Meet Gregory Stokes, the man behind Columbus wine
Gregory Stokes, owner of Accent Wine and The Bottle Shop, is poised to bring Columbus up to a new level of wine appreciation with exciting inventories, a wealth of knowledge, and a drive to share it all with the city.
Stokes, originally from Westerville, went to college intending to go to law school, but he realized that law wasn’t going to be the career path for him. “What does one do with a liberal arts degree? You start waiting tables,” he said.
Eventually, he found himself working in a wine bar and knowing nothing, really, about the wines. One day, he saw an interesting job description that required a Level 3 Sommelier certification. “Okay,” he thought. “That’s what I’ll do.”
And he never looked back. “Wine is this really great cultural artifact,” he said. “It can be viewed as art, and if you like to view it as art, it’s an odd art that only exists in the moment of its destruction.
“I studied history and philosophy, and I think wine is a really great intersection of those things. Particularly when you talk about Europe, so much history and culture is tied up in it. That is really exciting. And, at the end of the day, wine is just a lot of fun.”
So he signed up for a two-day program. “It was two days of drinking from a fire hose—so much information. It was blowing my mind,” he recalled.
“At lunch on the second day, everyone’s furiously studying. I was like ‘What are you all doing?’ and they said ‘This was all review. There’s an exam at the end.’ Like ohhhh, I didn’t know that.”
But Stokes says he’s a good test taker, and he passed. “That was how I started down the Som thing: I accidentally passed the first part of the sommelier exam,” he said, laughing.
In 2017 he sat for the Advanced Sommelier exam—an exam with about a 25% pass rate.
Chris Dillman, sommelier at The Refectory at that time, mentored Stokes and told him “the best way to study for Advanced is to study for Master.” But Ohio doesn’t have a lot of access to Master Sommeliers, so Stokes had to rely on hard work rather than a broad base of mentorship.
He ended up passing that exam on his first attempt, earning the top score in the group. That score also earned him a scholarship that put him on the fast track into the Master Sommelier program.
He started moving up in the Columbus wine scene. Eventually, he landed at Veritas—and then 2020 hit.
When Governor Mike DeWine ordered restaurants to shut down, Stokes and Veritas owner Josh Dalton had an idea. “As soon as the press conference was over, I walked over to my computer, sat down, and started setting up a website to liquidate the Veritas wine inventory, to get whatever cash we could to survive.”
They ended up selling the entire Veritas wine cellar in two weeks. They then continued with the online store, making half a million dollars in wine sales that year.
That sales program, coupled with virtual tastings, eventually led Stokes to the opening of a high-end brick-and-mortar presence downtown last year: Accent Wine
Today, Stokes is the only candidate in Ohio “on the clock” in the Master Sommelier program. The program has three examinations—Theory, Service, and Tasting—and once a candidate passes Theory, they have a “clock” of three years to pass Service and Tasting.
The Theory exam is an hour-long, oral exam covering the entire world of wine. Questions could include “What’s the minimum amount of time that a wine must spend in oak for a Gran Reserva level in Rioja?” or “What’s the soil type in Cahor, France?” or “What’s the blend on Eben Sadie’s Palladius?”
Service is a practical business examination, and Tasting is, well, tasting. “They give you six glasses of wine, and you have 25 minutes to completely and accurately identify the grape, country of origin, growing region, and vintage,” Stokes explained. He plans to tackle both of these exams in September 2023.
“The Masters exam is as hard and as granular as you want it to be. But at the end of the day, it’s just booze, and it’s fun,” he said.
How does one prepare for this? “It’s a lot of multitasking,” Stokes said, laughing. “The theory exam, it’s a lot of flashcards. Maybe you’re sautéeing something, and in your other hand is a flashcard.
“It’s a full time job. You have to put hobbies aside for a while. Instead of watching the football game, you’re studying.”
He considers himself “very, very lucky” to have a partner who understands the demands. “Last year, when I was studying, my wife would be like ‘It’s time to get up. Before you get your coffee, here’s a flight of six wines. Do it.’ We did that pretty much every day for almost six months.”
Buying The Bottle Shop when it went on the market this year was a no-brainer for Stokes. “Barbara [Reynolds] had started doing this renovation and really swinging for the fences. I remember walking through the shelves and thinking, ‘This is the best selection of wine in Columbus.’
“Accent is more of a wine gallery; Bottle Shop is more of the everyday. It’s funky, and I like that. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel over there. I love really fine wines, but I also love dive bars.
“I think that wine can feel very snooty, and I do everything I can to dispel that,” he continued. “I’m a curator and a teacher. What I’m doing here is what someone did for me at my first wine shop. I was working with so much wine that I didn’t know what it was, and I got excited to learn. Part of what I’m trying to do is show people things they’ve never seen before.”
Not only that, but Stokes is passionate about helping the next generations of sommeliers and wine experts. “I guess in my own small way, I think what this world needs is more sommeliers. Anyone who’s willing to put in the time, I’m willing to work with them to further their wine careers,” he said.
“When I passed the Advanced exam, I could have gone anywhere in the world and gotten a job,” he admitted. “But I decided to stay in Columbus. It’s a young city. I always felt that energy, right on the edge, and rather than move, I decided to stay and make Columbus the city that I wanted it to be.
“There are really, really exciting wine scenes around the world, and I want Columbus to be one of them. I’ll do whatever I can to make Columbus into that.”
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