At Pittsboro’s wine shop, Anna Lange makes a case for great taste

Posted 4/28/21

PITTSBORO — Wine may be considered the nectar of the gods, but Anna Lange views it from a more down-to-earth perspective.

“It’s such a social thing,” she says.

After a year of …

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At Pittsboro’s wine shop, Anna Lange makes a case for great taste

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PITTSBORO — Wine may be considered the nectar of the gods, but Anna Lange views it from a more down-to-earth perspective.

“It’s such a social thing,” she says.

After a year of ubiquitous pandemic-induced social-distancing, Lange — the co-owner/operator of Vino!!, the boutique wine shop located in downtown Pittsboro — could hardly be blamed for crying sour grapes. While Vino!! was never forced to fully close during North Carolina’s COVID-19-mandated shut-down of bars, restrictions and the simple fact that people weren’t getting out as much meant a significant decrease in traffic to her shop. Over the last year, Lange cut hours, laid off most of her part-time staff and was forced to eliminate or curtail many of the events that helped drive the business’s revenue.

People didn’t stop drinking wine, but as a vintage, Vino!!’s 2020 was a bit of a bust. As 2021 unfolds, though, Lange is a little more hopeful about the harvest for the little wine shop she and her family opened — somewhat on a lark — nine years ago.

Essential, but reduced

Back in March 2020, as COVID-19 surfaced in N.C. and trends grew more alarming, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered restaurants and bars to stop indoor service. Before the gradual easing of restrictions later in the year, the state’s hospitality industry was pummeled: business closings and job losses were felt everywhere, particularly in Chatham County.

“Lucky for us, we were deemed essential and did not have to completely close due to COVID-19,” Lange said. “But we did have to shut down for in-store business.”

Vino!! reduced its hours in the beginning of the pandemic and at one point was only open on Tuesdays and Fridays. Some employees were temporarily laid off. Events — in-person Friday night wine tastings, wine dinners, seminars and the business’s annual Wine Fest — were also among the casualties. Customers could no longer pop in, roam across the creaking wooden floors inside Suite D at 89 Hillsboro St. and browse attractive displays of bottles, or sit at a table in the second-floor space and order wine by the glass — a relatively new feature that Lange said had “just started taking off” when the pandemic began.

Lange and Vino!! were able to pivot by bolstering online sales. After updating the online inventory and promoting delivery service (which existed, Lange said, but never really caught on prior to the pandemic) and offering curbside pickup, customers began to adjust, too.

And in a masked world, Vino!! added in new elements that put “social” back in play: virtual dinners and wine tastings held through videoconferencing platforms.

Not business as usual, but at least it was business.

“Now, we don’t get a lot of people coming in to drink by the glass,” Lange said of Vino!!’s return to in-person business. “While we are offering our in-store wine tastings, they aren’t nearly as busy as they used to be before the pandemic because of the limitations on how many people can be in a room at one time. Plus, some people still don’t feel comfortable patronizing businesses.”

Seating capacity limits attendance at wine dinners held in conjunction with local restaurants, and lingering unknowns about the pandemic and the post-pandemic world for businesses like hers means Lange simply doesn’t know when Vino!! will “ever be able to get back to throwing events of that nature.”

But she’s hopeful. She deemed last Friday’s wine-tasting “a success,” for example.

“So it remains a struggle to keep our customers engaged and to offer fun wine events to increase our business,” she says. “We are not sure what the future holds, but it seems like things may remain this way for a while. Wine is such a social thing, and the fear and worry of being close to other people and getting sick really limits the events we are able to hold in our industry.”

From law to wine

Lange isn’t a trained or certified sommelier. Her background, in fact, is in law. She graduated from Campbell University law school and practiced as a litigator for a few years but found it not as much to her liking as she anticipated.

Before getting her law degree, she’d worked at different restaurants in her native Chapel Hill and enjoyed talking to customers about wine and drinking it herself.

“Once I was 21 and could really explore wine, it became a hobby of mine,” Lange said. “I loved trying new things and learning about wine. I was also the friend people asked wine advice, too.”

She passed the bar exam and began to practice law, and by then considered herself “something of a wine snob.” The idea for Vino!!, in fact, was something she and her sister, Liz Arias — who’s a practicing attorney — had kicked around for a few years “on the back burner as a fun side project.”

In 2012, finding herself between jobs as an attorney, Lange knew it was time. She joined forces with her mother, Carolyn Kizer, and Liz and Liz’s husband, Ascary Arias, in the venture.

“If I didn’t open the wine shop then, I never would,” she said. “And the rest is history!”

Vino!! remains a family business. Lange ­— who, with her husband, Martin, is expecting the couple’s third child in June — does the bulk of the work, making orders and filling customer requests and handling marketing chores. Mom Carolyn still helps out occasionally.

At Vino!!, the goal has always been simple: provide customers with quality, eminently drinkable, affordable wines from all over the world that they can’t necessarily find anywhere else.

“We carry wines for every taste profile and we are happy to make recommendations,” Lange said. “Our audience is anyone who is interested in and loves wine.”

She promotes the atmosphere of Vino!!’s unique 1,019-square-foot space, a carefully curated selection (more than 400 different wines) and personal attention.

“We get to know our customers and their personal preferences and love suggesting wines to them,” Lange said. “We are also small and family-owned, and like to bring in wines we’ve tried and think offer great quality and value — not just wines that score well or that are on sale. We like to personally interact with our customers, which is why you will never see a tasting machine in our shop. We think we have a great selection that is affordable and meets everyone’s personal preferences.”

On a recent afternoon, for example, a local customer walked into the store looking to buy a bottle not for herself, but as a gift for a visiting out-of-state friend.

“I’d like to give her some produced here in North Carolina,” the woman told Lange, who directed the customer to the part of the store displaying local and regional wines. After a few questions, the customer took Lange’s suggestion on a bottle and departed happy.

Another customer eyed a Rhone Valley red that happened to be one of the most expensive wines at Vino!!. Lange suggested a less-expensive alternative with a similar taste profile that she and one of her distributors both raved about; the customer went away with something he’d not tried before and reported back later that he’d found the wine to be one of the best he’d had.

Tasting, learning

The knowledge base of Vino!!’s customers ranges, she said, from “super knowledgeable” geeks to novice drinkers, but they share an enthusiasm “for tasting, learning about, and drinking wine.”

As does Lange herself.

“We learn something new about wine every day,” she said.

And for the curious customer who comes in with a need for a bottle of wine, but no idea where to start?

“Usually we try to understand budget and whether they want a red or a white,” Lange said. “From there, we try to determine the taste profile they are looking for in the wine or ask about the food being served in order to recommend a good pairing. If the customer has absolutely no idea what to get, then we will suggest wines in their price point that tend to be crowd pleasers or top-sellers.”

Inside the store, wines are arranged and displayed by country and region, rather than by varietal. Vino!!’s inventory features plenty of selection in the under-$20 range, along with higher-priced bottles — including a stellar $84 2017 Domaine Usseglio Raymond & Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape, an old-vine red blend described on Vino!!’s tasting notes as having “floral notes of roses and violets, vanilla, toast, smoke, spice and tea. Dark and rich, with flavors of black cherry fruit, leather, blackberry, vanilla and oak. A velvety mouth-feel leads to a long, layered finish.”

In general, Lange said, Vino!!’s philosophy focuses on quality and affordability. She understands not everyone wants to spend $84 — or even $30 or $50 — on a bottle of fermented grapes.

“So we try to put wines out that are anywhere from, say, $7 to $25 — that’s our sweet spot,” she said. “Then, of course, I’m going to get the higher-end wines that people are looking for.”

Selling doesn’t require a lot of effort if the quality and price point are there.

“If we think it’s good quality, and if you think it’s worth the price point, then we put it out,” Lange said.

And for Vino!!’s customers who are novices, or don’t want to break the bank, she understands — she was a novice, too.

“There’s great value out there in the $10 price point,” Lange says, “but I think the problem is that there is so much you have to weed through because there’s a lot out there that is not necessarily that great. I mean, that’s our job as a wine shop owner. It’s to weed through all that for you — to try those wines and find the things that we think represent good quality and value.”

CN+R Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @billthethird.

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