Jennifer Doumar experienced her “Aha!” moment with wine in Napa Valley. She hopes some of her customers will have theirs in Ghent.
Doumar plans to open Mermaid Winery – which will produce, bottle and serve wine – in Norfolk on May 1. It will be the state’s first urban winery, according to Annette Ringwood Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board’s marketing office in Richmond.
“I’m not a farmer,” Doumar, 31, said last week, “so I thought, why don’t I embrace that and do something different and get this winery in an urban environment?”
She’ll buy her grapes from Horton Vineyards in Orange County. Horton will make the first batch of wines the business will serve under the Mermaid label. Once Mermaid receives its license from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, it will make three reds in 35 barrels at the
Ghent location, Doumar said.
Late last month, Doumar won approval from the City Council to operate the business in a 2,444-square-foot storefront in the Palace Station shopping center on 22nd Street near Llewellyn Avenue. It will have indoor and outdoor seating for about 60, including a tasting bar for up to 10 people, Doumar said. It also will serve other wines, as well as food, such as cheese plates and desserts, meant to be paired with the wines.
“You’ll find that urban wineries are really starting to take off,” Boyd said, citing places such as San Francisco and Hong Kong. “The vineyard is the best place to grow grapes. But it’s not always the best place to attract tourists.”
Not every oenophile is a believer.
Writing about a new winery in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2008, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov asked: “What exactly is the allure of the urban winery? Will it satisfy a desire for some distant connection to a more pastoral existence?”
Doumar pointed to the success of O’Connor Brewing Co., a small beermaker just a few blocks from the planned location for Mermaid Winery. “The trend is to go local,” she said. “People want to support that kind of thing.”
She also noted that sales of Virginia wine have remained strong despite the jittery economy. Last month, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office reported that sales reached a record in fiscal 2011 of 5.5 million bottles, up 11 percent from 2010.
Doumar graduated from Auburn University in Alabama and spent most of her career in advertising, including with The Virginian-Pilot. But she long harbored a thirst to go into the wine business.
She remembered when she got hooked, and she wasn’t even old enough to drink wine.
Doumar was about 11, and her family, which lived in San Francisco at the time, was visiting a winery in Napa. She was offered grape juice in a wine glass, and she swirled and sipped with the rest of them.
“At that moment, I was a big girl,” Doumar said, fluttering her arms with excitement as she relived the memory. “I was part of this world that everybody else was taking part of. It just stuck with me.”
As her dream crystallized, she left her career to learn the business. Doumar spent a year and a half in 2009 and 2010 working in sales for Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery near Charlottesville.
Doumar’s family is helping her with the venture.
Her husband, Thad, the general manager at Doumar’s Cones Barbecue, has offered her tips on everything from the kitchen setup to the color of the tabletops. Her father, George Eichert, is her silent partner, helping cover expenses, which she estimated at $130,000 for the renovation and equipment.
Doumar said she also is receiving a loan – she did not want to say for how much – from the Navy Federal Credit Union.
Aside from the barrels, Eichert said she needs little more equipment to make red wine, except for pH testers and other lab tools. The space on 22nd Street is barren, but Eichert has no doubt she’ll be ready to open on May 1.
“I’ve been planning this for two years,” she said. “Everything is rock ‘n’ rolling.”
Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864, firstname.lastname@example.org