Over a glass of wine at The Royce, SEEN sat down with Mindy Lopus, general manager and head sommelier of the new Detroit restaurant SheWolf.
By Rachel Schostak
Detroit resident Mindy Lopus, former owner of Tallulah Wine Bar in Birmingham, tells SEEN how she turned her passion for entertaining and wine into a career. She also explains the correlation between fashion and wine — and, of course, her own personal style notes.
1. Can you share a bit about your professional background? Wine and food is a second career for me; I’m a serial entrepreneur of sorts. I spent the large majority of my business life in the tech industry. It’s a great primer for any business, as it’s constantly changing, and you have to learn to adapt quickly. I started off in the telecom industry and moved to the computer hardware business, eventually starting my own company. During my tenure, I lived and worked in Manhattan, Newport Beach and finally Raleigh, North Carolina, where I started my business. My business always included international customers, which allowed me to travel to some pretty spectacular places including most of Europe, Australia and South Africa. After I sold my business, I consulted for a couple of years before moving to Michigan. Throughout my career, entertaining was a part of doing business. Wine and food were part of the process. Entertaining was always my favorite part of what I did.
2. When and why did you decide to become a sommelier? When I first moved to Michigan, I was ready for something completely new. My career has always been incredibly important to me, and I was lucky enough to have a support system that allowed me to follow my passion for wine. I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America’s Professional Wine Program in Napa Valley, where they offered a series of intensives on all aspects of wine. I could spend a week at a time studying everything from Burgundy to the business of wine. At the time, the program was headed by Karen MacNeil, well known for her book “The Wine Bible.” My instructors were all wine professionals and included several Master Sommeliers, including Catherine Fallis, Bob Bath and Keith Goldston. I immersed myself, and Bob and Catherine mentored me in my studies.
I started studying wine thinking that I’d like to start a marketing business aimed at boutique wineries. The more time that I spent in Napa and Birmingham, I realized that there was a real opportunity for a restaurant like Tallulah — a place that celebrated wine, food and hospitality. Birmingham introduced their bistro license program, and I jumped in. At the time there was really nothing like it. I designed the restaurant for people to feel welcome, most importantly for women to feel welcome and at home — lots of windows, neutral colors, candlelight, warm atmosphere, inclusive bar. The food was simple and fresh, and the wine list represented great expressions of most of the world’s wine regions. The hospitality was like the space: warm and inviting. My staff was tremendous and helped me to create my vision.
3. Can you share some of your career highlights? Any moments you are most proud of? There’s a couple in particular: Tallulah being recognized by a national wine magazine in its first year – Wine Enthusiast.
Bringing in a team of Master Somms – Bob Bath, Keith Goldston and Michigan’s Ron Edwards to take my staff through the first level of the Court of Master Sommeliers training. I’ll never forget the excitement and anticipation as they all waited for their tests to be graded. At that moment I felt like I introduced 20 people to what being passionate about wine is.
Finally, when I made the decision to sell Tallulah, I had multiple offers, but nothing felt quite right. Tallulah was personal. I went to Mario Camaj, who started with me as a server and was at the time managing as well. Mario is a career hospitality professional. I felt like Mario would love Tallulah as I did and that this could be an opportunity for him to grow and shine. His success is inspiring.
4. You launched Detroit Wine School. Can you tell us about the programs you offer? Can anyone join who is interested in wine? After I sold the restaurants I started Detroit Wine School in Midtown as a place for the beginners, wine enthusiasts and more to learn a bit more about wine. I started off hosting classes on wine basics, wine regions, food and wine pairing and aromas of wine. Like everything else, that evolved quickly into wine and food pairing pop-ups, corporate wine and team-building events and then restaurant consulting — if you ever find yourself in Frankenmuth and would like a great glass of wine, and something other than chicken, go to Prost! I was spending most of my time doing events and consulting, which didn’t allow me the time to focus on classes as much. I also think the initial timing and concept wasn’t quite right for one person to do it all.
5. Tell us about your new venture and role with SheWolf? When I met Anthony Lombardo, I wasn’t considering jumping back into a restaurant. Anthony reached out to me last winter, and we met for a drink to talk about SheWolf, a wine program and creating stellar hospitality. The more Anthony shared about his concept and the more I got to know him, the more I wanted to be a part of his dream. SheWolf is Anthony’s lovechild, his dream to create a contemporary Roman dining experience in a city that he loves, and one that will provide a beverage program and level of hospitality that complements what he creates in the kitchen. My role is to complement Anthony’s talents in the kitchen. My wine list is similar to what you would find throughout Italy — Italian wine and Champagne. It’s an approachable list with 20 or so wines by the glass, as well as another 100 by the bottle, broken down by northern, central and southern regions and includes many international varietals (cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay, etc.) as well. The beverage program is similar to what you would find in Rome, aperitivos (spritzers, vermouth and lower ABV cocktails) to start your evening and make you hungry and digestivos (amaro, grappa, vin santo) to stimulate your digestion. In addition to the wine program, I’m also the general manager, running all aspects of the front of the house.
6. Can you share your current favorite wines for a good rosé, red and white? What types of dishes would you pair them with? My favorite rosé is one that I served at Tallulah (where I had a half dozen rotating rosés) – Chateau Annibal from Provence. It’s delicious and food friendly with lots of minerality and gentle red fruit. It’s a great aperitivo as well as one that would work with most food.
My favorite whites are from Alto Adige in northern Italy. The wines of Alto Adige are bright, fresh with citrus, orchard and stone fruit, and have a minerality that adds a layer of complexity. A couple of favorites include Cantina Terlaner Pinot Bianco and Tiefenbrunner Feldmarschall von Fenner Muller-Thurgau. The latter is a mouthful to say but an incredible wine.
Finally, my go-to reds are from Mt. Etna. We recently did an all seafood pop-up at Bacco with some of the premier chefs in Detroit, where I paired a couple of reds with seafood dishes. My favorite pairing was a single vineyard Etna Rosso from Tenuta delle Terre Nere, “Calderara Sottana,” paired with a swordfish dish that Anthony created.
7. What’s one wine book you think everyone should read? “Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey” by Robert Camuto. It’s more of a travel journal than true wine book as it also highlights the culture, people and lifestyle of the island. It will make you want to go to Sicily! I read it before I went, and it was magical.
8. Who is one person, dead or alive, you would love to have a glass of wine with? That’s a hard one — as there are many. For sentimentality, my grandmother. She passed away before I went into the wine business but was (and is) my inspiration. She planted the seed early on that I can do whatever I want; I just have to jump in head first. Living — my husband Rick. He’s also in the wine business and is the ultimate wine guy filled with stories about wineries, winemakers and wine in general.
9. Who inspires you in the business world or your industry? I have spent my life working either at a time or in industries that have been male-dominated. If I consider the women that inspire me in this industry, it would hands down be Madeline Triffon, who most will know as a Michigan Master Sommelier and the U.S.’ first female Master Sommelier. In particular, Madeline’s sense of hospitality is second to none. She loves what she does and excites people as she goes.
The other person is Mickey Bakst. Mickey runs the Charleston Grill in the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel. Formerly he was at Tribute and Tapawingo. I met Mickey through my husband, and he started a nonprofit in Charleston — Charleston Chefs Feed the Need. Mickey encouraged me and a couple of other Detroit friends to start Detroit Area Chefs Feed the Need — an organization that provides high-quality lunches to both Cass Community Social Services and The Baldwin Center in Pontiac through the Metro Detroit restaurant community. Mickey is the ultimate hospitality professional and humanitarian. He’s also started another organization called Teach the Need in Charleston and is now working in Detroit with Bedrock and Detroit public schools to incorporate it into local programs.
Your Local Love List…
10. When not working where can we find you? We’ve just built a cottage in a little enclave in Port Austin called Broken Rocks — it’s magical. At 2.5 hours away, it’s the perfect complement to living in Detroit.
11. Current go-to for breakfast, lunch or dinner? Breakfast – Rick makes me smoothies daily, but my favorite brunch is to sit at the bar at Selden Standard (a dinner fave too). Lunch with wine — Chartreuse in Midtown (also a dinner fave and the only place in town that sells Lilbert Champagne for under retail). Dinner — any place that Anthony is cooking. If I’m having wine, Mabel Gray, and if I’m in a sake mood, Ima and Takoi.
12. Current go-to for a good glass of wine? In the city I like The Royce and Motor City Wine (particularly on rosé day). Right now my favorite is anywhere outside with friends. Wine is an experience to be shared. If you live in the city, there are a few neighborhood gardens where plot holders can picnic as well. A great bottle of chilled wine, paired with things that you grow in Detroit is pretty cool.
13. What do you love most about our community? I love Detroit. I consider myself lucky to be a part of the community; there’s art, music, theater, professional sports, Eastern Market, the riverfront, great experiences all within walking distance. My husband and I moved into Midtown five years ago. Detroiters have tenacity, they love their city and want to see it succeed. There’s the balance to be considered with the gentrification, particularly in the last couple of years, but I think that the majority of those spearheading the original redevelopment of the city — Sue Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc. comes immediately to mind — that want Detroit to be inclusive and prosperous for everyone. Detroit is kind of like SheWolf — a contemporary take on classics.
Now on to your style…
14. Head-to-toe outfit details – what are you wearing for the photo shoot? Vintage Pucci, assuming a 15-year-old dress is vintage (shop similar)! Alexis Bitter necklace (shop similar) that I got before the dress and is my signature piece, earrings Rock bought for me on our last trip to Italy, Kate Spade bracelet (shop similar) and Calvin Klein shoes (shop similar).
15. Some may not realize the correlation between wine and fashion. Describe how fashion and wine go together. For example, what would you wear while drinking your favorite wine? On a hot day something loose and flowy, flip-flops and sunglasses. I’d be drinking a crisp rosé from Provence or an ice cold blanc de blanc Champagne.
In regard to fashion and wine at SheWolf, the wine we have that marries fashion to wine is from Feudi del Pisciotto. It is the Giambattista Valli edition of Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Sicily.
Inspired to preserve the rich history that surrounds them, Feudi del Pisciotto collaborated with some of Italy’s finest fashion designers, including Versace, Valentino, Missoni, Carolina Marengo, Alberta Ferretti, Gianfranco Ferré and Giambattista Valli, to create the packaging for Pisciotto’s designer wine line. A portion of the proceeds from these modern wines is donated to the restoration of fine Sicilian art.
16. Three words to describe your style? Simple, casual but with a goal toward elegance.
17. You’re never fully dressed without? Lipstick! Currently my go-to lipstick is urban decay interrogate. I wear it everywhere except for when I’m tasting wine!
18. Who or what inspires your style? Classic women like the two Hepburns and my mother. My mother’s sense of style always stood out in a crowd.
19. Where do you enjoy shopping locally? Dolce Moda when I need a great dress in about 5 minutes – Jen (the owner) will literally meet me at the curb if I need her to! Somerset is a go-to and anywhere that I’m traveling on wine trips! Italy is a favorite.
20. Favorite quote or words to live by? “Never be afraid to jump in and to live life to its fullest capacity. You can do anything that you put your mind to.” – Addie Gartland (my maternal grandmother)