The Wine Attic, a cozy, second-floor boutique in a leafy corner of Fairfax County, Va., is all about Main Street.
Juan and Renée Navarro run the sole proprietorship in the town of Clifton, a quaint spot known as the hideaway where first lady Nancy Reagan lunched with journalist George Will back in the 1980s. Fellow restaurant guests serenaded the pair — along with Reagan’s Secret Service contingent — with a chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” during one holiday season visit in 1988.
In an era of big-box competitors like Total Wine, Costco and Walmart, the Wine Attic provides a window into how a little company can stay alive paying super-close attention to the customer base.
“We sell ourselves,” said Juan, a 43-year-old former restaurant manager. “It’s the Juan and Renée experience. Every second with the customer counts. Once I meet them, I know what every customer wants when they come in. You can’t do that in a high-volume business.”
The Wine Attic doesn’t make a ton. It grosses about $250,000 in revenue a year, which pays the bills and delivers modest salaries to the husband-and-wife owners. This year has been good. Revenue already hit $200,000 — and the October-through-December busy season lies ahead. Gross revenue could approach $300,000.
The Navarros live a short drive away in Centreville with their two children. They love being their own boss and enjoy a sense of accomplishment in building a (barely) profitable business while embedding themselves in the daily life of Clifton.
How embedded? They once babysat a customer’s dog.
The Navarros have owned the shop since 2017 and stick close to business basics: one owner always on premises, providing personal service, knowing your customers and enough of a connection to draw customers back.
“I am here every single day,” Juan said. “Face time is the key. You have to establish trust with people, and let them know who we are and what we are all about. We build a repeat business that way.”
Clifton is a wealthy enclave in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. You have to believe there is ample discretionary income to support a niche business like the Navarros’.
The Wine Attic is a bit top-heavy with 10 loyal customers who spend $95 per transaction, more than twice the average of $42 per customer. The Big Ten account for a significant chunk of sales.
“We do probably eight to 10 times more business on a Saturday than on a Tuesday,” Juan said.
But the Navarros are working toward broadening their customer base — and their income.
That’s where the Wine Attic’s wine club comes in.
The club’s 80 members spend $55.67 per month on average, including their monthly charge for two bottles of wine selected by Juan and Renée. That comes to about $4,400 per month from the group.
The wine club creates the recurring revenue stream that makes income less “lumpy” and less reliant on the whims of tourists who swamp Clifton every weekend. Members, ranging in age from 24 to 70, gather quarterly in the shop to socialize and chat about the wines they are sampling.
“They get access to wines that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves,” Juan said. “They get 10 percent discounts on everything in the shop. They get special events such as meeting people in the wine industry.”
October’s wine club theme is Austrian wines, and November’s will be French. In March, the Navarros featured wines from India.
“The wine club turns a one-visit guest into a repeat guest,” Juan said. “Growing it is our priority.”
The resourceful couple employ other strategies for recruiting customers. They do things like sponsoring a “haunted trail” and a holiday homes tour full of Christmas decorations.
Every October (next weekend, in fact) the town celebrates Clifton Day. Its streets close to traffic, and booths and vendors appear as if rising like a Virginian “Brigadoon.”
The Virginia Railway Express train makes a special stop in the middle of the town, with hundreds of tourists spilling out onto the streets.
The Wine Attic pitches a tent a few yards from the train platform, offering a wine tasting that helps make Clifton Day one of its most lucrative days of the year.
“Several hundred people will come to the shop that day and go home with brochures, calendars and any promotional items we have,” Juan said.
Juan said his most popular wine sells for $12. The average price for a bottle is about $24 — “our sweet spot,” as he calls it.
My wife, Polly, and I visited Clifton last weekend and made the climb to the Attic’s second-floor showroom.
Locals and tourists were milling about, checking out the goods and sampling some Italian wines. Portraits for sale by a local artist hung on the walls. The store has a “kids corner” full of coloring books and story books for parents who want to check out the wine and stay a few hours.
We bought three bottles of red for a little over $100 total. We bought the store’s biggest seller, a Portuguese red blend called Quinta de Cabriz Dão Colheita Seleccionada that cost $12 including tax. We also bought a cabernet sauvignon from Chile for $70, which Juan said to serve “if you want to show off to your friends.” Lastly, we bought another Chilean wine, a 2014 pinot noir for $38 called Calyptra Gran Reserva.
Renée, 37, and Juan are both from Northern Virginia and came up through the restaurant business.
Juan began as a server and later managed locations for Great American Restaurants, the holding company for local brands such as Carlyle, Best Buns Bread Company and Artie’s.
His parents were self-employed interior decorators who rode the Washington market’s 1980s housing boom, so the self-starter knew that being an entrepreneur was risky but would give him more control over his life.
And “I got sick of working for other people,” Juan said, simply.
Juan had been a patron of what was then called the Clifton Wine Shop. It had been owned by a local woman who left town, leaving the business empty and the space open.
After town approval, a $30,000 investment and an alcohol license, “we were able to move in and open up a shop with our identity and run it our way,” Juan said.
Like I said, they aren’t making a ton, but they turn a profit and are building something.
“Our plan from day one was to pay ourselves and put us in a situation where we are going to do this and support our family,” said the businessman. “That’s pretty much it. We try to keep it as simple as possible.”