My life, personal and professional, has moved along a unique path overflowing with experiences, opportunities, curiosity and connections. I smile recalling each one with its own impact on my life, even today.
I have spent the last 16+ years building, guiding and caring for a retail wine business that I created – The Savory Grape. My love of exploration and all things epicurean has given me the opportunity to focus on families whose life work has been committed to winemaking and farming, and to write and share these stories.
I fell into the wine world somewhat fortuitously, simultaneously coinciding with my desire to meander away from the corporate life of public relations, and move toward my passion for wine and travel. My experiences with wine were from corporate dinners, restaurant jobs during graduate school and serving as the go-to person for wine and food parties during my earlier years while in Washington DC. To a large extent, I was self-taught with my own practicum.
Looking back, my knowledge of the industry 20 years ago was slim. I was full of passion, determination and a marketing background that I knew would coalesce to drive forward my vision to create a boutique wine shop. I wanted to craft a business that provided an experience; the awe of delving into someone’s personal wine collection, engrossing others and myself in the history of the winemakers, regions and travel. I sought to place client service front and center, just as I did in the PR world. My one aspiration – it would be distinctive; people would feel the authenticity. I held steadfast in my vision and showered everyone with it. I wanted to be the wine world’s Starbucks that Howard Schultz had created.
The Road To Here
My then-new husband, Nino, and I shared many conversations over the course of a year on the possibility of me waving goodbye to the corporate world and going out on my own – ones that involved doubt and “what ifs” that naturally occur with any major change. The catalyst for this new life was a conversation on the infamous Interstate-95 from Rhode Island to Delaware, a 7-hour trek, to visit my parents one Christmas holiday. Very few cars were among us, one of the silver linings, because the drive through four states – Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey – to Delaware was often white knuckled. I had grown up in the second smallest state and was now living in the smallest state.
The drive to Delaware was a straight path along I-95 with little excitement, except sometimes in NYC, where one cannot anticipate what may occur. I loved the part of the trip through New York even with heavy traffic and fumes plaguing my nose. NYC is a complete dichotomy from life growing up in rural Delaware. NYC has action. In rural Delaware, we had cornfields, softball, big JCPenney catalogs and stock car racing. That was the extent of our rush. I- 95 cuts through the Bronx, the most northern of NYC’s five boroughs and home to the Yankees stadium. Put that in your fun fact bucket for your next trivia game.
I looked around, as I always did, at the ashy-colored, erect apartment buildings that hugged the Cross Bronx Expressway. The outside façades were lifeless and dull, the complete opposite of the city itself. I knew inside these nondescript buildings was spirit, keeping things going. Maybe people trying to carve out their American Dream in NYC. The city has always been synonymous with finding and living this dream. People from other countries make their way to NYC and vie for a cozy spot to do what Nino and I were encouraged to do since birth: create and live the American Dream – grow, save, educate, work, procreate and pass it on. To build a better life than the generations before. That is what Nino and I wanted to do with our idea of starting a wine shop – build something that was ours to help live a fruitful life.
As we crossed over the Hudson River on the iconic, stately George Washington Bridge, the buzzing cars softened out slightly. The Bronx was soon a distant blur. It was a big high-five moment to drive over this bridge, one of the busiest in the country, and onto the infamous and gloomy New Jersey Turnpike with no delay. Anyone who has ever undertaken this turnpike can relate.
Since I was a child, the NJ Turnpike has not changed. It’s comprised of the same boring gray, beige, black and white hues from the roads, flatland and warehouse buildings that line the stretch. It has not been doctored up or had a facelift, activities often common in the NJ and NY towns that hug it. Snacks and conversation are musts on this drive, which is when we had our idea of opening the wine shop.
Nino initially posed the idea to me. Furrowed brow, I remember staring straight ahead as if the NJ Turnpike had suddenly transformed into something mesmerizing when I heard these words. He was right. I liked wine. I knew marketing and business. I worked in restaurants during college and summers. BAM – I am qualified, right? Oh, I could do this! I always wanted to start my own business.
Soon the lifeless drive on the NJ Turnpike became more alive, and my thoughts flourished quickly. The “what if” we did this. The “how” we would do this. Give up the security of a corporate job with benefits and health insurance? Give up safety of a paycheck and retirement savings for uncertainty? I was in. What was the worst that could happen – it doesn’t work and I go back to the hustle and bustle of the 9-5 world. I wasn’t going to let that happen. The business plan took shape on the return drive back to RI, and The Savory Grape was soon born.
The Earlier Years
I grew up in a tiny, rural town in southern Delaware, filled with amazing people, most importantly, our family of five – mom, dad, my brother Rob, our cat Buffy and me. Chicken farms, hide and seek in the cornfields and wild imaginations were plentiful there.
My parents worked hard for our family. They gave us plenty – love, inspiration, perseverance, inquisitiveness and a solid work ethic. These were guiding forces in our small, one-level ranch home that paved our way and transcended any materialistic possessions that we may have lacked.
Growing up, Sunday was a day for rest, family and church, the latter antipodal to my teenage wants and bounding energy. Sundays were about regrouping and recharging our batteries, as dictated by mom. Sunday dinners were always enjoyed together. Holidays were special times for dressing up, even without leaving the house! See Past & Pandemic Holidays article.
Mom, from a small, coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, earned her BS in Nursing, while simultaneously working and raising my brother and me, not an easy feat. We caused a ruckus! As a mother now, I wonder how she did all this – navigated work, two children, college, life challenges. But, we do what we must. She was a natural caretaker, and it was no surprise that she chose the nursing field.
One of the most poignant experiences from my childhood resonates in my mind. Mom worked at a home for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. She would sometimes invite a particular teenage boy home to share Sunday dinners with us. Jeff was his name. His family did not visit him often, and our family loved him. Around the table, we laughed and talked with Jeff. While most of the time we struggled to understand Jeff, due to his speech challenges, mom knew what he was sharing. She had a gift. I watched and learned. Unknowingly I absorbed her fervor for her work and its people that I carried forward.
She had a gift. I watched and learned. I unknowingly absorbed her fervor for her work and its people that I carried forward.
Dad was exposed to a different path. A high school graduate and Army veteran, he had a plethora of varied experiences and time for them; luckily so did we because of this. He bestowed upon me a desire for exceling, and that with fortitude and perseverance I could do anything.
At an early age, I inherited his gifts of photography and softball. I acquired the investing bug when he bought my first stock at the age of 16. I became engrossed in all these activities at various times, exercising the synapses in different parts of my brain. This, I thought, kept me well-rounded.
Dad held environmental positions at various companies, including one of my favorites – Vlasic Pickles. I accompanied him to work often and was mesmerized by the sea of green cylinders (cucumbers) traveling up conveyor belts, only to jump off into vats of liquid. When I saw endless rows of Vlasic pickle jars at the grocery store, I smiled, more than pleased that my dad worked there.
We had an endless supply of these beauties that our family gifted at Christmas to neighbors, doctors and mail carriers. During the holidays these jars of pickles sat beautifully in wooden boxes, the same type of wooden boxes that expensive wine comes in today. What irony!
Music And Its Energy
Music was, and is still today, an integral part of my life. It enveloped me. Mom sang in the choir and played the piano, which she forced upon me. My Uncle Michael, mom’s brother, was a pianist, music educator and religious brother in New York. He spent almost every major holiday with us in Delaware, gifting us with his musical and big city electricity, a dichotomy to our otherwise mundane, rural activities.
I longed for his arrival and idolized his musical powers, knowing how to develop melodies without reading the music, simply playing by ear. I gave him a song name, and he played it, always. Trance-like, I watched the manic state of his fingers produce soothing masterpieces. I quickly changed my obligation to the piano because of Uncle Michael.
The music did something to me. My piano playing provided a fortuitous result, then as well as now, calming my constantly churning brain that was like the Energizer Bunny – it kept going and going. I created my own way of attending to my always on mind and its partners – the “what-ifs,” planning and perfectionism that were ever-present. These were my gifts. And without them, my path and experiences may have been less colorful.
Exploring The Paths
While my parents imparted us with the safe and secure path, my curiosity nudged me to navigate the turns of alternate routes… to push the envelope and ask more questions.
After graduating college and my inaugural trip to Italy in the late 1990s, before snuggling into the “real” full-time work world, I explored the U.S. with two friends on a three-month, cross-country expedition. We gave up our apartments, stored our belongings and saved money from our summer bartending jobs to buy a 1990s Ford Econoline van. Bessie, as we called her, became our home and protective shield for three months.
We navigated heavy mid-west rainstorms; nighttime driving without knowing what was ahead; erratic hormonal emotions; and stories of three 20 plus-year-old single women with details that ex-boyfriends never would want revealed. It was an experience that prompted me to question the status quo, stimulated me to spread my wings and created a bond that cannot separate, even after 30 years.
The advent of my career life began, after my cross-country excursion, as a journalist at a small, weekly newspaper in my home state of Delaware, spreading the voices of others, as well as my own. Yet, I had that constant magnetic pull to be more and do more beyond the second smallest state. So, I naturally seized an opportunity in the highly stimulating public relations and marketing worlds in Washington DC, using my writing skills. I landed in the historic Watergate Building, one most infamous for its scandal involving President Nixon. I continued crafting and sharing others’ stories.
DC provided excitement, glory, diversity – in thought, action and people – and an exploration of me. Not to mention, it was pivotal for a 25+ year-old woman to be in the Capitol city working in the Watergate and during the Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton scandal and Chandra Levy disappearance. It also provided me a bond to my Watergate officemates who after 25 years still call ourselves The Daisies, our version of the Golden Girls.
At the same time hustling and bustling in PR, I earned an MA in Psychology, all in preparation for a PhD in Clinical Psychology. Emotional intuition, curiosity and creativity influenced my then-desire into clinical psychology. However, I took what I thought would be a temporary sabbatical from graduate studies to move to Rhode Island to be closer to my then-fiancé, father to our children, and founding partner in The Savory Grape.
My ever-evolving journeys were strategic, while on the surface they may seem haphazard. They forged a clear path – to savor my spark, my mind and myself. I am grateful for my energetic and curious spirit! I hope that it too may give you inspiration to take hold and embrace that next experience.
Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for reading Nikki!
Love reading your writings.
Thank you Joan! So glad you are following along.