Third Time’s a Charm
The new Wine School of Philadelphia is open! It’s just one block north at 109 S. 22nd Street in Center City, between Sansom & Chestnut Street. It takes the best of the old location and adds lots of amenities. For example, we now have a fermentation lab, a lounge, two restrooms, and a cooking demo facility. I can’t wait for you to see it.
You may be wondering why I put myself through designing and constructing a classroom for a third time?
Since founding the Wine School fourteen years ago, it’s been my belief that a wine school needs a physical space of it’s own. The bricks and mortar act as a crucible for creativity. Great things can happen here because the Wine School is a real place, not a conference room rented by the hour.
As many of you might remember, our first home at 2006 Fairmount Avenue was quite the pioneer in an otherwise burned-out shell of a neighborhood. Luckily, the urban renaissance brewing in Philly took hold in 2006, and we benefited from a nice little BYOB scene, plentiful and safe parking, and bars pouring more Belgians than we could handle.
Despite its humble size and a Scotsman’s budget, I introduced some design elements there that were really cool. One example was creating a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard. Another was the 20 ft. world map behind reclaimed church pews. And I started at least one trend in the Philly restaurant scene: those walls of wooden wine crates. I originally thought it up the idea in 2003 to soften echoes in our classroom, but it also looked awesome.
After five years — and the founding of the Philly Beer School — we needed to look for a larger space. It was bittersweet leaving Fairmount, a neighborhood that had grown along with us.
Our move to Rittenhouse was a big gamble: There were no guarantees that schooling folks in wine education could pay the bills in one hell of a chichi place. But we couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a new home in a historic Victorian mansion replete with stunning finishes, original fireplaces, and two grand classrooms.
My renovations at 127 S. 22nd street were extensive. The space had great bones, but was in desperate need of some TLC. Here’s a little before and after that shows the transformation:
Another gamble was agreeing to share space with a recording studio upstairs. Correction: a recording studio run by our landlord. As time went on, that gamble that didn’t pay off.
It took me a long time to accept that we would have to start over somewhere else. I had taught hundreds of classes at 127. I had my wedding reception there. But as we got closer to renewal time, it was clear that a move was inevitable.
The Thrill of the Hunt (Or Not)
I was under strict orders to keep the School in the same neighborhood, one that felt like home and provided a steady supply of outstanding students, not to mention access to public transportation and abundant parking.
Easier said than done.
The next time you stop at the Sunoco on 22nd Street, take a panoramic view of the intersection. Any space for lease was one I considered. The daycare center building you ask? Yes, even the day care center building. (Perhaps better synergy than a recording studio, but less than ideal.)
There was one space a block north that seemed unrentable. In fact, it became a bit of a joke between my wife and I…who would rent THAT? Its curb appeal almost couldn’t have been worse. But the clock was ticking, and our other prospects — a fourth floor attic; a shared performance space; a place on Ranstead accessible only by alley-way — were not promising.
What I didn’t know was that the building had been recently purchased by one Alex Zhou. Alex is something of a legend in our neighborhood: think of an Asian Donald Trump, but better looking and much cooler. He had already rehabbed the second and third floor units into slick new apartments. Now he needed a commercial tenant on the ground level. He loved the idea of housing the Wine School of Philadelphia.
We signed a long-term lease in November 2015.
It Takes a Lot of Beer to Build a Wine School
The space formerly housed a small law firm, and it needed to be gutted. I honestly thought construction would only take three months. It took six, mainly because I was still working as Philly’s sommelier-professor and mad-fermentor.
Take a look at this place before rehab:
Construction dragged into the winter, one of the coldest on record. It wasn’t until February when I could finally repair the heating system. Here’s what I had gotten myself into:
Since the old and future Wine Schools were only a block apart, students would often catch a glimpse of a big, dusty guy in paint-covered clothes rolling down the hallway. That was me. I managed to clean up pretty well when I had to, though.
Meanwhile some awesome things were happening back at the Wine School & Philly Beer School:
As the days started to get a bit warmer, my sign painter Christian Cantiello installed the new sign. My contractor Alex Harel followed with the new barn lights. Alex was amazing. He immediately got my vision and always went out of his way to do an excellent job.
Now we were ready for the most anticipated part of the project: custom-designed desks and chairs from a hugely talented local artisan, Don Yacovella. I met Don at Phila Flea, and immediately wanted everything he had for sale. If I could get Don to design the furniture for the new classroom, I thought, it would be a dream come true. Six months after our initial meeting, Don delivered our grand tasting table, stools, and four two-tops. It was all gorgeous. Effing fantastic.
The Final Touches
By April the wood floors are finished, two bathrooms have been built, and I have repaired the god-awful front door. Now is the time for the creative final touches. My design plan was simple: create the lovechild of a Parisian lycée and a Paso Robles tasting room.
I wanted to incorporate elements from our prior two locations.
Then it was time to introduce some new ideas:
My favorite project was creating the first-known cork gabion (ga·bi·on ˈɡābēən/noun a wirework container filled with rock, broken concrete, or other material, used in the construction of terraced vineyards, retaining walls, etc). The gabion on the right holds corks from our years at the old location. The second will be filled with corks from classes in our new digs.
And we’re not done yet. Over the summer I’ll be putting the finishing touches on our fermentation lab downstairs (we already brewed a Saison). I’m also designing a sexy new media system to use during class. Finally, we’ll be framing and displaying all of our accolades since the Wine School’s inception.
It’s About Love, Not Money
This year, I have had several people tell me that the Wine School is their absolute favorite place in Philadelphia. Others have said the school is the thing that got them through a tough time. Many say our wine courses changed the trajectory of their lives. It may be corny and ridiculous for such things to matter so much to me, but they do.
This isn’t about running a business. If it was, I’d go back into wine consulting. It’s about being the caretaker of something truly awesome. The school is a safe harbor for people who are smart, talented, eclectic, and wildly passionate about wine. One thing I can assure you, I’ve travelled the wine world, and there isn’t another place like the Wine School of Philadelphia. And that’s why doing this a third time is totally worth a half year of sweat.