Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar uncorked in Cuyahoga Falls

Pandemic slows down opening, but owners pleased with reception so far

Katie Byard
Special to the Akron Beacon Journal
Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar owners Michelle and John Bisson are pictured inside their business at 3236 State Road on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

CUYAHOGA FALLS — John and Michelle Bisson had already uncorked plans for the new Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Ohio in March 2020.

“We didn’t have a choice” but to go forward with the project, said Michelle, co-owner of the Cuyahoga Falls spot, which opened in November and boasts a creative food menu in addition to loads of wine and spirits.

A loan for the establishment was in place and work had begun on the business at 3236 State Road, in retail space that is on the ground floor of one of the buildings in the French Mill apartment complex. 

"This is really John’s dream… I’m here to support him," said Michelle Bisson.

John Bisson said the project to install flooring, plumbing and electrical infrastructure in their State Road building had just started when COVID-19-related restrictions were implemented in March.

"Three days into the project, we got completely shut down," said John Bisson.

Michelle Bisson estimated it ended up taking "double or triple" the amount of time to finish the building. Before COVID-19, the Bissons estimated it would take about four months to construct the building, but the shutdown and its ripple effects extended that time table to eight and a half months, according to John.

A crostini board trio with ricotta brussels, white bean, and brie and fig served at Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar in Cuyahoga Falls.

Challenges included rising costs of construction materials (John noted wood "tripled" in price), construction firms falling behind on their projects due to the pandemic and locating needed building materials. John Bisson noted that they were fortunate to have secured a lot of their construction supplies before the shutdown.

"It was frustrating," said John Bisson. "It was difficult because you want to get your business open."

Despite all the challenges, John said he and Michelle were "really confident" about their concept and pressed on to get the business opened.

Past experience informs development of concept

John Bisson’s food and wine experience includes working in the former Bisson family grocery business. Most recently, he was East Coast sales manager for North Coast Brewing, the California maker of Scrimshaw and other craft beer. In that role, John said he traveled around the country and was able to see "a zillion different concepts and network with a lot of owners and a lot of restaurant people."  With Vinifera, John said he is implementing many of the "really cool concepts" he discovered while traveling in his previous job.

John Bisson said the reception from the public has been very positive and Vinifera already has a lot of returning customers.

"That word-of-mouth and social media, having that has been so great," he said

A look at the offerings, decor

The Bissons want the eats to share the stage, offering Vinifera’s “signature” food item — crostini with a variety of toppings. The menu also boasts presses (think panini sandwiches), as well as cheese and meat boards.

A charcuterie board at Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

“The word we use is cozy” to describe the interior, John Bisson said. 

“Cozy and contemporary,” Michelle Bisson said.

The walls are wine-colored and the main room includes a large, V-shaped bar topped with white Corian. Globe pendant lights help give the place an intimate feel. A lounge area features comfy faux leather chairs.  

With the pandemic still going on, employees take the temperatures of customers. Plexiglass dividers separate tables, as well as seats at the large bar. To allow for social-distancing, the place can accommodate about 45 people —  half the normal seating capacity. In addition to masking of employees and frequent sanitizing measures, Michelle Bisson said Vinifera is using touchless menus.

"It's very safe," said Michelle. "We're taking the COVID precautions very seriously."

John Bisson added he believes the touchless menus will be "the norm" going forward

For those not wanting to drink or eat inside, Vinifera offers "Krushin' the Curfew” party kits. Four cocktails, two dips and two press (panini) sandwiches run $70. The same kit, with a bottle of wine instead of the cocktails, costs $50. The curfew is a reference to the state cutting off liquor sales at 10 p.m. at  bars and restaurants amid the pandemic.

Vinifera — which is named for the dominant grape species in wine making — offers more than two dozen wines by the glass, more than 80 wines by the bottle and more than 90 whiskeys. John Bisson plans to greatly grow the whiskey offerings. 

The spot has one of the few Enomatic wine dispensing/preservation systems in Northeast Ohio. With the dispenser, wine is drawn directly from the bottle into the glass, and inert gas gas protects the wine from oxidation. This allows for Vinifera to have some 20 bottles of wine open at one time, while each glass is served fresh.

Allie and Jake Walters enjoy a wine flight at Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

Customers can buy 2-ounce pours, as well as six-ounce glasses or half bottles (served with a carafe) — all dispensed with the Enomatic. These wines also are all available by the bottle.

The 2-ounce pours allow customers to explore wines  — and sip higher-end varietals — without dropping a lot of money, Bisson noted.

My two chardonnay wine samplings weren’t all that adventurous for me; I’m a big fan of white wine. I enjoyed the medium-bodied Toad Hollow from California ($11 for a 6-ounce glass) and Louis Latour Ardeche from Burgundy, France  ($13 for a 6-ounce glass.)

The wine menu, which includes brief descriptions of each selection, offers several house wines that are not part of the Enomatic system. They cost $7 for a six-ounce glass. Single-serving bottles of sparkling wines also are available.

Back to the food. With the crostini boards ($15), customers get three slices of warm ciabatta bread, each with the topping of their choice. 

Lucky me, I sampled these three crostini: smoked salmon and cream cheese caper spread; brie, fig preserve and apples; and white bean with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, chili spice, ricotta cheese and topped with a balsamic drizzle. 

The Bissons also made sure I tried the creamy, crunchy and rich Triple Cheese press sandwich that features these cheeses: double Gloucester, gouda and fresh mozarella ($10). All the presses — which are made with homemade bread — come with a small salad.

The Bissons applaud their employees, including Nick Jones, who oversees the bar.

His experience includes working for his uncle David Glenny, former owner of the area’s Bricco restaurants. Glenny sold the eateries to Dave Sharp last year. 

These days Glenny can be spotted at Vinifera, where he works part-time behind the bar.

Bartender David Gleenny pours a glass of wine at Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

Idea took form more than a year ago

It was more than a year ago when John Bisson decided to pursue his idea of opening a wine bar.

He and Michelle had become empty nesters, and North Coast Brewing had eliminated its East Coast sales force.

The Bissons' two daughters "kept us busy for many, many years in sports and clubs and all kinds of activities," said Michelle Bisson. "They left the nest and we're sitting here looking at each other like, this can't be it. We were bored, we needed to figure out what our next chapter in life was going to be."

Michelle praised her husband's entrepreneurial spirit and said she knew he would have his own business one day.

The couple got a big assist from Jim Griggy with the state’s Small Business Development Center, who helped with the business plan. The center is at the Bounce Innovation Hub in downtown Akron.

John said it can be "overwhelming" to synthesize a large collection of ideas into a business plan, but said Griggy was able to help "fine-tune" the proposal.

"[The Small Business Development Center] thought that this concept really had a lot of opportunity because the concept was something new, different, innovative in this [Akron] area," added Michelle.

With the business plan, the Bissons secured a Small Business Administration loan available to veteran-owned companies. Bisson served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s.

Next year, the Bissons plan to open a patio on Vinifera Wine To Whiskey Bar’s south side. Garage-door style windows that open to the area already are in place and were open on a recent unseasonably warm day. 

VInifera Wine-to-Whiskey, 3236 State Road, opened for business in November 2020. Pictured at a ribbon-cutting in December from left are: John Bisson II, John Bisson III, Michelle Bisson and Mayor Don Walters. Bisson III, and his wife, Michelle, are co-owners of Vinifera.

Ribbon-cutting event in December

Mayor Don Walters joined the Bissons for a ribbon-cutting event about a week before Christmas. John Bisson's father, also named John, participated in the ceremony.

Michelle said her father-in-law was "very influential in teaching John about wine [and] getting John interested in the whole wine culture, so it was important for us to have him involved with the ribbon-cutting."

Vinifera's hours are 4-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The “Krushin' the Curfew” party kits must be ordered by 9 p.m. Call 234-571-0233. The website is https://www.viniferawinebar.com.

Editor's note: Reporter Phil Keren contributed to this story.