Joanna Argus of 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab

Over-the-Rhine's rennaissance is making the neighborhood one of the top entertainment destinations for the evening and weekend crowds. At 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab (located at 1215 Vine St.) there's not only a superb selection of beverages and snacks, but also an atmosphere that perfectly encapsulates what's going on in Cincinnati: cultural evolution within a beloved historic district. 

What were you doing before founding 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab? Why did you decide to open up shop? 
Before 1215, I was primarily a consumer of wine and coffee. Professionally, I had been writing, editing and consulting on grants for nonprofits and for medical research scientists for a number of years. But I had worked in bars and restaurants during most of my twenties, and I have friends and family who own businesses in the industry, and knowing their work and lives at least gave me a better picture of what I might be getting myself into.

The basic story, though, is that a friend of mine had coffee shops, and he wanted to put one in OTR, and he found the current space available at 1215 Vine Street. Years before, I had mentioned to him that he should put wine in his shops and his response had been that you would need the right location to make that concept successful. When he found this location, he brought the idea back up to me. When I walked into the space, I was hooked. I know people talk about the history of Over-the-Rhine all the time, but especially if you haven’t spent much time here, I think the first experience has to be an overwhelming feeling of that history—of how many lives have lived in these spaces before us. I still get all nostalgic about it  when I think of how hard people must have worked to just build these gorgeous buildings—so much passion and care had to go into it. I hope those people would feel good about what we’ve done with their spaces today.

Anyway, it was about 10 all-consuming months later that we opened 1215, and now it’s weird to think that I once didn’t have this place in my life.

Running a small business is not easy; what are your biggest ongoing obstacles?
Time is an obstacle, as I imagine it is for a lot of people. Just wanting to be able to get more done in a day. I remember a friend who opened a wine shop in Boulder telling me to get all my vacations in before we opened, because it took him three years to take time off. I thought, that’s sweet, poor thing. But I was sure it wouldn’t be like that. Well, it is and it isn’t. The time is intense, definitely. And some things do fall away; I don’t really have hobbies anymore. But somehow you make certain things work still. I managed to get to the beach and get married this year, right?

And then we have a lot going on here at 1215. It’s essentially two businesses in one small shop, so just managing all those elements is a lot. We carry at least six different coffees at any time, we’re pouring nearly 30 wines by the glass, hundreds more for sale, three totally new menus each year, beer, food, etc., etc. The only way to manage it, obviously, is other people. You know, I used to work totally alone in my grantwriting days. It’s a crazy thing now to have a team of incredible, smart, positive, earnest people around! The staff at 1215 is the reason the business is successful, no question about it. The challenge is that they’re all independent people with lives to lead, so everything is always changing. For example, we had one barista leave to hike the Appalachian trail. I almost didn’t show up on his last day, I was so sad to lose him. (I did show up, though. I lived.) But at the same time, you’re happy to see everyone make something great for themselves—they give so much to this place while they’re here, you can only be glad for them when the next thing comes.

What local resources (other businesses, financiers, neighbors) have proved most useful for your business?
Definitely my neighbors have been great. The folks at Bakersfield, next door, are like extended family. Did I mention my staff? And my actual family has been an unbelievable resource. I mean, my husband is currently building a rolling meat slicer stand to match our walnut shelving. My mom made our curtains and comes down every month or so to try out new plants on the patio. I talk with both of my brothers and my dad all the time—all three essentially run their own businesses, and there are decisions I could not have made without their insights. I have customers, too, who have become great resources of knowledge and ideas.

What’s been especially eye-opening has been meeting so many knowledge experts in both the wine and coffee worlds. These people—our many wine reps and the folks at Deeper Roots—have such incredibly specialized information in their brains, and my experience has been that they are happy to share what they know, even to the point of mentoring others in their own educations. Overall, I’ve always been a relationship-driven person, and that has never served me more than in running this business.

What kinds of wine do Cincinnatians seem to enjoy the most? 
Ha! Well, that’s kind of a loaded question. It’s been so fun to get to meet and know all these geeky wine lovers, and it’s an honor that they seem to know they can come to 1215 and find obscure, interesting, delicious things to drink. So those folks are enjoying a certain kind of wine, which is specific not at all in varietal or place, but in a certain esoteric-ness, and in the artistry that went into creating those wines.

People who love to drink wine but maybe haven’t quite fallen down the rabbit hole yet: They come in looking for a particular varietal usually, something they’re comfortable with—you know, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc. And we can either give them that or, through wine flights, introduce them to something that might be stylistically similar but otherwise is a wine they’ve never heard of. For example, a couple menus ago, we had a gorgeous, big ol’ red wine from Greece in a flight—a Xinomavro. It was so satisfying to witness, a month or so after releasing the menu, the same people who’d been ordering Cabs were now asking for Xinomavro by name. How great is that?

What's next for 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab?
Right now, my goal is just to keep growing and maturing as a business. That includes constantly winning over wine converts and introducing people to specialty coffee, while also pushing the envelope to keep the connoisseurs engaged. I think people might have had the idea that wine is only for special occasions, but it’s been fun to see the weekday, casual crowd grow. This has always been a great date spot, but now you see more groups of friends just hanging out and sharing bottles.

As the neighborhood grows too, we have to adjust. People need a place to grab a bottle on their way home to cook dinner, but they don’t want to pay restaurant prices for that, so we’ve brought all our retail prices to state minimum so they don’t need to get in their cars and go elsewhere. And as more people move to OTR and need coffee on their way to work, we’ve added a Chemex option—we make the same fresh, pourover coffee in a little bigger size, so it’s ready for the person in a hurry. Those kinds of things, and then internally, just streamlining systems. You plan and work and plan and work to get open, and then that first year involves just reacting to what happens after you open the door. Now, nearing year two, I find so much more purpose and enjoyment in the job of improving.

Sean M. Peters