Bob and Sissy Blanchard are enjoying the good life at Bodega Bay, a coastal town of about 1,500 residents. They live at and own Gourmet au Bay, the Sonoma Coast’s only waterside wine bar, bottle shop, and gift store. Part of their happiness derives from their disparate interests – surfing (the kind performed on land, without crashing waves) and, of all things, the late, great film director Alfred Hitchcock.
First, the surfing…
Previously, Sissy worked in sales with such mega companies as IBM, EDS, and Milliken. Corporate life, however, restricted her effervescent personality and her entrepreneurial instincts. She left Milliken, designed handbags, and created and sold Sissy Made It, which manufactures fashionable luggage tags.
Meanwhile, Bob was a PGA teaching pro at a private club in Orlando. He loves golf, but disliked his job and the prospect of rising up that career ladder.
The couple felt that both job and lifestyle changes were in order. They decided to formulate a 10-year plan to get them to their next phase. It happened in just 18 months.
They started – here it comes – surfing the Internet for their next venture, possibly buying a bed and breakfast or a wine bar. They wanted the property where they lived to generate income. One day when Bob was online, he found a sale notice for Gourmet au Bay, complete with a list of reasons why anyone should want to own the business. He came home and shared his finding with Sissy. While Bob made dinner, Sissy placed what would be a fateful call to the seller for more details.
The Blanchards had honeymooned in Sonoma County several years prior, and they were eager for a return trip, so they planned a visit with the then-owners. It was December 2007. By the end of the weekend, they’d struck a deal. They sold their house in Orlando in six months, bought the business (though not the actual building), moved cross-country into the rented apartment below, and opened the doors. Success ensued.
“It seemed like the perfect live/work combination and enough business for the two of us to operate,” Sissy recalled.
They each wear multiple hats. Bob has the more developed palate for wine, so he handles the research, tastings, and purchasing, and recommends food pairings. Sissy manages the finances, gifts, and marketing.
The glorious bay view with its show-stopping sunsets is a sure-fire draw for Gourmet au Bay. People come from all over. They relax, drink wine, sample a cheese plate, converse, and form friendships on the intimate deck overlooking the calm waters.
And more surfing…
“Hang three and drop in,” is the catchy rallying cry at Gourmet au Bay as the Blanchards urge customers to try Wine Surfing®. “If you’re not happy when you get here,” they say, “you will be when you leave.” Bill and I can personally attest to wine surfing’s happiness-generating capability.
Anyone of legal drinking age who’s coordinated enough to raise glass to lips then sip can easily master this trademarked sport. The process:
1. Select three wines from the daily menu. While the options constantly evolve, the quality remains high, for they only serve wines that are either under 1,000 cases in production, score 90 points or better, or nab a gold medal.
2. Observe as they pour 2 ounces into each tasting glass. They insert the glasses into a slit in a specially designed wooden surfboard that serves as a tray.
3. Take your surfboard to the deck and enjoy.
They further enhance the Gourmet au Bay experience with a wine club, frequent oyster samplings, pop-up dinners, and 30% off bottle sales. They’re even building a mini business empire beyond wine. In addition to Gourmet au Bay, they opened a T-shirt and apparel shop, called East Shore Outfitters, and established Happy Camper, a furnished trailer they drop off and pick up at your choice of campsites.
“You start making s’mores when you arrive, and stop making them when we come for the trailer,” Sissy explained.
Alfred enters the picture…
The Blanchards’ influence extends beyond the walls of their wine bar into the Bodega Bay community at large.
Hitchcock filmed part of his classic horror movie, “The Birds,” at Bodega Bay in 1963. Sissy is president of Bodega Bay’s Chamber of Commerce. Put the two together and the result was a special event in the grange hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film’s release this year.
They offered three showings of the movie. (“Don’t watch that movie three times in one day!” Sissy cautioned.) Thanks to ticket sales, Hitchcock lookalike contests, and sales of mugs, movie memorabilia, and custom posters, they raised $3,000 for the arts program at area schools. The chamber plans to turn it into an annual event. While the showing of “The Birds” will anchor the program, coming attractions will include other Hitchcock films, films inspired by Hitchcock movies, and a full-fledged film festival.
“The moral of this story is ‘Don’t come home from work and tell Sissy you found something for sale,’ “ she laughed.