Although Leesburg Vintner was closed Monday, owner Mike Carroll was working in his shop while a ribbon-cutting for Delirium Cafe was taking place across the street.
“I think it’s going to be a game-changer,” Carroll said as he peered through the blinds at the growing crowd outside the cafe, a franchisee of a popular Belgian beer company. “It’s created a buzz unlike anything I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Carroll has been selling bottled wines at the northwest corner of King and Loudoun streets in Leesburg for almost three decades. During that time, he has withstood increasing competition from big box stores and local wineries.
“We survived Costco, we survived Wegmans, and now there’s Total [Wine],” he said. “Those are three major, major players in the wine business. And yet, our numbers are still solid.”
That positive attitude has been a key to Carroll’s success. Rather than seeing Delirium Cafe as a threat to his business, he seems to be thrilled about the promise of the latest addition to Leesburg’s burgeoning food, drink and entertainment scene.
The business landscape has changed drastically since Carroll, 59, began working in the wine business more than 40 years ago. The Utica, N.Y., native moved with his family from Pittsburgh to Northern Virginia during his senior year of high school. He started working at Cheese and Bottle in Arlington when he was 18.
“It was the only wine shop in Northern Virginia,” he said.
Before long, he was managing the store and taking business classes at George Washington University.
“I knew when I was 23 or 24 that I wanted to get into this business forever and get my own store,” he said.
Years later, he got a call from his father, who had noticed a vacancy for a business in the heart of downtown Leesburg.
“This could have been California as far as I was concerned,” Carroll said. “I never came out this way. Just to make my dad happy, I drove on out and saw this corner, and I absolutely loved it.”
Carroll opened Leesburg Vintner in October 1988. At that time, the downtown had an abundance of gift shops and clothing stores, many of which didn’t last long, he said. Since opening his shop, he has seen countless businesses come and go nearby, as many as six or seven in some spaces, he said.
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Carroll has an imposing presence, but his affable manner makes it easy for customers to approach him with questions. He has been able to sustain his business, in part, by developing a loyal clientele, about 70 percent of whom are repeat customers, he said.
“We share a love of wines,” said Cindy Bridgman of Leesburg, a customer for about 17 years. “We have a lot of wonderful talks about wine and share a lot of wine experiences.
“He knows I like sparkling wines, so he always looks for those, and if I need a specific wine, he’ll look for that,” Bridgman said.
Despite the growing popularity of Virginia wines, Carroll said he sells more wine from France than anywhere else. He stocks local wines but said most people prefer to drive out to the area wineries to buy those.
Carroll has made some changes over the years to adapt to the evolving business environment. He maintains a growing email list of “a couple thousand” people whom he notifies about specials several times a week, he said. He created his own label, Carroll Vineyards, to sell wine made, in part, from fruit grown at his property in Paeonian Springs.
He has also begun selling wine by the glass and is considering staying open several evenings a week to tap into Leesburg’s growing role as a nightlife destination.
“It’s just nice to see some new blood, some new ideas, different types of business and more people on the street,” Carroll said. “But I really think it’s going more and more and more toward nighttime business.
“This business, we can go in that direction,” he added. “We can go in a lot of different directions.”