Grape Expectations

If you’ve sipped a great—or hell, even good—glass of wine in Columbus after 1960, there is a good chance that pour had some connection to Roger Gentile. Roger, who passed away last fall, was immediately missed by thousands who met him behind the counter at Gentile’s The Wine Sellers: in a class, a tasting, a charity event, or any place Roger had an opportunity to educate a person with any interest in wine.

Roger began working in his father’s King Avenue store when he was eight years old, and he continued with the store through high school at Saint Thomas Aquinas and college at The Ohio State University. It was also at his father’s insistence that he worked away from the store before making the decision to take over the family business. When Roger took the reins of the business he decided to make Gentiles the wine sellers in Columbus. In the ’60s, drinking habits were very different than now, with white wines representing 80 percent of sales with the majority of that coming from New York.

“Roger was always very astute about sensing the next big thing, and he began to learn everything he could about the history of wine and all of its nuances,” said his wife, Laura Joseph. “He began to attract some of the California wineries who were eager to have someone knowledgeable sell their wares.”

Roger also sensed that California reds were going to trend big and tastes were going to change, and his became the first stores outside of wine country to carry titles from the likes of Diamond Creek and Nickel & Nickel.

The reputation (and passion) associated with Roger attracted wines and winemakers to Columbus that, in many cases, the New Yorks and Chicagos couldn’t. Customers, students, and friends were turned on to the best wines the world had to offer, all while growing an appreciation for what wine was meant to be—enjoyed without pretense or prejudice. When not holding court at King Avenue, Roger  was teaching wine classes at Ohio State and the Upper Arlington Creative Activities Program, as well as his own store. According to every source interviewed for this story (as well as this writer’s own experience) Roger’s enthusiasm for wine was infectious, especially for “skeptics” concerned that wine was “elitist” and inaccessible. In some cases students tried a new wine, and in nearly every interaction, most left with a changed outlook, and in a few cases, a new career.

While Roger did use wine as a tool for education, those with any significant interaction with him knew that wine, family, friends, travel, and charity mixed as well as any high-end blend. Starting originally as a group of six, Roger formed Secret Wine Appreciation Tastings (SWAT) to explore the best wines in the world at the wineries that created them. Roger’s access to the wineries and winemakers was astonishing, earned from years of passionately supporting Napa Valley and other “new” vineyards. A few had the opportunity to read his excellent reports on these trips under titles such as The Viognier Monologues and other noms de guerre for the groups with him. While the SWAT trips were fun, an important focus of the group was to collect wines and raise funds for local charities, especially Delaware County’s Recreation Unlimited, which serves individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. For Roger, fine wine connected to celebrity—a trait he leveraged for philanthropic purposes.

The reputation (and passion) associated with Roger attracted wines and winemakers to
Columbus that, in many cases, the New Yorks and Chicagos couldn’t.

“Roger always used to say, ‘Change or you die,’” said Joseph, and while he staked his repuation on West Coast and world wines, he did come to appreciate and later champion Ohio wines, literally writing the book on them in 1991 (Discovering Ohio Wines). Roger was not one to wear wine-only blinders when it came to business or life. When Ken Hahn, an employee, made a strong case for adding beer-making supplies to the business, Roger gave him the green light—as long Ken managed it himself.

His willingness to evolve could be seen in other areas of The Wine Sellers business model.

Roger’s mom ran a deli in the front of the wine store called Ellie’s Deli, and when that became too much for her, Roger sought out another food operation to complement his wine-selling. He had heard about Mama Mimi’s Take and Bake Pizza, and he approached them about putting one of their operations inside his King Avenue store.

“They have been there ever since,” Joseph said.

But it ultimately always came back to connections. Many were drawn to Roger by his personality, kindness, and keen interest in what they did; his infectious passion for wine and learning nurtured dedicated friendships with customers, students, and winemakers the world over. Lifelong friend Charles Penzone shared a story about how famed Napa Valley winemaker Al Brounstein canceled a medical appointment to share his most coveted wines and hours of time when he heard that Roger was in the area because, “Roger has represented us since the day we started the winery.”

To anyone who knew Roger and misses him or missed the chace to meet him, should stop by The Wine Sellers (1565 King Ave.) and find a great bottle of wine to share with someone else in his honor.

To you, Roger, we raise our glass.