By Lorna Gutierrez
Two years ago, Sylvia McGrath had made up her mind that she was never going to work again. She’d just closed her restaurant in Fort Collins, Cilantro Grill (a fresh-Mex restaurant where everything was homemade), and was ready for some overdue relaxation.
“It was a blast but really a lot of work,” McGrath said, adding Cilantro Grill was the product of a midlife crisis she experienced after growing anxious as an executive assistant at a nature conservancy. “I’d turned 50 and decided I was bored with what I was doing. So my husband and I were having some gin one night and he was like, ‘What would you do if you could do anything in your life?’”
Her response: culinary school.
It may have been the gin, but the idea stuck and she quit her well-paying job at the conservancy and followed her passion.
After her husband was laid off and found work in Colorado Springs, she knew it was time to close that chapter of her life.
“My blood pressure had gone up and even though I loved [owning a restaurant], it wasn’t working,” she said.
It was a fun wine and psychic meetup that led her to discover a “wine-shop-at-home” business.
She joined forces with a direct-marketing company that uses a winery producing small batches of wine, called WineShop at Home. The winery doesn’t grow its own grapes, but its people travel the world, sourcing grapes from Chile, France, Washington state and more.
“I fell in love with this wine. I started buying it by the case,” she said, adding her new calling was perhaps due to a genetic predisposition.
“I’ve always loved wine. My grandfather was a winemaker in Germany. My grandmother worked in his wine restaurant — she made all the food and he served the wine. … It’s in my blood.”
McGrath’s Wine Thyme (under the umbrella business WineShop at Home) soon came to be.
But she was new to town, so she hustled and networked to find her customers. Her Business Networking International group helped in her search.
“It’s getting to the point now, after about two years in this business…people look at me and say, ‘Oh, wine!’”
In-home wine tastings account for much of her business. She does, on average, eight tastings a month. But she calls the shots on how much she wants to work and always makes travel a priority.
“I love seeing people have a good time,” she said. “That makes me the happiest. You see people start kind of nervous but then they figure out they don’t have to be a wine expert. It’s very casual and a fun time. It’s fun for me to watch people unwind as the evening goes on.”
And there’s always a variety of wines because there’s always a variety of tastes.
“It’s so personal. Everyone likes something different,” she said. “We have a huge wine list. Our winery comes up with four new wines a month … so there’s always something different coming.”
And she’s not a wine snob either.
“In the end I think it’s what you like. I don’t think it has to be expensive. I’ve had plenty of expensive wines I didn’t care for,” she said.
McGrath has sampled wines from across the world, but a wine tour in Palisade is still on her must-do list. She added she is proud of the variety of wines she makes available, and that they are always changing.
“I’d like to say I’m a purveyor of fun. Because everyone needs fun,” she said. “Everybody is so stressed out these days and I know I don’t have a meaningful job — I don’t do any healing or really change people’s lives — but this is healing in a different way. … We drink. We laugh. We give them a little wine education. … It’s mostly a chance to get out.”
McGrath said salespeople through WineShop at Home can make anywhere from 20-45 percent on their sales and, while she admits a physical wine store has its appeal, she’s averse to being tied down. Wine Thyme is the perfect fit.
So what’s all this cost the customer? About $56 for the service, which includes a wine sampler (five bottles of wine). She asks her hosts to provide cheese and/or chocolate so they can pair the wine with food. She sells about one to two cases per party (12 bottles per case).
“It’s fun. It tastes good. It’s relaxing,” she said.
And for McGrath, that’s enough.