Dynamic architecture and a glimpse into Columbia’s past will be on display when customers walk into Lula Drake Wine Parlour after it opens downtown on Nov. 29.
Before customers even cross the threshold, they will see the building’s restored facade — including its arched windows, original decorative star emblems and original tile design in the entrance that announces this is, indeed, at 1635 Main St.
Inside, 143-year-old heart pine is underfoot.
To the right is a wall chiseled to reveal the building’s original 1873 brickwork. Hanging overhead are pendant lights used in the building in the 1920s.
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But perhaps the most eye-catching component is the one most recently created: the 21-foot-long white bar top that Lula Drake owner Tim Gardner almost literally poured himself into.
Made of proprietary concrete from a producer in San Francisco, the bar is one-third lighter than traditional concrete and, rather than being poured into a mold, is shaped like a dough.
“That’s five months of work there,” Gardner said, running his hand across the bar’s surface, which he built with his two business partners and brothers, Stan and Jeff Gardner. “The three of us would make a batch up like cookie dough, then mash it in and let it go for an hour, come in an trowel it, let it go another hour and trowel it again. The technique is really cool and it allows you to see the hand of the person that built it because it’s not just a flat surface.”
Stan Gardner, former bartender at Hunter-Gatherer on S. Main Street, will be Lula Drake’s bartender.
The process took a while to perfect. It required countless hours and sleepless nights with the Gardner brothers tearing it out and rebuilding it three times to create the flawless effect. After it was right, Gardner applied epoxy to seal and protect the white surface.
“It’s white for a reason,” said Gardner, who will manage and run the parlour’s day-to-day operations. “I wanted to be able to have classes in here and talk about wine and also just let people be able to see the color of their wine so they’re better connected to it. If you have a dark wood bar top, you lose a lot of that.”
While he put that much thought and attention to detail into Lula Drake’s bar top, Gardner has spent much more time and effort carefully selecting the wines that will be served.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to try to sell a concept to people. It’s not about that at all. It’s about emotion. It’s about being connected. And it’s not fru-fru wine snob place at all,” Gardner said. “This is about celebrating the little guy — the farmers and winemakers that do small production, that care deeply about their products, that care about the earth.
“All of the wines are either biodynamic, sustainable or organic or a combination of the three. That was really important to me because when you focus on that the world gets a lot smaller and you’re able to really hone in on the flavor profiles that you want. There are no mega corporation wines in here.”
Gardner became interested in wine while living in California as a grad student at UCLA. Rather than being drawn to well-known Napa Valley and Sonoma grapes and wineries in northern California, he was intrigued by the Central Coast — Paso Robles, in particular.
“The winemakers there were farmers,” Gardner said. “They got their hands dirty and were just learning about the potential of the land.”
In addition to taking classes on winemaking, Gardner began to study with sommeliers and winemakers. After moving back to South Carolina, he decided to pursue a second career in the industry. He began as a Certified Specialist of Wine, then a Certified Sommelier with The Court of Masters, and after many years of study and travel abroad received his diploma from the International Sommelier Guild.
Daniel Lukin-Beck, director of business development for Sour Grapes wine distributor in Asheville, met Gardner this spring.
The company had received an email about a Cabernet Franc wine from the Loire “that is quintessential natural wine. It’s amazing, fun, fresh and delicious, but it’s one of the stinkiest, funkiest, craziest wines you will ever come across.”
The email stated the interested party was a buyer in South Carolina, so Sour Grapes immediately assumed it was “someone very saavy in Charleston” and forwarded the email to the company’s sales rep there.
“But she replied back that this person is in Columbia,” Lukin-Beck said. “We were shocked. Who is this guy buying crazy biodynamic Cab Franc in Columbia? I went down to meet him the next week and he told me about his story, the story of the space, and his dreams for bringing some unique and special to Columbia.”
Among the Sour Grapes wines that will be on Lula Drake’s wine list are a Croatian Zinfandal called Plavac Mali (pronounced Plah-Vahtz - mahl-ee), Austrian reds such as Blaufrankisch and Ampeleia — a project by Italian natural wine rock star Elisabetta Foradori, who is making biodynamic Rhone field blends grown on the coast of Tuscany.
Tim Gardner “has selected some amazing and super unique wines and more often than not, Lula Drake will be the only place to find them in Columbia and in some cases, all of South Carolina,” Lukin-Beck said.
Besides the unusual wine is the wine parlour’s location. The story inside the building is special, one that building owner Martha Fowler and the Gardner brothers uncovered when they discovered a door into the building’s cellar. There, they found belongings of Abbeville native Lula Drake, who owned and operated a hat shop in Columbia in the 1920s.
The building initially opened in late 1873 as a saloon owned by German native and Columbia businessman John C. Seegers, who helped rebuild the 1600 block of Main Street after the infamous fire of 1865.
During renovation of the building, the Gardner brothers unearthed several historic gems including sections of the original tile design in the building’s entrance, the original stars from the building facade and the large arched windows on the building’s second floor that had been covered over in years past.
Among Lula Drake’s personal effects found in the cellar were photos, newspaper clippings, canceled checks, hand-written letters and a calling card with Lula Drake spelled out in gold leaf.
Gardner has made sure to include Drake in every detail — down to the business cards created by Columbia’s Riggs Partners, which created a font to match that of Lula Drake’s gold leaf calling card. Riggs also created a book about Drake’s life from the materials found in her trunk. It will be on display in the parlour, along with Drake’s portrait and other items found in her belongings.
There will be food on the menu but Gardner considers Lula Drake’s concept a “restaurant in reverse” with small plates made and served solely with the goal of complementing the wines served.
Eventually, he hopes to convert the second floor of 1635 into an event space. For now, though, he is more than content to introduce Lula Drake to the town he and his brothers grew up in.
“Lula Drake is Columbia, I think,” Gardner said. “The idea that no one wants to be forgotten, no one wants to vanish and Lula Drake was forgotten and rediscovered and I think Columbia is that way. We’ve been overlooked for so long — there’s always Charleston, Asheville, Atlanta and Charlotte. Now it’s Columbia’s time.”