else like this in town, says Chandler, the owner of Bella Vino. I know Athens and I think people really wanted a place like this. It seems to have worked out so far.
Most of that has to do with Chandler’s personal touch. The interior has received a fresh coat of paint, Italian themed decor and new equipment. In addition to organic and sulfite-free wines, BellaVino offers a variety of local products.
The shop just opened in July 2007, but it’s already creating a buzz. While Bella Vino is unique in Athens today, the Stimson Avenue store offered a wide selection of wines and craft beers in its original and longtime incarnation, the One Stop, for nearly 45 years. But the One Stop, although unique and though legendary, was still missing something.
“I don’t think (the owner) was tuned in to the aesthetics and the customer service as much Chandler said. I think he just got tired of the business after several years, and he sold it to one of my friends.”
Suddenly, the personality was gone. The wine was gone. As Happy Cat II, the location became an in-and-out domestic beer stop for the typical college crowd. And as a clone, it had difficulty maintaining business. The owner was looking into selling it to an outside buyer until Chandler, then the director of operations for all Happy Cat stores, stepped in.
“When (the owner) was talking about selling (Happy Cat II), I’d done a lot of work on it already and there was a lot of my own personal elbow grease and me in this store, so I panicked, almost, Chandler said. I really didn’t want to see it go. I’d never planned on buying it until he brought that up, and it seemed like a good idea.”
Although Chandler wanted to focus on diversifying the business products, she knew it needed more to draw back the customer base it once had.
“It was a floundering business, Chandler said. This store needed some TLC in a lot of ways. Customer service was not good, the actual physical state of the building, cleanliness, nothing was kept up. It was pretty bad.”
Chandler was certainly qualified to bring dignity back to the old white building. She had done customer service training for a Fortune 500 company in Palm Beach, Fla., for four years.
“It was really difficult getting people back in here. I think people had gotten turned off by this place for so long. It was the black sheep of the carry-outs in Athens. I think we’re far from that today.”
So far from black sheep that some people won’t shop anywhere else. Organic wines are also sulfite-free or low-sulfite, so Bella Vino is a good place for people with sulfite allergies to shop for wine.
Liz Shaw, an Athens area resident, went to Bella Vino for the first time to browse for sulfite-free wines and keeps going back for the TLC that Chandler has executed so well.
“(Chandler will) listen to you if you want something, Shaw said. If you ask for something and they don’t have it, she’ll get it in for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one bottle of something that you want to try or a case of something, she’ll really go out of her way to get it for you. But every time I go in there, she’s got something new and exciting.”
Chandler runs an e-mail newsletter, which has reviews for the latest wines from both professional sources and her own opinions.
Yet the 24-year-old Chandler is the first to admit that she is not an expert on wine at least not yet.
“When I started working on this store, I always liked wine, but I got more and more involved in store, which meant also with the wine, Chandler said. I have great reps who teach me everything when they come down and are always available whenever I have questions. I have online subscriptions for quite a few of the highly acclaimed wine reviewers. I’ve been taking courses online for that.”
Although wine is Bella Vino’s specialty, the store also carries a wide selection of craft beers in addition to the basic macros. Chandler admits she doesn’t know as much about beer as she does wine, but the personal touch of the store has drawn part-time employees looking to share their knowledge and their passion for what Bella Vino sells. Tom Strodtbeck works fulltime in economic development, but he requested a part-time job at Bella Vino in December not for the money, but because of his love for customer service and beer history, brewing and industry.
“I took the job because I like beer, and it seemed like a fun thing, said Strodtbeck, who also runs the beer newsletter for Bella Vino. The cool thing is that the U.S. is where it’s at when it comes to brewing right now. This is the golden age of American beer. It’s where the most creativity is going into beer, it’s probably where the best brewing is taking place. I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to different beers working here, and it’s great, because there’s so much out there. It gives me a chance to think about it, talk to distributors, and get in tune with the American brewing scene.”
Chandler spent four years away from Athens from 2002 to 2006, but says that as a native of the area, she cares about the community. While the Shade Winery is the only type of local wine Bella Vino carries, it also carries other local products, such as Vino de Milo sauces and dressings and Dawn Chorus coffees, and Chandler is looking into distributing local cheeses.
“I was born and raised here, and some of the people I deal with are people I’ve known my entire life, Chandler said. I like to try to give back as much as I can and keep money in Athens.”
Bella Vino is a young business, but Chandler and the patrons are confident the business can continue to thrive in Athens because of the personality it brings to the community.
“I think you’ve got such a diverse group of people (in Athens), Shaw said. You have students who may want something with more of an interesting flair to it. The kinds of unique little shops we have in Athens (indicate) that this should be really successful. I think Athens has that unique character where unique shops are successful.”
And Bella Vino is only one instance of the revitalization of Stimson Avenue. Chandler knows that Bella Vino has found immediate success, but she isn’t going to let it get in the way of the love for what she and her employees do.
It’s not a legend yet, but maybe someday.
“This is just what I do. This is my life, Chandler said. My main concern is this building and its past and keeping it going. Sometimes you get lucky,and sometimes you don’t, and I feel like I’ve gotten really lucky.”