Out of the Grocery Store and into the Tasting Room

Q&A with Julie Lopata, French Valley Vineyard

Julie Lopata pours wine at French Valley Vineyard on the Leelanau Peninsula. Photo courtesy of French Valley Vineyard

In late summer 2018, Julie Lopata had just relocated to Michigan to be near family in Leland and was looking for a job. Leaving a long-time career as a grocery store manager and purchaser in Kansas City, Kansas, where she’d lived 28 years, she spotted an ad for a tasting room associate on the Leelanau Peninsula, responded and was hired almost immediately. It’s been an adventure ever since. Besides this year’s pandemic, French Valley has been under construction as part of new ownership and the relocation of its tasting room from Suttons Bay to a new home on French Road in Cedar.

Name: Julie Lopata

Title: Tasting room/venue manager

Winery: French Valley Vineyard, Cedar

Q. Tell us about your background.
Lopata: I grew up in Grand Blanc and we always summered in Leland. After college, I found my way to Kansas City, where I raised my family and worked in the grocery/retail industry as a manager and purchaser. My dad passed away a couple years ago, and I found myself back in Michigan to help my mom, who moved here full time when they retired.

Q. Describe the difference between running a winery tasting room and grocery store.
Lopata: The chain I worked for in Kansas City was open 24/7. This meant working weekends and holidays because that’s when it was busiest. For 22 years, I worked Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve — all the big holidays. … There are some similarities between that job and my current role as tasting room manager at French Valley. I still get to interact with people and help them find what they are looking for, but I love the conversation more now because I can share the story and firsthand details of our wine, and they can try a glass before they “add it to their cart.” I also really appreciate the hours. During the busy season, we are open noon to 5 p.m. daily, and in the winter, we drop down to Friday-Monday. We’re closed for major holidays

Q. Did you have any formal wine background?
Lopata: I have no formal wine background, but I like to drink wine and I have an appreciation for all that goes into making it. On occasion I would help a friend who owned a wine store in Kansas City and had a lot of fun chatting with people about wine (and everything else), and I’m enjoying that aspect at French Valley as well. Our wine club members and regulars have become family, and I love that about my job.

Q. What have you learned about the winemaking process?
Lopata: I have gained a lot of appreciation for the process, start to finish. It takes A LOT to make a great bottle of wine. Our vineyard manager, Tomas Moreno, and his crew start working in the vines in February. Once they start for the season, they don’t stop. Our vines are their babies, and we produce really amazing grapes because of their care. Our winemaking team is very involved in the harvest process, and they make sure to taste all grape varieties for sugar content and flavor in order to make a plan for harvesting each variety at the height of quality.

Q. How have you dealt with the pandemic?
Lopata: Robert Walters, the facilities manager, and I worked as a skeleton team since day one. With so many changes in restrictions and guidelines, we both felt like we needed to be there to navigate the constant hoops. Since both the exterior and interior of French Valley have been under construction since we opened our doors in July, there were some added hurdles to overcome as well. To operate safely and in a way that was comfortable and inviting for our guests, we got creative. We purchased 100 or so antique apple crates to serve as a wall in our indoor space, which was, and will remain to a certain extent, a large, industrial warehouse/pole barn. We built a small tasting room at the front of the warehouse with the apple crates and opened the large overhead door for ventilation. We purchased a myriad of sanitizing stations and disposable masks, we used disposable menus and QR codes, set up socially distanced tables both inside and out, created a one-way flow for traffic and only served flights or wines by the glass to cut down on the length of time we spent in close proximity to our guests. We put up a huge tent and purchased mobile fire pits and heaters for the colder months. Our staff was vigilant about wearing masks at all times, and we all spent a lot of time disinfecting all surfaces.

Q. How is construction going?
Lopata: It’s going! There have been some delays due to COVID, and our architect, interior designer and builder team have had their hands full working on the renovation at our sister winery, Bel Lago, which was greatly delayed due to pandemic shutdowns and supply shortages. That said, we’ve made great progress. The patio space has been excavated and concrete poured for our new outdoor space, which overlooks our fully restored Amish event barn in the distance. Walls are being framed for the bathrooms and our new main entrance has been designed and new doors and windows are on the way. Once it’s done, it will retain much of the industrial feel, but with some rustic farmhouse charm.

Q. What are you most looking forward to about the new tasting room?
Lopata: Bathrooms! We’ve had to use a porta-potty all season long, and no one loves that. I’m excited to be able to offer nice, real bathrooms, with actual running water. I’m also looking forward to seeing it all come together. I can’t wait to see how the French tiles, the 15-foot bar, the fireplace and chandeliers combine to create what will be a beautiful, unique space. I’m also excited for what it will mean for our business and the way we can better serve our customers. We plan to offer food — not a full-blown kitchen, but a functioning space that allows us to provide something more substantial than oyster crackers and Cracker Jack (for kids) to our guests. I think we can all agree that we’re looking forward to the end of this pandemic.


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