Sergio Mendes worked in the family construction business with his brother, Victor, until reaching a crossroads. They weren’t sure they wanted to remain in that industry for their entire careers, so they examined some other businesses.
They eventually settled on opening Vienna Vintner in 1998, and Sergio left almost a decade later to start Ashburn Wine Shop in Loudoun County. The brothers continue to operate the shops, no small feat as the wine industry weathers changes and competition from new areas.
Being passionate about the products and exhibiting superior customer service are keys to growing the business through good and lean times, Sergio Mendes said in his 2,000-square-foot shop in Ashburn Village Center. He’s had to work hard to learn which wine to recommend for various occasions. Putting in 60-hour weeks is not uncommon.
“If you are passionate about it, you never burn out,” Mendes said.
Sales of wine in the United States grew some even during the Great Recession, shooting up from $41.5 billion in 2006 to $59.5 billion last year, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. In the past decade, some 120,000 new venues have popped up nationwide, including in a variety of nontraditional places, according to market research firm Nielsen.
“Consumers are finding more in-store restaurants and bars and also wine service in less traditional locations such as bookstores, nail salons, coffee shops and movie theaters – even car wash and car repair shops,” Danny Brager, a Nielsen senior vice president, said in a statement.
The upsurge of such competitive forces can leave traditional wine shop operators feeling besieged. That’s why it’s more important than ever to get back to the basics of building the business one customer at a time, Mendes said.
“It’s all about relationships,” he said. “I work hard to stock wine that is not sold in the grocery stores and other places. Many customers have come here for years because they know they can get the right recommendations for their occasions.”
California continues to dominate the national wine market with some 60 percent of U.S. sales from the western state. Virginia’s growing wine industry is making some leeway. Sales of Virginia-made wine reached 6.6 million bottles in fiscal 2016, a 6 percent increase from 2015 and 34 percent rise since 2010, according to state figures.
Last year, the state ranked fifth nationally in the number of wineries with some 285, including more than 40 in Loudoun County. The tourism bureau brands the county as “DC’s Wine Country.”
While California and European brands are big sellers in Mendes’ shop, he reserves a special area for Virginia-produced wines. He plans to spotlight one local winery each month in a targeted display.
“There are so many good wines being made here,” said Mendes, a county resident. “When you visit the wineries and see all the work and care that goes into making these wines, you gain a new appreciation for what they do.”
Mendes started a wine club two years ago, which offers two custom-selected bottles per month, discounts and private events. He holds public wine tastings from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There are larger tastings around key holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, and he works to grow the brand through social media and an email list on the business website.
His store – located in a shopping center with a Giant Food grocer at Gloucester Parkway and Ashburn Village Boulevard – also devotes about 10 percent of its space to beer and does growler fills. A craft beer tasting runs from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Medical studies have shown that wine, consumed in moderation, can have health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart attacks and improving digestion, Mendes said.
“In many countries, wine is a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s incorporated into cooking as much as spices.”