By Paige Kube
Jenn Baker and John Laucik arrived in Chestertown last May bearing wine, cheese, and a collaborative attitude. The two owners of the new Chester River Wine & Cheese Co. met through their consulting careers and decided to take an intensive wine class at the Wine School of Philadelphia, where their interest inspired their new business.
“Every Wednesday we would go taste wines and learn about wines for about four or five hours,” said Baker. “…one weekend we took a long weekend down in St. Michael’s, and we had a good time, but it wasn’t quite the right vibe for us, and as we were coming back we decided to stop in Chestertown, which we had never heard of, and we came across the bridge and we just absolutely fell in love with the area.”
Their first meal in Chestertown was at the Lemon Leaf Café when it was located at 117 S. Cross St., now the address of Baker’s and Laucik’s new business.
Last May, Laucik left his consulting job in Philadelphia, and the two moved to the Eastern Shore. “It was one of the biggest and boldest moves we’ve ever made…but at the same time it felt really right and comfortable,” said Baker.
Baker still works as a business consultant full time, often traveling to Manhattan or abroad to Israel. She helps close up the store at night and works in the shop on weekends, though Laucik works full time in the store.
The store, which officially opened its doors on March 6, carries a selection of specialty meats and charcuterie, oils, vinegars, olives, jams, pasta, and, as the name suggests, a large selection of wines and cheeses. The store carries about 45 different cheeses and about 1,000 bottles of wine a a time, both domestic and international. The wines range from $10 to $80 a bottle.
Right now, the two work with a few different distributers. They call their distributors, tell them the wine they are looking for, taste the options the distributors bring, and decide which ones to carry in their store.
“John and I…lean, from a taste perspective, towards old style wines…wines that are a little more earthy and more representative of the ground in which the grapes are grown,” said Baker. The owners carry wines that are small batch produced from family owned vineyards that use sustainable viticulture.
Currently, the store does not carry any local wines, but the owners are working with shoreVines, an initiative to support the creation of vineyards on the upper Eastern Shore, to promote local vineyards. They hope to highlight one local vineyard each month. Baker said, “…there are 13 vineyards just on the Eastern Shore alone, so most of our stock would end up becoming local, so we decided to make an investment and really focus on one at a time, giving them great promotion.”
The two also hope to partner with Chestertown locals. “We just started a partnership with two individuals in town who source wines,” said Baker. “We are also working with a couple of local farmers. There is a farmer here in town who grinds his own polenta and we currently carry an Italian polenta, but we’d love to carry the Kent County polenta, too. We carry honeycomb from Georgia, and there is a beekeeper here in the area who makes honeycomb, so we will carry a local honeycomb too.”
The store’s alcohol permit classifies the store as a package store, the same classification for Chestertown liquor stores like Lewes or Ctown Liquor. This means all wine sold cannot be consumed at the store. At tastings, only two ounces of any one wine and four ounces of wine total can be given to each person. In addition, these tastings have to be free samples. Currently, tastings only occur on some busy Saturdays and First Friday events.
“When we started working with the town, we could become a restaurant…or we could become a tavern which would exclude anyone under the age of 21 from coming in,” said Baker. “That just sends the wrong message in a college town. Could you imagine being carded to come in and buy cheese? That’s not cool.”
The owners are pursuing legislation with the local county officials that will allow them to sell wine by the glass to be enjoyed in the shop. They hope for this legislation to be passed by mid summer.
“Then once this law passes, we will do wine and cheese tastings… John and I…love to do learning based events,” said Baker. “We’d actually like to help educate people more on various geographies and the different types of wine or cheese that would come from them and do some little intimate gatherings in the shop.”
In the mean time, all alcohol sold at the store is not found at any other liquor store in Chestertown. There are no overlapping products, neither alcohol nor gourmet foods.
“We came to Chestertown to complement, not compete with other businesses,” said Baker.
The two also cross promote very actively the other businesses in Chestertown. “We do that because we believe very strongly that we will not be successful as a business long term if the other retailers in town are not successful as well.”
When asked what she wanted Washington College students to know, Baker said, “Don’t be intimidated by coming in. There really are a lot of affordable products that are available to everyone… We want everyone to find something.”
For more information, visit chesterrivergourmet.com or follow Chester River Wine & Cheese Co. on Facebook.