JAMES WEST’S NORTH ASHEVILLE WINE SHOP, Westlake Wines, is a good-looking space. The shop’s blond wood floors have a bright polish, and its slate blue walls are decorated with some of its owner’s photography collection that follows a surfing theme. Along with the central table set-up and a burgundy wing chair tucked away in a corner (Moxie’s favorite spot), furniture at Westlake consists of a pair of well-traveled lounge chairs in faded brown leather. But on second glance you notice that one of these is, quite incongruously, a barber’s chair. “The Chair is here,” James proudly declared in an Instagram post last October. “It’s even got an ashtray in the arm. Will be put to use Monday. Just a little up off the ears.”
During my visit last fall, when I complimented him on the actual lounge chair, an Eames reproduction, he mentioned he’d recently become friendly with the owners of The Local Barber & Tap, a downtown barbershop where, this being Asheville, craft beer is served. Courtesy of them, he was now awaiting the arrival of a piece of furniture to complete the shop’s layout. Aware that he hosted wine tastings and other gatherings, James’ new friends asked if they could set up their extra barber chair at Westlake to promote their services at one of his in-store events. They proposed, literally, to offer haircuts inside his shop. Not unlike the Italian wine specialist who took a look at the diverse Westlake inventory before pitching pelaverga, The Local Barber guys must have caught something in his non-conforming attitude that suggested an evening of wine, beer, scissors, and razors was not an outlandish idea. At least, not in Asheville.
“It kind of fits into my ‘aesthetic,’ if you want to be snotty about it,” James laughed. “I’ve got the old Eames ottoman lounge knock-off. And now I’ve got the barber chair. I wanted to try to create an atmosphere where people say, ‘What is this? This is neat.’ At some point, hopefully people are comfortable in here where they’re not just coming in to get a bottle of wine and go home. They’re actually coming in because they like hanging out and saying howdy—and being chased by Moxie.”
After only a short time in his new city, he’d managed to befriend a pair of craft brew-serving barbers, but I wondered if James had since developed more straightforward ties to the local food and drink scene. With fine wine wholesalers like Gwen and her competitors servicing not just his shop, but a wide range of eating and drinking establishments across Asheville and the tourist-driven region, I thought word might have gotten out that there was a new wine guy in town doing something unique. I was both right and wrong.
Aside from occasional visits to his neighbor, Chef Sam at Ambrozia, Westlake’s sole proprietor has what he calls “the drawback of being the only person here and not actually going out every single day and night, hanging out with people and having them find out about the shop.” Instead, on a small but growing scale via word-of mouth and social media, James sees restaurant folk coming to him. At least one of the managers of Cúrate, the popular Spanish restaurant, has become a customer and stops in regularly to buy wine and beer. “It’s near where he lives, but he also enjoys the selection. He can easily go to the supermarket around the corner from where he works, but he knows he can get something a little more interesting at my shop.”
Having dined with Gwen at Cúrate and experienced firsthand not just an extensive wine list and creative cocktail menu, but also the energetic level of hospitality chef-owner Katie Button and her staff execute on a nightly basis, I saw this manager’s choice of Westlake as a compliment to James’ abilities as a wine purveyor. He was humble about it, shifting the subject to Asheville’s bigger retail picture. “There’s a thing with wine in supermarkets in North Carolina. I remember meeting the owners of another wine shop. They said, ‘Ah, well, we know we’re competition.’ But I told them that we’re not competition; our competition is the grocery stores. And trying to get people to not buy wine from those places, that’s our main goal. Between all of these wine shops in Asheville, we’re trying to educate ourselves, as well as the customers, to the point where they’re deciding not to spend $14 or $15 on a bottle of wine in a grocery store when they can spend that amount in a wine shop on something that will be interesting and different.”
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My Arden host Richard is a more recent convert to Westlake Wines. Since last fall, I’d been encouraging this wine-savvy friend, who was a winery chef in Napa Valley and now works as a restaurant industry recruiter and consultant, to drop by James’ shop. When he finally did so just before Mother’s Day, it was to follow through on my request to help me with this story and, more importantly, to buy a bottle of Sancerre for his wife. He had their son, Bo, with him. The four year-old delighted in James’ collection of plastic “army men” placed around the shop that are actually surfers and skateboarders, and he enjoyed Moxie, who was on her best behavior.
“He didn’t have any Sancerre,” Richard informed me when we spoke on the phone after his visit. “That’s what led me to the Pouilly Fumé James recommended, the Domaine de BelAir. He said it was a quaffer that was going to be ‘clean and lean.’ And I said, ‘I’m with you. Sold!’”
He was also pleased to discover that James carried a Croatian red wine made from the plavac mali variety, a topic that had recently caught his interest. “’Grapes grown below sea level,’” he quoted from the book he was reading. “I loved the store. I’ve just pulled out that bottle of Plavac that I bought from him. I was definitely fired up to see that.”
I asked Richard what he generally thought of the shop—and of James’ taste in barber chairs. “The store kind of has a southern California feel to it. It’s pretty laid back,” he said, noting the surfer and skateboarder figures, the photography, and the rock and roll coming out of James’ speakers. “And he had good music playing. He’s probably a KCRW ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ guy.”
As for the barber chair, he thought it was “a nice touch” and that it made sense within the space. “I think it personifies Asheville to me. There’s this community of people who want to have their own business, and do what they’re passionate about, and try to make it work. People who say, ‘I might not get rich off of it, but I’m doing what I love.’ And then they have to get creative about how they market themselves. Asheville very much has this creative marketing and merging of businesses and ideas to keep things moving forward.”
Like James’ transition from bar management in Manhattan to wine retailing in North Carolina, Richard’s professional endeavors in Asheville are relatively new to him; he cooked and catered in Napa Valley for nearly 20 years before branching into consulting. The two have this self-uprooting in common, and I have a hunch that their paths will cross again and my old friend will send my new one some business. Richard “gets” Westlake Wines and is in a position to recommend it to likeminded hospitality people, a segment of the local population whose attention James does, indeed, hope to capture.
“The store’s connection to the overall food scene, it’s slow coming, but it will eventually get there,” he said. “I can relate it back to the guy at Cúrate. Working at Another Room for so long, our bread and butter were the restaurant industry people. With them coming into the bar after their shifts to have a couple of drinks, even if all we served were beer and wine, it was still kind of a big deal for us because these people were coming here. They could go and do shots at the dive bar a couple blocks down, or they could come to us to have a couple cool glasses of wine. So that’s also kind of the feel I was leaning towards: I’m hoping that people who work in restaurants and enjoy drinking wine, or good beers, will say, ‘Let’s go to Westlake Wines and grab some wine on our day off.’ Because that’s going to be closer to what they’re interested in, in terms of restaurant-style lists, than going to the grocery store.”
ONE OF THE LAST QUESTIONS I asked James during our call should have been among the first: how did he choose the name of his wine shop? I assumed that his own surname was incorporated into it. But it turns out he named Westlake Wines after one of his favorite writers, the crime and comic-caper novelist, Donald E. Westlake. If you’ve seen Stephen Frears’ 1990 crime thriller, The Grifters, the lines spoken by Annette Bening, John Cusack, and Anjelica Huston were written by Westlake. The prolific author actually wrote a few screenplays, but his most enduring work is his series of Parker novels, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, about a ruthless career criminal. James said that he’d intended to work “West” into the name of the shop, but there’s a section of the city called West Asheville. To avoid confusion, he needed to come up with a moniker that didn’t have anything to do with a direction on the map. Enter his treasured novelist, who passed away in 2008. “It’s a nice tribute, in my own little way, to Donald Westlake.”
During our call, I guessed correctly that we share an interest in film. James mentioned the screen shots from Point Blank, The Great McGinty, and other movies that have appeared in the Westlake Instagram feed since I started following it. “When I did a new postcard at the beginning of the year,” he said, neatly closing the circle on the name of the shop, “I did a screen grab from John Boorman’s Point Blank with Lee Marvin, which was based off of Richard Stark’s book, The Hunter—which is Donald Westlake.”
James’ more recent eclectic touch has been to track down issues of a defunct film journal, Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art, to place in stacks around the store. “I used to work in a video store god knows how long ago,” he explained. “I was digging through all of my books, and I just happened to grab a copy of Scenario and thought, ‘This would be cool to have in the shop.’” At $30-plus per issue on Amazon, it’s been a somewhat pricey amenity to collect for his customers, but as he told me, nothing makes him happier than when someone walks in with a sandwich, grabs a bottle of wine or beer to open right there, and settles into reading the script for Breaking Away, Out of Sight, The Birds, or any of the other screenplays reprinted in the magazine. I’m beginning to think that over in the western Carolinas, a “Westlake way” of purveying wine will soon become the norm, and maybe it will spread out from there. At least I hope so. For all of the dull or formulaic retail wine establishments I’ve set foot in over the years, James’ way of doing things is refreshing.
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After nine months in operation, business isn’t exactly busting at the seams or running at the New York pace he might have once pictured, but he has faith in his approach. Despite the fact that, as of this writing, he’s still without a sign out front, indications are that the word on Westlake Wines is spreading around his new city, which puts him in a good personal space. “It’s been a year and a half for me in Asheville. I really, really like being down here. I have the confidence in the shop that I think it’s going to be pretty successful,” he said.
I picked up throughout our conversation that his sole proprietorship contributes to this confidence: a tight ship is the right one for him at this point, both financially and creatively. “I want to try and limit how much wine I’m ever going to carry. I really don’t want to get to the point where, even if a year from now things are going spectacularly, when I get into 750 or 800 labels, it becomes more difficult. For me, it’s about the amount of information you can possibly hold in your head.”
Thinking beyond the next year, I asked James near the end of our call where he saw himself and his wine shop in five or ten years. He shared that he recently visited a friend in Charlotte—the same friend from New York with whom he’d schemed a Brooklyn wine shop a decade ago—and accompanied him on an errand to the town of Waxhaw, about 45 minutes south of the city. On Waxhaw’s Main Street, the pair happened to notice Black Chicken, a combination wine shop and wine bar with a full kitchen. They ventured in, and James was sold on the concept. “Hopefully Westlake will be successful, and then I’ll be able to do a second thing where I would want it to be more like that. Have a place like Black Chicken where it’s a bit of a dual threat. I would love it if people came in here and said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to hang out and listen to you play Bad Brains and The Stooges and drink some wine and read my book.’ I’d be thrilled, in fact.”
“Am I going to stick around Asheville? Yeah. The hope is that I’ll make enough money someday to be able to buy a house in Big Sur,” James laughed, “and that will be my winter home.”