Not long after John Bookwalter took over the Richland winery established by his parents, he was struck that tasting rooms tend to be businesslike affairs.
Visitors come in, taste a bit, maybe make a purchase, then skedaddle on to the next stop.
Inspired by Starbucks, he contemplated what it would take to slow down the process. The result was a wine lounge in space that once served as the Bookwalter family’s private apartment.
“Let’s create a place where people can sit and have a glass of wine,” Bookwalter said.
When it opened about 2003, the wine lounge served up Bookwalter wines, as well as specialty cheeses and bread. It catered to residents of the neighborhoods springing up around its south Richland property and to wine tourists.
With the wine lounge, Bookwalter jokes he started sliding down a “slippery slope.” It evolved into a limited-menu bistro and then into one of the nation’s leading winery-based restaurants.
Food & Wine magazine recently named the winery’s Fiction @ J. Bookwalter Restaurant one of the 17 best in the U.S. Last August, travel editors from USA Today put it in their Top 10.
Bookwalter, who runs the family businesses with his wife, Gretchen, is an almost accidental restaurateur. He studied marketing in college and eventually returned to the family winery as winemaker. It produces about 30,000 cases annually.
Wineries and restaurants are also highly competitive, demanding businesses. Running them simultaneously on the same property is complicated and challenging.
“It has taken up a tremendous amount of intellectual real estate,” he said.
But pent-up demand for a premium wine-oriented food destination inspired him to wade further and further into that side of the business.
In time, the wine lounge added charcutery, flat breads, fondu and live music four nights a week, expansions funded by the company’s operations. After hearing customer after customer bemoan the lack of top-flight wine restaurants in the Tri-Cities, Bookwalter embraced the idea as a personal challenge.
He recruited a chef and waded into full-fledged food service in 2011, adding small plates concocted from a limited kitchen. It was immediately obvious there was demand for more. His original chef stepped back, and he hired one with more commercial experience, as well as a staff. The menu expanded dramatically after he invested in commercial kitchen gear, including a vent hood.
It was expensive, but Bookwalter was convinced it would pay off, he said.
The bistro, as it was originally named, did $400,000 in its first year. By 2016, it had been re-christened Fiction, and food sales topped $1 million.
Bookwalter said the restaurant, like the tasting room, supports the winery’s core focus — selling wine and winning customers.
“It exposes our wine to a greater following. For me, it was completely synergistic with our mission — sell more wine direct to consumers.” he said.
The mission has been a success. Wine sales have ticked upward with food sales, he said.
Bookwalter dates the moment the wine lounge-turned-bistro became a “real” restaurant to the day he realized musicians were taking up space he needed for tables, and that live music set the wrong tone for Fiction’s intimate atmosphere. He pulled the plug.
“When the music stopped, we became a restaurant,” he said.
Fiction at J. Bookwalter seats about 60 indoors and can expand to about 150 during the summer when the expansive patio is available. Bookwalter didn’t just trademark “Fiction.” He trademarked “Non Fiction” as well. He’s still toying with ideas, but he envisions a mobile unit offering something dramatically different from the inventive winery-oriented fare served by chefs Francisco Mendoza and Justin Webb.
“Whatever it is, it will be completely different.”
New York Richie’s lives on at Eatz
New York Richie’s may be gone from the Tri-Cities, but its spirit lives on at Eatz Pizza & Deli, 1308 Lee Blvd., Richland.
Eatz owner Phil Forzaglia is honoring punch cards from New York Richie’s, as well as certificates at 50 percent of their face value.
Forzaglia said Eatz bought some equipment from the now-closed pizza joint on Clearwater Avenue, including its ovens.
And for New York Richie’s fans lamenting the loss of its famous sauce, Forzaglia said his restaurant offers a similar topping, which it calls “Awesome Sauce.”