Lula Drake Wine Parlour
Inviting and a little mysterious, Tim Gardner has created a bit of Europe down on Main Street.
By Jackie Perrone Photos by Sally Taylor
Becoming a knowledgeable sommelier does not usually include a degree in television, film, and theater. But then, it never occurred to Tim Gardner to go the conventional route. He looks back on college as a circular path which expanded his horizons, leading him to other countries before bringing him right back home again. The entrepreneur at Lula Drake Wine Parlour grew up in Columbia and attended Winthrop and colleges in Texas and New York before migrating to UCLA for his T-F-T degree.
That’s where he discovered his passion for wine.
“I spent 17 years learning the ins and outs of wine,” he says. “Travel, study, writing, research, learning about agriculture and climate and blending – California and several countries in Europe, mostly Spain. I earned a diploma from the International Sommeliers Guild based in Canada. You never stop learning in this field.”
His dream of owning his own wine parlour focused on leaving the big-city atmosphere where the big companies dominate. A smaller city that would foster an interest in wine seemed logical, and where better than his hometown?
This home-grown guy believes he landed in the best possible spot, Lula Drake Wine Parlour at 1635 Main Street in Columbia. “I looked for a long time for an ideal place to do what I had in mind, which was to create an intimate setting in a central spot where wine drinkers could enjoy a social time. My brothers and I were busy with the Mad Monkey construction business, and lo, this space became available nearby. It’s exactly what we wanted and brought along a touch of history as well. That was in December, 2015, and we’ve been open since December, 2016. The response has been astounding.”
Construction cranes pepper Columbia’s Main Street; four sites are being renovated in the 1600 block alone. With the Nickelodeon and the Columbia Museum of Art nearby, Lula Drake enjoys lively traffic. It’s a small-ish space, with flexible seating. Small tables can be pushed together for a group; a community table is large enough that solo customers can make new friends.
Hand-built cornices, countertops and cabinets display the individuality of the past. Tim and his brothers, Jeff and Stan, cleaned up, painted, and set things right to show off the ambiance. The building produced surprises underneath its heart-pine floors and exposed brick walls. As the new owners explored the basement, they discovered tons of “stuff,” and realized that a lot of it dated back to the early 20th century, some even the 1800s. An enigmatic woman named Lula Drake had left behind letters, clothing and assorted personal items, including, of all things, a calling card featuring… are you ready for this?... gold leaf! One can only wonder why. And how.
“We had to take it on,” says Gardner. “The gold leaf is possible today, but the font on her cards was long gone. We devised a way to tweak a current font, and that’s our business card today.”
Gardner’s theater training shows in the flair for original décor on Lula Drake’s walls. Glassed-in cases display the collection of corkscrews he has been gathering from everywhere over a 30-year period. A handsome and colorful stained-glass panel provided the color scheme for completing the room.
He hastens to brag on his chef, Pierce Bowers, who moved here from Charleston and comes up with creative ideas. Small plates such as tapas are offered along with full dinner menus. “We try to have as many hand-made products as possible, such as our own pasta rather than something out of a box. ‘Sustainable. Organic. Bio-dynamic.’ That’s a slogan I borrowed from Rudolf Steiner. No pesticides or additives, everything as fresh and as close to local as we can get it.”
Rudolf Steiner is a subject for another day. Born in Croatia, he was a famed scientist and philosopher who predicted in the 19th century that mankind would destroy its environment if it did not understand the spiritual interrelationship with the physical world, warning that the widespread use of chemical fertilizers would lead to devitalization of the farm. Gardner singles out Croatia and Slovenia as treasured sources for wine. He deals directly with “the little guy,” rather than multinational corporations.
Lula Drake’s brings the same careful attention to beer as it does to wine. “Bright citrusy IPAs, chocolate-tinged stouts,” prove imagination at work. Light, dark, or sudsy, there are plenty of choices.
Naturally, Eclipse Day figured prominently into Lula Drake’s plans. A Blackout Menu, which included black pasta along with other imaginative creations, carried out the theme. Biggest news for Lula right now: opening the upstairs in October. More ideas for décor, space for groups and/or private parties.
Here’s what Gardner has written:
“Lula Drake was a trailblazer. She owned her own hat shop in a business world dominated by men. She went by Drake, never Lula. And yet, she cut newspaper clippings on how to be a lady. She was full of contradictions, probably called the town eccentric. We bet she never minded. This is a gathering place for the Drake in all of us. A place to share old memories and create new ones. A place for wine enthusiasts, sure. But also iconoclasts, romantics, professionals, students, gossips, stoics, local legends. And of course, those just passing through.”
Is it possible to resist Lula Drake Wine Parlour after that introduction?
Hometown: Columbia, SC
Family: Wife Lorie and daughter Amanda Gardner
Education: MFA; UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television BA: Winthrop University, Mass Communication/Theatre
Affiliations and Honors: Certified Specialist of Wine; Certified Sommelier – Court of Masters; Diploma, International Sommelier Guild
Favorite Getaways: California (or anywhere out West!), Europe, and Asheville, NC