In July 2009, husband and wife duo David Armin-Parcells and Melissa Armin-Parcells couldn’t find any place in Detroit for a good, interesting bottle of wine. They spent plenty of time at Roast’s happy hour, but to buy the kind of bottle they wanted to enjoy at home they’d have to trek to the suburbs. It wasn’t just that Detroit’s wine scene wasn’t great: it didn’t exist. So, in the middle of a recession and with no signage, no dedicated parking, and not much more than determination, they opened Motor City Wine. Tucked up a narrow unlit staircase downtown above Grand Trunk Pub, the shop was originally intended to be a primarily retail spot with a small European-style tasting bar. Ten years, dozens of tickets and a move to Corktown later, Motor City Wine boasts plenty of parking and one of the most magical patios in metro Detroit.
The journey there wasn’t easy, but the Armin-Parcells have forged relationships with wine buyers, bar hoppers and musicians of all ages in their 10 years as proprietors. As a wine buyer for Whole Foods, David had a strong sense of the kinds of wine he wanted when they opened the store: small, approachable, interesting, preferably organic and sustainably sourced, and reasonably priced. Melissa brought years of fine dining experience to the venture. Both were dedicated to casual but impeccable customer service. As Melissa described it, “We never wanted to be fancy. We started the whole thing wanting to be a value boutique, as casual as could be, no frills, and a very small markup. And that’s still where we’re at today. Our whole concept is to take all of the ‘snotty nose’ part of wine culture out, and we’re just left with drinking wine.”
On their first night of business, they were startled by the number of guests who lingered for a drink and to enjoy the strolling musicians, rather than simply making a purchase and leaving. David says, “The original concept was just to be retail. We had a band for our opening day, everybody had such a great time that everybody wanted us to do that again the next week.” Melissa remembers being shocked when, about a week after their first night, a woman walked in and sat down at what was supposed to be closing time. “I’m here to see the band,” she insisted. The unknown woman refused to accept Melissa’s stammered explanations that the band had just been there for the opening celebration. So Melissa made some calls to some friends—both Armin-Parcells are enthusiastically involved in Detroit’s jazz and house music scenes—and a decade-long tradition of music and wine was born.
Building the business from scratch, in an economic crisis in which Detroit was hit particularly hard, was a challenge the Motor City Wine founders were willing to take on. Having both recently lost their jobs due to the economic slump, the pair figured they had nothing to lose. Melissa laughs that “people thought we were freaking off our rockers” to open a wine store in Detroit in the middle of the Great Recession, but they plowed forward. They partnered with Grand Trunk’s Tim Tharp, who had recently bought the building adjacent to the pub. The couple rented the space from Tharp and hosted increasingly popular house and jazz music nights. “For three years, we were the only wine bar in the whole city,” David says. “It was kind of crazy.” Their idea of having what Melissa called “just like a regular day job” and closing shop at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. at night fell quickly by the wayside.
It also soon became apparent that Motor City Wine needed new digs. Parking was becoming a serious issue, especially with the QLine construction on its way, and the Armin-Parcells desperately wanted an outdoor space. Eyeing recent restaurant forays into Corktown, in 2013 they took a chance on a rundown and drab building on Michigan Avenue. “We already knew Corktown was about to start popping way harder,” David says of the decision to buy the building rather than lease. “It was a dump,” Melissa says, “... but it had parking and a patio and we could see the vision.”
That patio quickly became legendary for hosting late-night planning and gossip sessions attended by Detroit’s entrepreneurs and restaurant movers and shakers. Some of the city’s most successful food and drink pop-ups were planned by the bonfires of Motor City Wine. Partnerships were forged and broken at those picnic tables. Several Detroit businesses had their start in wine-fueled dream-building there. While the Armin-Parcells knew they wanted outdoor space to be integral to the Corktown location, “I don’t think we anticipated what an epic thing the patio would be,” David says.
The Armin-Parcells lay credit for the patio’s popularity to Motor City Wine’s diverse regulars and their varied musical offerings. The regulars range in age from 21 to 70-years-old. “You can be here on a busy house night and have dancey grannies and these baby wine drinkers,” Melissa says. “We’ve always been blessed to have a really eclectic crowd. We’re very proud of that, and of being welcoming of everyone who comes in.”
As for the next 10 years, the Armin-Parcells intend to keep doing what’s worked so well for them thus far: stock wines that are interesting and approachable. Tidy up the façade with the help of a Motor City Re-Store grant. Support local DJs and musicians (they even have their own record label, Motor City Wine Records, which has produced four compilations to date). And keep slinging wine and welcoming customers, from service industry fans to pajama-clad regulars.
There are few places in the city so indelibly stamped with the style and character of their owners as Motor City Wine is. And it’s tough to imagine the unique combination of jazz, house, food pop-ups, backyard bonfire confessionals, wine and beer in any city other than Detroit. Like its customers and its city, Motor City Wine melds seemingly disparate elements into funky, melodic fusion.
Motor City Wine will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a series of events, including a “Summer semi-formal soiree” supporting local soup kitchen Manna Community Kitchen. See their Facebook page for details.