Local tastings serve up fine wine … and community.

By Michael Peters

Close up of red wine being poured into a glass

A recitation of house rules isn’t what you would expect to kick off a packed monthly wine tasting event. “Any outbursts after two glasses” warns Gene Veronesi at Shaker Wines, “and you’re out,” he says with a wry smile.

Given that you’re handed a glass of wine as you enter, that’s not much warning. But it also doesn’t phase the crowd of regulars and first-timers. Soon “The Agony and Ecstasy of Sauvignon Blanc” tasting event is in full swing. With each wine presented in a carafe for the table to share, our tablemates good-naturedly negotiate for the “leftovers.”

Before we know it, we’ve tasted four wines and blissfully break for a heavy hors d’oeuvre buffet of shrimp, pistachio puffs, and other accompaniments.

On this Tuesday evening we’re tasting nine variations of “the hottest white wine on the market” as Veronesi explains, interspersed with the history of the varietal, stories of the vineyards and winemakers, and the occasional “Goodfellas” reference.

Gene Veronesi, owner of Shaker Wines

Shaker Wines owner Gene Veronesi

But while the wines are the excuse, it is clear from the start that the real attraction is the community it creates. Grouped in tables of four to seven tasters, the room at the back of the Van Aken District store is buzzing with laughter, gardening advice, and networking. By the end of the evening I’ve met a Moreland Court resident who boomeranged back to Cleveland in retirement, Shaker’s foremost expert on backyard ponds, and a fascinating Maple Heights entrepreneur and Tri-C instructor.

The Wednesday prior, the story was much the same at Brew at Juma on Chagrin Boulevard at Lomond Boulevard. The comfortable café transforms to a wine bar and lounge for daily happy hours and occasional curated tastings.

Soon everyone is discussing their favorite starting wine — the Prosecco or the Pinot Grigio — and it too becomes more like a family-style gathering. “This is what it’s all about,” says long-time Shaker resident Betty Hess over a glass of Rioja, describing the community she sees at her frequent visits.

Over artful boards of meats, cheeses, fruits, and nuts, our host for the tasting is Adam Fleischer of Cleveland Heights’ Wine Spot. He guides an intimate group, including Brew at Juma manager Heather Airgood, through five wines starting with a Prosecco. Through explanations of the various varietals, Adam also de-mystifies the process of wine tasting and brings an approachable manner that is appealing to newcomers and well-seasoned enthusiasts.

The wine tasting events at Shaker Wines and Brew at Juma are leading the transformation of the Van Aken District into a signature regional destination. Rather than big box stores or chain restaurants, local food and drink innovators are creating unique experiences for residents and visitors seeking an experience rather than a mundane shopping trip.

This is evident the minute you walk into Shaker Wines or Brew at Juma. While both events share the theme of tasting a variety of wines, each has its own approach that reflects the style of both the presenter and location.

While the wines are the excuse, it is clear from the start that the real attraction is the community it creates.

Brew at Juma has long been a daytime favorite for locals seeking a more authentic coffee house experience or healthy lunch spot. The addition of the daily happy hours, from 4 to 7 pm, and an outdoor seasonal patio have broadened the offerings while maintaining the intimate atmosphere. The recent addition of the wine tasting events, which are planned to take place at least once a season, fit perfectly into the comfortable and pleasantly familiar surroundings.

Authenticity certainly carries over to Shaker Wines. A local institution since its founding in Shaker Square in 1937, it has been enthusiastically owned and led by Gene Veronesi for over 35 years — leading many to comment that he too is a local institution. Here wine tasting events are a carefully choreographed production, with numbered glasses and a list of the wines for your tasting notes.

Adam Fleischer of the Wine Spot

The Wine Spot’s Adam Fleischer leads a recent tasting event at Juma.

But the atmosphere is anything but intimidating. It’s more like walking into Cheers for the regulars who welcome newcomers with open arms (and ample pours). As Dr. Gene begins the evening, bringing the professorial approach you might expect from someone with two Ph.Ds, it is quickly clear that this is the most fun you’ll ever have in class.

As the Van Aken District transforms to become more walkable and accessible to the community, both of these events will continue to add character to an area that already had a storied history. While we may have lost noted establishments like Gruber’s and Elsner’s Steak & Steam, Shaker Wines continues the tradition of bringing quality and value to the neighborhood, while newer offerings like Brew at Juma re-invent how we bring the community together. The popularity of the monthly summer beer garden events, also at the Van Aken District, showed both the desire to join together and the optimism for what the District will become.

As we said our goodbyes to Betty and Karl Hess at Brew at Juma on a pleasant summer evening, we realized the new Van Aken District is already alive and well in places like Brew at Juma and Shaker Wines. As they walked a few blocks home to their condo we knew we’d run into them again in the neighborhood — hopefully with a glass of wine in our hand.

Originally published in Shaker Life, Fall 2017.