Regina Gaines: Pure Vinspiration

Cheers_cast_1991If you are old enough to remember the sitcom ‘Cheers’, you’ll recall it as a neighborhood bar where everybody knew your name.  Then as now, that seemed like a cool little destination joint to have in your hip pocket when (as the theme song went), your coffee maker breaks, your daughter hangs the cat up by the tail, your shrink moves to Europe and your husband wants to be a girl. Although, considering that most of Cheers’ regulars were straight men, that last one was a rather perplexing line.

In any case, I walked into House of Pure Vin for the first time on Thursday afternoon and immediately found people who knew my name. Granted, some of them greeted it with a passing shudder, others would have been willing and able to pick me out of a police lineup, but at least they knew who I was, and these days, that’s worth a lot.

Claudia Tyagi, MS

Claudia Tyagi, MS

One of the HoPV gang—someone before whom I would plead the fifth rather than identify in a court of law—is consultant Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi.  She’s the one who alerted me to the existence of this spacious, extraordinarily elegant eno-emporium, recently opened on the strip of Woodward below Grand Circus Park that’s in the process of realizing every Detroit developer’s dream: It’s coming back to life.  Streets are vital and simmering with traffic; the new, high-profile Nike store is a block away, Foxtown is a 2-iron drive away. On the afternoon I visited, the foot traffic between Clifford and Grand River seemed both relaxed and focused, and the security people who were meandering through the crowd, conspicuous and camouflaged, reminded me that although these venues have had their ups and downs, there are now puzzle pieces in place to keep it real: Real inviting and real safe.

House of Pure Vin cast

House of Pure Vin cast

The most remarkable thing about House of True Vin is that owners  Regina Gaines, Terry Mullins and Andrea Dunbar—in the paradigm of entrepreneurial gumption—identified and filled a niche that I didn’t even realized existed, but now that I see it, seems obvious.  This is a sign of true business acumen.  Catering to a crowd that so far seems primarily city, HoPV offers a Michigan-heavy selection of quality wines with a staff that can hand sell them to customers who may only have a vague understanding that their home state even produces wine.

And that, sadly, is because Detroit, for good or ill, has developed such a unique urban persona that folks—Detroiters especially—tend to forget that it is part of a sprawling, largely rural agricultural state.  The niche discovered by the trio mentioned above is an attempt to fuse the city with the sylvan, the metropolitan with the outland, the steel with the vine, bridging the comma in the words ‘Detroit, Michigan’.

Their name represents that; ‘House of Pure Vin’ seems to borrow a mind-association from the most successful ad campaign our tourist board ever concocted: ‘Pure Michigan!’

Regina Gaines

Regina Gaines

I spoke with Regina Gaines at length about the store’s raison d’être and her roadmap for getting their; all fair questions since the walk-in trade I saw seemed more curious than anything else.  She’s honest about a business plan that will require a lot of hand-selling, and she’s also the ideal individual to take on the task.  A business major who worked for Moët Hennessy as a strategic marketing consultant, she’s not only at ease discussing wine’s finer points, but has a knack for finding the precise bottle for a customer who may not be particularly interested in discussing the finer points.  In fact, her own marketing mantra in stocking the shelves—or, technically, terra-cotta tubes—has less to do with branding and more to do with drinking.

“I only carry wines that I like; that becomes the key to selling them.  Representing products you don’t believe in is never a formula for success.”

signShe brings the most professional beverage experience to the trio of partners—Terry Mullins is a district manager for Sanofi Pasteur Pharmaceuticals and Dr. Andrea Dunbar is a program coordinator at John Hopkins University. Wine is the sticky stuff that binds their passions.

According to Regina, Claudia Tyagi, MS has been indispensible to the marketing of the passions.  Tyagi was engaged as a wine consultant, as she has been at some of Detroit’s top restaurants—Rattlesnake Club, Joe Muer Seafood and The Whitney among them.

“From a business standpoint,” Gaines says, “We knew we needed somebody on our staff who was a Master.”

Besides having been instrumental in suggesting House of Pure Vin selections—each one approved by Gaines, of course—Tyagi will continue to hang around to train novice staff while establishing the most comprehensive collection of Michigan wines in the city.

As intended, the vibe inside the storefront is comfortable and fun, and there is zero intimidation factor—a vital concession for the HoPV  mission statement.

interiorI must briefly return to the environment, the store’s interior design, by Detroit-based studio M1/DTW. It is beautifully functional, minimalist and clean, filled with utilitarian spaces, while large windows embrace the streetscape. Thursday afternoon, a tasting of Spanish wines from Ramón Bilbao was happening inside a well-appointed alcove near the Champagne fridge—perfectly chilled Champagne was a must, based in no small measure on Regina Gaines’ Moët memories.

Savannah Blue

Savannah Blue

But of the dozen tasters in attendance, mine was one of only two white faces; the rest were African American.  This is immeasurably relevant, because many of the Detroit revival retail spots seem to cater primarily to white suburbanites or that nouveau-urban crowd called (with varying degrees of affection) hipsters, who are primarily Caucasian.  I spoke about this phenomenon to a local restaurateur who is black, and whose nearby Southern food spot, Savannah Blue, also shows a marked demographic shift toward black patrons.  I happen to think that any business that seeks to be on the forefront of redeveloped downtown, yet can’t seem to appeal to 85% of Detroit’s population, is being socially dishonest.

Not so House of Pure Vin.  The trio of partners, all African American, and Claudia Tyagi, a white girl from the ‘burbs, understand that for a comfortable fusion of Detroit and the rest of Michigan to be germane and to have a rational shot at long-term success , there has to a balance of attitudes and attributes among incoming patrons.

That’s why I give HoPV a full-bore Michigan thumbs up.  And I’m proud to say that they’re as good at walking the ‘Promote Michigan’ walk as talking it; as such, my last wine book, Heart & Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country now sits on the House of Pure Vin vital accessories shelf, right next to the corkscrews.

It is now my favorite neighborhood wine shop—the place where everybody knows my byline.



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