Last year at this time, Joe Lertch was looking forward to his first Sea Witch Festival as a Rehoboth Beach restaurateur. On June 10, 2017, he’d opened The Vineyard Wine Bar & Bistro, his second restaurant. The first, The Vineyard Wine Bar, is in Havre de Grace, Maryland. It had taken eight months to turn the old Espuma location into the bistro, but a busy summer had proved that the effort was well worth it.
Then came the phone call. On the Friday before the festival, a kitchen fire had blanketed the Rehoboth restaurant in soot and smoke. Lertch spent nearly a year wrangling with his insurance company and overseeing renovations. The Vineyard finally reopened on Sept. 28.
We recently talked to Lertch as he prepared once again to greet revelers at the Sea Witch Festival. (The answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
How did you get into wine?
When I came of age, most of my friends were drinking beer. I liked wine. When I got a few years older, I started seriously reading about wine. There were no classes at that time, no schools.
Was there a turning point at which you wanted to make it a career?
By around 1976, I had exhausted the supplies at my local liquor store. I needed to drive to larger stores in affluent areas if I was going to expand my knowledge with a better selection. I ended up at a wine shop that was having a private tasting for regular customers. The door opened, and someone welcomed me in. I thought to myself, “This is really cool. I’m going to learn so much about wine today.”
I noticed three guys off to the side having a deep conversation, swirling their glasses. I thought I’d get a good education if I hung out with these guys. I remember asking them a question—I don’t know what it was—and they stopped as if someone with leprosy had just walked up. They started laughing. They made me feel like I was about an inch tall. I was so embarrassed that I set my glass down, got in the car and drove away with my tail between my legs.
I got up to a stoplight and was sitting there thinking, “This is too snobby for me. I need another hobby.” As I was waiting for the light to change, I said, “No, you’re not a quitter.” I made a vow to myself that I would read everything I could get my hands on. I would taste everything that I could taste. And if I knew more than someone else, I would share my knowledge with them. That was the turning point.
What was your next step?
I joined a wine club. I started attending all the tastings that I could, and I bought all the books I could buy. I eventually got a job with a wine distributor and importer and traveled. I worked my way up into senior management in a large organization.
You’re from the Asbury Park, New Jersey area. Why did you open a wine bar in Havre de Grace, Maryland?
I was living in Maryland at the time. The original thought was to be in Baltimore County. I spent more than two years looking at 23 locations. When we were driving down the road in Havre de Grace, I saw sale signs going up in the window and said, “That’s the perfect location. I can feel it.” We put that wine bar together with the premise: “If you build it, they will come.” It doesn’t matter what walk of life that you’re in—a doctor, lawyer, dentist or delivery person. It doesn’t matter the location. People who love wine are willing to get in an airplane and fly for seven hours to a wine destination to stand in the dirt looking at grapes. That’s a vacation they work hard for all year long. If we provide a great wine selection, great food, great service, then people would find us. That’s exactly what happened.
What brought you to Rehoboth?
I vacationed in Rehoboth. We love it down here. We’ve driven down just to eat, turned around and driven back again. We have customers in Havre de Grace who vacation here or have second homes here. That was the catalyst.
What’s the food concept?
We are a small plates bistro. People want a sip of this and nibble of that. We want it to be fun. Wine for many years was a snobby beverage. I want to make it comfortable.
(From Left): Meatballs en croute; Flatbreads// courtesy of Pam George
Is the menu the same in Rehoboth as when you opened?
The basic menu is the same, but we change ingredients with the seasons. Some of the staff returned. Some had to take jobs elsewhere. We have a different chef. Allen White trained our chef at Havre de Grace 20 years ago. Our chef gave Allen a call, and he jumped at it.
Espuma was in far worse shape when you purchased it then you expected. You muscled through an eight-month renovation process, and then the fire. Although you’re not a quitter, did you feel like giving up?
Yes, there were many moments when I said to my wife, “I don’t know if I can do this again.” I got dozens of emails and phone calls from people who said they were sorry to hear about the fire and how much they missed the place. I had customers from Rehoboth drive to Havre de Grace. There were so many times this outpouring of love and concern made me emotional. That gave me the fuel to continue. Since we’ve opened, the local people have come out, and I can’t tell you how many people have told me they’re happy that we’re back. It’s so rewarding. I’m really glad we persevered and opened it back up. It’s a passion.