Monday Q&A: Local couple pour their hearts into startup

Cobblestone Cellars, a local family-owned wine distributor, is bursting at the seams.

The company, started in 2004 by husband and wife Jim and Kristin Opalka, has come a long way from the days of delivering wine out the back of their Ford Explorer. In January, they will leave the Parham Road space they started in for a larger facility near the airport.

BizSense sat down with Jim, 36, to find out how he got this far and how his family venture almost didn’t happen. Below is an edited transcript.

Richmond BizSense: How did you end up in the wine business?

Jim Opalka: I was getting my MBA at VCU, taking the executive program on weekends. I sat there one Saturday afternoon and said to myself, “I can’t do middle management. That can’t be my next step.” It was pretty obvious that was going to be the next step for a lot of us. So I started to make a list of the things I wanted to do, and wine was at the top of my list from a passion standpoint.

RBS: Did you see an opening in the market for a wine distributor? How did you end up finding your niche?

JO: In the past, there were a larger number of distributors that were nationally owned and then small distributors who were focusing on smaller brands that we personally love and that come from family wineries.  Those are great wines that are handmade, hand-picked and have lots of personality.

The distributors working with those wines didn’t necessarily deliver a level of customer service that some of the large distributors did. Some would deliver when they could and not on set delivery dates, for example. That is what is appealing about the national distributors. It’s not necessarily the wines but how they do business.

We want to try to incorporate the level of service a larger distributor can bring as far as the ease of doing business and professionalism but deliver those hand picked, smaller-production family wines.

RBS: How did you get funding to start the business?

JO: We put a very long business plan together with pro formas out five years and went to private equity firms, banks, family members, etc. But at that time no one wanted to touch anything unless it had a tangible asset to it, such as land or property. So most people passed, like any small business would when some crazy guy walks in the door and says, “I want to be a wine distributor.”

[One day,] I sat down on the couch and said, “Kristin, Wachovia is the only bank that hasn’t called back and said no at this point. If they call and say no, it wasn’t meant to be.”

The next morning we get a call from Wachovia that said we are going to have to tie it to some personal equity, but I think we can make this happen.

RBS: What was the first year like?

JO: It was just me and Kristin, who was still working as a travel agent. I quit my job. My former employer actually became a small investor also. Our Ford Explorer was our delivery truck, no sales people, no warehouse people. I would go out and sell three days a week and deliver three days a week. I put a lot of miles on the Explorer. We eventually hired a rep in Virginia Beach after six months. My father was our first delivery driver after that. We traded in the Explorer last month. It was a sad day.

RBS: Where are you now compared with then?

JO: Since then we have grown to 13 employees total. We recently hired a rep in D.C.

What we did in our entire first year is what we do in three weeks now.

RBS: A lot of wine bars have cropped up across town. What does that mean for you?

JO: From a business standpoint, those are our marketing arms. People go taste our wines at wine bars, and then go out and look for that bottle. Any new avenue for pouring wine from the glass where people are more willing to experiment – it is probably the most import segment of our business.

RBS: What role do Virginia wines play in your business?

JO: We recently decided to look and see where the state industry has been and where it’s going. We tasted a lot of Virginia wine recently and would say we were pleasantly surprised where quality has gone in just the past five years. We made the conscious effort to get in the game, and we are in the middle of evaluating the options for that.

RBS: What is your favorite wine?

JO: The biggest mistake people can make is to pinpoint a favorite varietal or region. So much depends on the time of year, what you are eating, what your budget is and how curious or adventurous you are that day. The beauty of wine is that you walk into a shop or restaurant and there are thousands of labels. You can always find something that is meant for what you are going to do that day at that moment.

RBS: But if you were stuck on a deserted island, what would you want a case of?

JO: I am a huge fan of German Rieslings. They are some of the most, if not the most, versatile wines in the world.

Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]

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Harvey Summers
Harvey Summers
9 years ago

My favorite wine is the one named for Jim and Kristin’s daughter, Avery Quinn. She is a classmate of my son, and I can’t drink the wine without thinking of her and smiling. The wine also has a great history that Jim or Kristen should post here.

Kim Kacani
Kim Kacani
9 years ago

This is such a great story and the Opalkas are modest in sharing their accomplishments. Besides bringing some great family wines into our market, they themselves are very community minded and are an asset to the Richmond community. I agree with Harvey – they need to share the wonderful story of their Avery Quinn wine and how the purchase of that wine can benefit others. Good stuff!

John Lo Re
9 years ago

Cobblestone Cellars has been an important distributor here at kroger Gaskins Road for many years. I can always count on them to bring interesting new wines to the market. Larger distributors do a good job but focus more on higher volume wines. Cobblestone does a great job of bring exciting new products from small family businesses while providing solid support for every product they supply. Congratulations and continued success to a wonderful company.

Robert Kocher
9 years ago

Congratulations to Jim & Kristin on their hard work and great service they have given to my store. I remember telling Jim before he started in business that it would be a mistake to start a wine distributor. Boy did he prove me wrong. I to had just opened my store at that time, and with Jim & Kristin’s fine selection of wines my business has also grown. I as a retailer had enjoyed a great working relationship with Cobblestone Cellars, and hope I will continue to be a small part of their growth. I was one of Cobblestone’s first… Read more »

Pat & Marv Brannock
Pat & Marv Brannock
9 years ago

James Opalka is my nephew and we are so proud of James & Kristin and their beautiful daughter Avery. We wish them continued success and love!
Aunt Pat & Uncle Marv from Wyoming

9 years ago

“The next morning we get a call from Wachovia that said we are going to have to tie it to some personal equity, but I think we can make this happen.”

Congratulations to Wachovia or whatever exists now for helping make it happen.

Dee Dee White
Dee Dee White
9 years ago

Excellent! Wonderful article about some great friends.

Ron & Sharon Masi
Ron & Sharon Masi
9 years ago

We remember a conversation one evening in Saratoga Springs, New York when Jim was explaining his future plans to become a wine distributor. And all came to pass exactly as he projected due to dedication; hard work, brains & talent!!! So happy for the success of this business and its continuing expansion.