Ying & Yang and Wine
I walked from the Brooklyn Hotel for about 10 minutes and took in a familiar yet unfamiliar Brooklyn. The streets look the same, but the make up of the residents walking the streets are more diverse and the trendy cafés offering brunch and mimosas is a sign that gentrification is here to stay. Whether your feelings on the subject of gentrification are tempered or not, I’m happy to be on my way to visit a black owned wine and spirit shop in Crown Heights. James Lewis and Ryan Grandville have been together for 10 years and have been married for one year. As two black gay men in Brooklyn, NY they have found their passion and purpose in selling wines in their joint business venture of opening J&R Symposium. James and Ryan are similar and different in that one is the creative soul and the other drives sound business practice with his years of working in accounting.
Joseph: Who came up with the idea on opening J&R Symposium?
James: I met a guy who owned a wine and spirit store called Atlantic Cellar and asked him if I could do an apprenticeship with him. After one year of working underneath him I decided to approach Ryan and see if he was interested in opening a business in the form of a wine and a spirit shop. With my knowledge and Ryan’s background I felt we could be successful.
Ryan: For me, I’m a firm believer in educating yourself on anything before you get in to deep and realize that you are in uncharted territory. So I agreed to it, but I knew that I would go to school and learn about wines to be able to give suggestions to our customers and not just speak without knowing first hand what it was all about.
Joseph: Tell me a little about your apprenticeship James and Ryan let me know how the formal training went?
James: By the end of the apprenticeship I learned that this was a sustainable business venture that could turn a 50% profit or 100% profit on a product because with the changing demographics in the area wine had become popular amongst our potential customers.
Ryan: The course was difficult for many reasons; the course is instructed in old world and new world concepts about wine. The language barrier of learning about wine in French and German was difficult and although I’m great with numbers being able to decipher a second language was very difficult. The classes were taught in English, but the organization/school was underneath a UK curriculum and this was also hard. My dedication and hard work paid off when my exam grade was received and I past the class with Merit.
Joseph: What was the most difficult part of starting the business after getting more knowledge?
James: Finding a lawyer to work with us took some time and finding a space was difficult. Once we got a lawyer we then had to find a space and then get approval from the lawyer on how suitable the place was and this took us a while. The most difficult part was getting the license to open the business. This held us back for a long time. We paid rent on a spot that wasn’t selling anything from January 2015 to July 2015.
Ryan: No it wasn’t July, it was August because we opened in September [Ryan reminds James]. The lawyer submits your application and then you get a date to meet with New York State Licensing Authority.
James: Honestly, we didn’t think we would have gotten the license because the board is typically made up of three people and we walked into a two panel made up of an Asian and White man. We also had liquor stores in close proximity trying to block our license because they are allowed to contest applications if they want to for whatever reasons they see fit to mention. The owners protesting were primarily Asian and had stores that were bullet proof and had encased closing around the cash registers.
Joseph: So why do you think you got the license?
James: The Asian man on the panel said that the Crown Heights area needed it and that it would be good for the area, but said we could not make it a bullet proof store like the others that were protesting our license.
James, brought up race to show that they were approved by the Asian guy on the panel despite being protested by Asians and that was a good feeling for them because it showed that their vision was not being blocked.
Ryan: Being able to walk into a store in this area and go through a wine tasting is a very special experience and we love being able to share that with our customers. I know that being able to educate with our customers was a big reason we got the license.
Joseph: That’s a great point Ryan, how are you helping the community with your venture?
Ryan: Most blacks in the neighborhood go for sweeter wines that are bad for a population prone to diabetes. So we try to teach our customers about the benefits of moving to a dryer wine that is healthier for them. We do blind wine tasting with our customers and take them through learning about palette and pairing wines with different foods. Also helping them understand what makes a wine special.
Joseph: How has traveling influenced this business venture?
James: Traveling definitely played a big role in this venture because I spent time in wine country before leaping into this business. For my birthday in 2013 I rented a limo and went to winery in Upstate New York with some friends. I encourage my friends and customers to visit wineries in the area. In fact, there’s a good one in the city called Redhook Winery.
Joseph: How diverse is the wine business?
Ryan: In terms of the top positions in the business being a sommelier is the most respectable and we know one black female in the area out of 100’s. She’s been helping us and has been helpful in giving suggestions for the store.
Joseph: What’s a sommelier?
Ryan: It takes years to become a sommelier, but they need to know types of wine, be able to speak on the geographic places the vineyards are located, the soil type used to grow the grapes, the climate that might influence productivity, and pairing of wines with foods. Most important, the individuals should have enough knowledge to be able to recognize any wine by taste and scent.
Joseph: Do you want to be a sommelier?
Ryan: I would love to but being a self sommelier is more practical for me right now…it takes years to become a sommelier and the test to become one is very difficult.
Joseph: What other plans do you have for the business?
Ryan: I think being self-sufficient most importantly, but moving into working with restaurants and eventually creating our own bottle. Although we have different palettes and deciding on a bottle will be interesting. Lol.
Joseph: Why do you feel you’ll be successful at creating your own wine?
James: We’ll be successful because we’re passionate and have a great concept and we love knowing our customers appreciate our hard work. Every wine in the store is hand picked and selected by us and having our own bottle will be the icing on the cake for us. When we see people fall in love with a bottle we know we are on to something.
Ryan: As a child growing up in Guyana I sold anything that grew in my mom’s yard…mangoes and cherries were for sale. I have kept that mentality throughout my years in business. America is a place of opportunity and I’ve been fortunate to tap into that spirit of entrepreneurship. Creating our bottle would be a challenge, but not out of my scope because selling is what I do and crunching numbers is my life.
The interview ends with a brief discussion on the state of black America. Both James and Ryan are passionate about being strong black men and business owners and want to share their story in hopes it might inspire a younger generation. There’s something about listening to James and Ryan’s story that makes it clear that they have tapped into an awareness of black buying power and they are adamant on being able to share this with the community.
Show this article during your visit to J&R Symposium on your phone or in print and receive 10% off of your purchase. Offer expires December 31, 2016.
October 5, 2015, 1:55 pm
Two years ago, James Lewis was working as an apprentice at a wine store, and Ryan Granville was an accountant at the Internal Revenue Service.
Today, the two friends are are business partners living out their passions and their dreams!
On September 4, Lewis and Granville opened J&R Symposium, a boutique wine and spirits store, located at 1148 Union Street (at the corner of Rogers Ave.) in Crown Heights.
What sets J&R Symposium apart is its large inventory of specialty, boutique wines from around the world, including the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, as well as wine regions in Germany, France, Italy, South America, and local areas across upstate New York and Brooklyn.
Their spirit selection is not as large as in most wine stores in the area. But what they do offer are smaller quantities of scotch, whiskey, bourbon and gin that are rare and infused. Also, everything is affordable: Their least expensive wine starts at $8 and their most expensive is $34.
“We noticed that in an area that is changing, people who really enjoy this type of store want something affordable,” said Lewis. “They don’t want to have to cross the Parkway and [pay a lot of money] just to just get a bottle of wine.”
Granville added, “This is an open concept wine store where, unlike the other liquor stores in this neighborhood, we don’t have the bullet-proof glass. You can walk in, explore every region; you can ask questions or just pick what you’re familiar with.”
Granville said they decided to open J&R Symposium, because, for them, it made dollars and sense: James apprenticed at Atlantic Wine Cellar for a year, where the owner was gracious enough to teach him how to manage and run the business. And Granville was employed at the IRS, where he noticed the lucrativeness of the wine and spirits business– an industry where the demand was steady.
“I felt like, with wines evolving so fast, in terms of the taste, more people are drinking more wine,” said Granville. “For instance, Riesling used to be a sweet wine. Today, Riesling has about seven different varieties, from extremely dry to extremely sweet.
“Ten years ago, you didn’t have that option. But I think people are more aware of the changes in the wine world and are excited about trying a wine. Since James learned the business side of it, I felt it was a great time to open this store.”
However, the two admit they did receive pushback from the community– not surprising, since liquor store openings remain a bone of contention with their neighbors in Bed-Stuy’s Community Board 3. But ironically, Community Board 8 in Crown Heights wasn’t the one who had problems with their opening: The pushback came from the other liquor stores themselves.
“They didn’t want another open concept store in their area,” said Lewis. “They showed up with their lawyer and told us that they didn’t feel it was safe enough for [us] to do this. I guess they wanted to continue to create that jail feel.”
They also complained that since there were already five liquor stores in a five block radius, they would be carrying the same items. But, Lewis said, none of that was true:
“Our wines and our prices, you won’t find around here at any liquor store,” he said. “Besides, one of the contingencies of our liquor license was to keep it an open concept.”
Lewis and Granville believed wholeheartedly that the community deserved options, and so they pushed forward. And today, they have no regrets.
“I think there’s research and studies that show that people who drink wine are little more happy and a little more stress free,” said Granville, smiling. “So I think it’s the perfect time to open this type of store. We just want to be that go-to wine place in Brooklyn where you can always find something different for any occasion– something rare and something delicious at a reasonable price.”
J&R Symposium is open Monday through Thursday, from 11:00am – 10:00pm, Friday and Saturday, from 11:00am – 11:00pm and Sunday, from 12:00noon to 8:00pm. The store holds wine and spirit tastings every Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit their website.
Boutique’ Spirits Shop With Weekly Tastings Comes to Rogers Avenue
A new wine and spirits shop, J+R Symposium, opened earlier this month at 1148 Union St. at Rogers Avenue in Crown Heights.
CROWN HEIGHTS — Rogers Avenue just got a lot boozier.
A new wine and spirits shop, J+R Symposium, opened on the corner of Union Street and Rogers Avenue in Crown Heights earlier this month with a wide selection of bottles, a portion of which will be available for tastings every Friday night at the new store, said manager James Lewis. So far, new customers say they’re happy to have a place to pick up nice liquor and wines south of Eastern Parkway, he said.
“The first thing that they like [is] the space,” he said. “They like that everything is so spread out. They like that it’s a bigger store where they can actually go up and touch, read labels,” as opposed to other area liquor stores where the offerings are enclosed in Plexiglas, he said.
The shop is the first foray into the spirits business for Lewis and his business partner Ryan Granville, both of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who first got the idea after a trip to California wine country.
“We went to a winery and it started from there. We started enjoying it, tasting all these different wines and then we were like ‘This would be a really good idea to bring to the neighborhood,’” he said.
James Lewis, manager at J+R Symposium, helps a customer choose wine at the new spirits shop on Union Street and Rogers Avenue.
The pair chose the Union Street storefront because they felt Bed-Stuy is already “too saturated” with wine shops and knew the Rogers Avenue area lacked a “boutique” wine and spirits spot, as they describe J+R (named for each partner’s first initials).
The store hosts tastings every Friday night — the next is scheduled for Sept. 25 from 5 to 8 p.m. — and hopes to set up Saturday events, as well. The owners said that they carry mostly international and California wines (with kosher options available, as well) and a variety of domestic bourbons and whiskeys, and will rotate the stock as they become more familiar with the neighborhood.
“We’re trying to see what our clientele around here likes,” Lewis said.
J+R Symposium is located at 1148 Union St. and opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, closing at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. On Sundays, the shop opens at noon and closes at 8 p.m.