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Posted February 18, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Front Royal welcomes new wine and cheese shop

By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- Step inside the latest addition to the cluster of shops called Main Street Passage in Front Royal and the gastronomic possibilities abound.

Unassuming coolers near the door store 20 to 35 varieties of cheese from Italy, France, America and Spain. One holds pre-packaged cheeses, the other cheeses sold by weight (convenient for those who want a taste before they buy).

A few steps further and shelves are lined with a variety of pastas, sauces, olives, honey and oils.

A colorful display of beers follows on the right, featuring brews from as near as Virginia and as far away as Germany.

Continue and you enter a room dedicated to wine, cases on the floor and in shelves along the walls -- organized by origin: Australia, then Germany and Austria, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and America.

With 150 different bottles available, wine (that's vino in Italian) is one of Vino E Formaggio's specialties. Cheese (formaggio), of course, is the second.

It's a little surprising, then, that neither the wine nor the cheese is the real treasure at the little shop -- though the selection is a sight to behold. Instead, it's shop manager Christian Failmezger's volume of vino knowledge.

As he shows off his inventory on a recent evening, the foreign names on the bottles roll of his tongue with ease. He picks up one bottle and tells the history of the location of the vineyard from where it came. Then another, the explanation of the logo, and yet another, how the special shape of the bottle feels when held.

In quick succession, Failmezger selects bottle after bottle and tells the story behind it.

There is "nothing humankind has spent so much of their creative genius on than the development of wine," he says.

"I'm always trying to find a story behind it," he says, a connection between the bottle and the buyer. "Everything has a story."

One bottle he picks up is from a vineyard 30 minutes from where he was born in Naples, Italy.

His father, Victor "Tory" Failmezger, explains that he and his family lived all over the world during his time as a naval officer. He and his wife eventually settled in Warren County.

The Failmezgers own the 12,000-square-foot Main Street building that houses the family-owned Vino e Formaggio and a salvage shop, Architectural Old House Parts, as well as chocolate and antique shops.

He says he knew he wanted a nice wine shop to complement the other businesses, and so he started the shop himself seven months ago with part-time help.

Only a little more than two months ago, Christian Failmezger arrived to help run the business -- bringing plenty of experience with him.

The younger Failmezger, 36, worked his way through college in Vienna, Austria, as a sommelier, or wine expert, in restaurants there. And as if that isn't enough to qualify a man to run a wine shop, he also guided tourists on food and wine tours in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy before landing in Front Royal.

The goal at Vino E Formaggio, he says, is to make wine a daily part of life for people here as it is in the other places he has lived -- "to develop wine as a daily staple."

Don't know the first thing about wine? Not a problem.

"There is a strong element of education, of de-mystification," the younger Failmezger says. "A lot of people are a little intimidated."

"It's popular, but it is not a staple yet."

Almost as if to prove the point, a potential customer peeks in and, recognizing the business as a wine shop, says firmly "I don't drink wine, I drink beer."

Failmezger directs him to the beer display, recommends an import and invites him to come back for a tasting on the weekend.

He describes another recent transaction: A customer comes in, explains what he's having for dinner -- a chicken dish with a white cream sauce -- and Failmezger helps select the perfect pairing.

The right wine can be found at the store based on three things about the customer, Failmezger's father explains: her taste, what she will pair it with and price expectations.

It's a labor intensive method of sales, his son says. But that benefits the customer, especially one with little wine knowledge.

More good news is that customers can afford to experiment since they won't have to invest more than $20 in a bottle the vast majority of the time at Vino E Formaggio.

Of the 150 wines available at the shop, 62 percent come in at $15 and under. Eighty percent are under $20.

"I can give great quality and price," Failmezger says. "Why? Because I'm always looking for it myself."

He declines to carry wines that don't have a good price-quality ratio, he says.

That's not to say you won't find a $60 bottle there, too. Failmezger says you only buy at that price if you are seeking an emotion and experience that only that particular bottle can give you -- only French champagne, he says, has that creamy, whipped taste.

And despite specializing in wines from Italy and Central Europe, where he's spent a lot of time, Failmezger stocks up on plenty of Virginia wines, too, keeping them together with brochures and maps for tourists.

The shop also keeps a full schedule, offering free tasting events every weekend: a selection of four wines every Friday and Saturday, and four beers every Sunday.

The events stay timely and change each week -- around Thanksgiving, Failmezger says, the theme was pairing wine with turkey. They even had some turkey at the event. This past weekend, Vino E Formaggio partnered with next-door D&B Chocolates and Confections for a wine and chocolate theme for Valentine's Day.

This coming weekend, the tastings will go to the dogs, as local author Harold J. Creel Jr. will be in the shop to sign copies of his book, "Do Old Dogs Dream?" and featured wines will be either dog-themed or benefit animal-related organizations. Sales from the book will benefit the Humane Society, and a representative of the Humane Society is also set to be on hand during the event.

"Our weekend events are very successful," the Failmezger says.

Vino E Formaggio is at 124 E. Main St. in Front Royal. Tastings are held every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.; on Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m.; and on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Current shop hours are Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Customers can sign up at the store for a weekly e-mail newsletter detailing upcoming events.

Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com

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