CHAPEL HILL - If you walk out of one of Todd Wielar's two wine stores with just one item, he hopes it's a bottle of wine. He'd also like you to leave with the belief that understanding wine isn't difficult.
If it is, he contends, you're missing the point.
"Wine is not this mythical entity," he says. "It's just a beverage that's meant to be enjoyed with family and friends. It's not supposed to be something to be stressed over."
Wielar, 34, for nearly four years has communicated with oenophiles and the wine-curious alike that all that's required to enjoy the fermented beverage is a corkscrew, a nice glass and a willingness to explore.
Just as understanding why one bottle of wine is superior to another comes with time and a little work, so did the two shops that Wielar now operates. Truth be known, one of them never was even supposed to exist.
When the former cook decided to go into the wine-selling business in 2002, he brokered a lease for a space in an unfinished retail center in Chapel Hill. When weather delayed the center's completion, Wielar had to start considering options.
"I had already quit my job, so it definitely wasn't ideal," he recalls. "To make it worse, I had also hired an employee, so it wasn't just me that I was responsible for."
Facing the possibility of being jobless as the holiday season neared, Wielar found inspiration from the most unlikely of places - a costume shop.
"I got the idea to open a (temporary wine) store from all of those costume shops you see pop up around Halloween," he says of the short-lease, high-volume businesses. "I did some quick calculations and figured I could do enough business to pay the bills until the Chapel Hill location was ready."
In November 2002, the Hillsborough Wine Co. opened in Hillsborough for what was to be a short period. But by the time the Chapel Hill store was ready, the Hillsborough store had found a life of its own.
"We ... had already built up six months worth of clientele and word of mouth. We didn't want to just lose all of that," he says.
Wielar decided to keep both stores, and he hasn't looked back since.
The two stores - Chapel Hill Wine Co. and Hillsborough Wine Co. - each offer an intimacy associated with, say, an independent bookstore. Wielar says the stores were profitable after 18 months in business, and the past two years have seen consistent growth of more than 20 percent. Combined, they account for $2 million in annual revenue, though the Chapel Hill store outpaces its Hillsborough sibling in earning power by nearly five-fold.
Chris Mincey, a wine sales representative that services the two locations for Charlotte-based Tryon Distributing, says Wielar's success is attributable to the time he takes to get to know his product.
"Todd really thrives on finding things that other stores don't have - he likes to get the gems in the rough," Mincey says. "He can do a little bit more of that because he's got a great palate, and he's able to get into tasting the wines and knowing what his customers like more than someone in a grocery store can."
And that's the idea, Wielar says.
"Price-wise, we're comparable to our competitors, but we work hard to offer variety and an education regardless of your prior exposure to wine," he says.
He says he works to assure his staff is knowledgeable of wines. The stores offer weekly wine tastings and food and wine pairing suggestions based on Wielar's background in culinary school and restaurants.
In the end, buying a bottle of wine is a simple matter, he believes. "There's no such thing as buying the wrong bottle of wine," he says. "It's just not possible."
Now he just hopes you buy it from him.