Roger Johnson: Beyond the Grape

Wine. It is a beverage that has been with us for centuries. A drink that is widespread across every culture, with vintners across the globe cultivating the precious liquid from the finest of grapes. National Geographic dates the creation of this mystical drink back to 6,000 BC, a time so long ago that most of us cannot fathom. It has served as a central point of culture from the Greeks and Romans to the modern-day world. It is heavily mentioned in religious texts and cookbooks, music and science alike. Every varietal, every vintage is unique.

In the United States, Wine has the pretention of being for the “upper class.” Many people shrug off the idea of going to a tasting, simply thinking it is a black-tie affair. Prices and overall wine knowledge present a steep learning curve, as the gatekeepers of “fine wines” gaff at the idea of someone with no knowledge. The ever-prevalent stereotypes act as a gatekeeper to the exclusive industry, but one man by the name of Roger Johnson aims to change that.

Roger Johnson is a man of many talents, but the most incredible of all is his ability to share otherwise “inaccessible” wines with everyone. He owns and operates a boutique wine shop in Pensacola, Florida. It is located within the Cordova Mall, just five minutes from Pensacola’s airport. The shop is home to over 1,000 wines from all over the world, all collected by Mr. Johnson himself.

Before you learn more about his shop, one must learn more about the incredible mind behind the premise, Roger Johnson.

Roger, who is a Finnish citizen, was born to Nordic parents and was introduced to his first wine at a young age. While being raised in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual home, he learned that wine was a centerpiece that everyone in the family could enjoy and was a staple of many gatherings. Unlike others who start with a sweet wine, he immediately fell for the complex reds. Roger admits that he initially did not “get” wine when he first had it, but from then on, his palate started developing. With relatives all over the European continent, he developed an innate curiosity for wine culture and how it constantly brought his family together.

As he entered his teenage years, he explored wineries throughout France and began discovering the culture surrounding the beverage, but he still did not understand what he was getting himself into.

While attending Dartmouth College for Archaeology with a focus on Ancient Greek and Cultural Geography, the historical ties of wines continued to pique his interest, and he began to further understand “why” a simple beverage was so crucial to bringing people together. It was during his studies in Santorini that he tasted the first white wine he particularly enjoyed, which pushed him to keep trying varietals from all around the world.

While in a foreign exchange program at McGill University in Montreal, where he studied under the illustrious Yvan Lamonde, a notable Quebecois historian. After learning that he could legally drink in Canada, he began exploring local wine shops and quickly befriended a proprietor of a small wine shop. Johnson still credits these purveyors of the grape as a source of inspiration for many of his themes.

Even with all the previous years’ experiences, Roger credits his first, “true” wine experience when he and a friend purchased a book focusing on South African wineries. Many of the South African Winelands are within proximity to Cape Town, where he was residing at the time for an independent research project. He was able to perform many weekend road trips exploring the local vineyards. During spring break of that year, he and a colleague from his Alma Mater set out to tour wine country, he visited notable wineries of the South African regions of Stellenbosch and Franschloek. He and his colleague rented a car and toured the entire Western Cape discovering a region otherwise unknown to American Wine drinkers.

He recalls Mandela still being in office when he and his companion rented a car and began traveling through the enormous country, not only unveiling the culture of South Africa, but perusing some of the finest, not well-known wines in the world. He recalls the “in your face nature” of South Africa at the time. He vividly remembers the drastic landscapes of the countryside contrasted to elaborate chateaus where he was truly unveiling wine as a passion.

He admits that his palate had not fully developed, but the experience of tasting his way across the country is what instilled his passion for wine culture throughout the rest of his life, as he chose to remain in contact with the winemakers he met on the journey.

Johnson has spent most of his life working as a major gift fundraiser for non-profits and has been able to see the world, exploring assorted wines from every continent, and in his subconscious, slowly started accumulating notes on the taste notes that would benefit him in the future. He has had the pleasure of meeting a plethora of wine enthusiasts through the events that he curated or otherwise attended, only re-iterating the overarching lesson that was being taught, wine brings people together.

His passion continued as his travels brought him to Seattle, where he began indulging in Washington, Oregon, and California wines, instilling a love for America’s wine culture just as much as the rest of the world. He has been tasting a plethora of varietals, from every region for over three decades. His palate has eloquently matured and has provided numerous wine recommendations to people across the globe. Yet, he is not a sommelier.

Roger admires the amount of dedication and perseverance that is involved with becoming a Sommelier, he never embarked on the journey of earning the title. He chooses to keep wine as a liberating experience. After so many years in academia, exams, and frequently used vocabulary altered his experience in “organically exploring wine.”

To him, his self-discovery of wine with his travels makes it immensely valuable. He states that although he has not “systematically studied it,” he can recount numerous varietals and vintners. To him, each wine is an everlasting memory. He can recall wines from decades past, who he drank with, and the vivid memories associated with the bottle. Most of which is documented in a journal.

Johnson is entirely humble with his experience. He does not view himself as a “super taster”, but he acknowledges that he has had delightful discussions with Master “Somms” who understand what he is bringing to the table.

His travels led him through Minneapolis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Atlanta and many more, but he eventually found himself in New Orleans, where he experienced a pivotal point in his life. A business associate of his, who had opened a mall wine shop in multiple locations asked him if he would like to take over his Pensacola location.

Pensacola, Florida and New Orleans have a unique relationship. They are within a three hours’ drive of each other and have a shared culture that maximizes what one can experience in the stretch of land along the Gulf of Mexico. The food, music, and beautiful sandy beaches are all within reach. With a founding date of 1559, the city’s historical roots are becoming ever prevalent. It is also the home of Navy aviation, where all Naval aviators begin their flight training, including the Blue Angels.

With initial reluctance, he took a long look within and realized that it was time he turned his passion into a career. Although not traditionally a “mall person,” he continued through and began his project. The wine shop titled: Beyond the Grape, started bare. Traditionally, the shop specialized in Florida sweet wines, and wine slushies like daiquiris attributed to its New Orleans routes.

With his experience, he realized that he needed to make a change. He respected Florida winemakers and their ability to produce wines that curated the essence of Florida living with sweet, refreshing wines, but he knew he could make the establishment even greater. He began decorating the walls with various art, including a neon sign claiming “Free Wine Tastings” from the original location, paying homage to the stores’ humble, New Orleans beginnings. An ornate wine “cellar” encompasses a significant portion of the shop. Adjacent lies a coffee table and chairs with various wine journals and books that have been carefully curated. At first glance, the shop may seem cluttered, but the longer one gazes, one can see the relics of adventures passed.

He began stocking the shelves with bottles that he had experienced throughout the world. From France to Greece, from South Africa to the Middle East. Johnson contacted Wine importers from the entire Southeast, carefully curating his selection. He chose to offer affordable tastings with up to 10 wines for under twenty dollars per customer. With over 1,000 wines, he also chooses to carry no menu. To him, menus can be intimidating to the unexperienced customer, and keep the tasting in one direction. Customers can simply give Roger a category, and from there, he has a plethora of options ready to choose from. A customer can easily “Drink Around the World” without paying the theme park fees of a location just a few hours away.

Johnson began to accept customers, local and tourist alike, offering a unique experience that many would remember. Even five years later, some customers still believe his establishment is exclusively a Florida wine shop. Although he still sells Florida wines and wine slushies, he has converted many Pensacola residents into regular complex wine enthusiasts. Roger prefers to meet people “where they’re at” on their wine-tasting journey.

Roger possesses a skill to expose people to what Americans would otherwise think “pretentious.” He provides a low-pressure environment for people to explore what they think they want, and Roger is quick with a recommendation. He can understand one’s palate and progress through what ends up becoming a magical journey. Even more remarkable, he does this mostly on his own.

When hiring potential employees, he does not search for anything besides a desire to learn. To him, the knowledge comes with the experience, and the experience comes with endless joyous memories throughout each individual journey.

Roger also believes that all wines, minus a select view, deserve to be carried and tasted. He carries wines from most varietals and regions, including obscure regions, further enhancing his and his customers’ palates. With this massive collection, his goal is to educate everyone he can on what minimal intervention and made with “pride and integrity.” By this, he means that some mass-produced wines are filled with additives that take away from winemaking as an art. With wine labels not containing any ingredients, many are deceived into thinking that their wine was also made naturally. As one embarks on their wine-tasting journey with Roger, they are exposed to winemakers who appreciate the art and skill to make their masterpiece.

With a collection of wines that would put most wine shops to shame, he still places an emphasis on the community aspect of the wine experience. If he is open, there is a regular there. The atmosphere of the establishment is always welcoming, and even if someone is there for a wine smoothie, no judgment is placed upon them.

The small shop within the mall is not only a frequent stop for exploring tourists and Pensacola residents, but also a destination for wine distributors, vintners, and wine connoisseurs everywhere. Roger has hosted events featuring South African, Washington, French, and Cyprus wines, bringing even more attention to the varietals past the six that are commonly known.

With all these events, the establishment is filled with people who would otherwise not be interested in a featured vintner.  Roger also promotes local artists by hosting weekly wine painting events and decorating the not-wine-filled walls with local art. Roger prides himself on being a prominent member of the Pensacola community and has contributed to many of the successful campaigns of multiple Pensacola-based publications and commerce initiatives.

Beyond the Grape is truly one of a kind. One is seldom to find an establishment quite like it. “Viviality [and] community” are some of the immediate words Roger uses to describe what he is trying to bring to his shop, and he is overwhelmingly successful. Even though he has completely changed the vibe of what Beyond the Grape used to be, the title keeps him grounded stating that “I try not to take myself too seriously.” He succeeds in this as well, as the constant traffic for smoothies, and his location in the mall, keeps a steady stream of customers throughout the day.

The culture cultivated from Johnson’s vision proves that wine is much more than what it appears from the outside looking in. Johnson has been able to translate the theory of wine into a practical demonstration that wine is for everybody. Seldom is there a wine experience that will introduce anybody to a culture that is Beyond the Grape.