Edgartown business owners embrace their entrepreneurial spirit

Owners of recently opened Vintage Wine & Spirits and Coffee Culture, Sara Webber and John Clift are embracing their entrepreneurial spirit, one bottle at a time. — Photo by Michelle Gross

For Edgartown business owners John Clift and Sara Webber, fine wine, like true love, only grows stronger with age. John, a sommelier at Atria restaurant, and Sara, a wine distributer for Martignetti Companies, met at the restaurant in 2010. “He was my buyer, and one thing just kind of led to another,” Sara said.

While wine was the common denominator that brought the two 30-somethings together, it was their entrepreneurial spirit that has helped them open not one but two adjoining storefronts this summer. “We’ve always had the same dream of owning something,” Sara told the Times. “But it was hard, just getting started.”

Tucked away in Nevin Square off Winter Street in Edgartown, Vintage Wine & Spirits — a wine boutique with more than 250 bottles to choose from along with Coffee Culture — a coffee bar serving specialty espressos, coffee, and noshes are now open with a seasonal permit through November.

“Sara and I are both really passionate about coffee and wine,” John said.

“We believe the consumer who enjoys a great cup of coffee is also the same consumer who enjoys a great bottle of wine,” Sara said.

Always on the hunt for the next best thing, they said there will always be an open bottle for tasting in the store. “Wine can be really intimidating to people,” Sara said. “We want to turn people on to something that’s a little bit outside of their comfort zone. Good wine doesn’t have to be a $50 dollar bottle.”

One of their top sellers, a white-wine grape variety from southern France called Picpoul de Pinet costs $13 a bottle.

Beans & Grapes

John and Sara began leasing the Nevin Square space, formerly Carvel, with a three-year seasonal liquor license in May. However the idea of owning an all in one wine store/coffee bar in one fluid space was not approved by the town due to liquor licensing issues, which forced them to once again get creative in their thinking.

“It was just one of those things, we couldn’t do anything about it and had to work with what we had,” John said. And that’s exactly what they did. Today, the stores have separate entrances, however an oversized window that remains open connects both sides.

“We’re really happy with how it turned out,” Sara said.

In the months before opening, they spent time renovating and expanding their wine selection. “John and I had a vision of what we wanted the space to look like,” Sara said. “We went over the layout so many times, and we would draw it and then redraw it on the floor until we finally figured it out.”

With the help of their good friend and local carpenter Aaron Zeender, they hoped the use of reclaimed barn wood floors and placing the register in the center of the store would create a relaxed Vineyard vibe that would appeal to the palates of connoisseurs and the amateurs alike.

“When you walk in we want you to feel comfortable,” Sara said. “It’s an experience that we want you to walk away with. We want the consumer to always learn something from us every time they come in.”

The concept of opening a wine store/coffee bar came to them organically. “We take the same progressive approach with the coffee shop as we do with the wine shop, trying to source out the best quality products for our customers,” Sara said.

Last winter during an off-season wine-scouting and coffee tasting trip that started in Napa and ended in Rome with stops in New Zealand, Bali, and Australia in between, the couple wanted to bring that cross-cultural flare to life on the Vineyard.

“We stopped in every coffee shop we could find to give us a perspective on what we wanted to create here on Martha’ Vineyard,” Sara said. They even attended barista school at the William Angliss Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

“Other cultures treat coffee so differently than we do here in the States,” Sara said. “They don’t drink their coffee as hot as we do, they don’t have extra large sizes, and the emphasis is on the flavor and the experience. That’s what we wanted to bring back here, so that’s what we did.”

Back home, they began working with Boston-based Counter Culture Coffee — a coffee education and training community — to create a specific blend of organic free-trade coffee to match the taste profile that they think their customers will love. Their signature drink, the Shakerato, is a double shot of espresso, milk, homemade coffee, simple syrup and ice that’s whipped “to perfection” and served cold.

Two vines, one love

Now that Vintage Wine & Spirits and Coffee Culture are up and running, Sara and John are using social media sites like Facebook to keep customers in the know. “We’re always updating the site with good deals and specials we have going on in store,” Sara said.

In addition to starting their business, both John and Sara said they need to maintain other jobs in order to stay afloat. In addition to the $2,500 cost of a seasonal liquor license, Sara and John say they’ve spent close to $75,000 of their own money to get the shops up and running. “We work long hours, and it can be exhausting,” Sara said. “We definitely drive each other crazy and don’t always agree.”

One thing they always agree on however, is that when it comes to the wine business, it’s all about maintaining relationships. “I’ve been here for ten years so people know me,” John said. “The fact that I have stability on the Island, people know we’re never going to try and sell them something that isn’t good. It’s almost like finding a good mechanic. The trust means so much.”

“We’re doing it because we love it, we don’t take a paycheck, it’s our passion,” Sara said. “And for us, it’s also nice to be able to see each other. It’s gotten us closer, I have a different respect for him and he has a different respect for me and as much as we want to kill each other sometimes, it’s like wow, you know, we did it.”