Photography by Ferris Kaplan
By Helen Mitternight
Back in the 1800s, France was all about its Burgundy wines. It was a surprise, then, that when the Empress Josephine died in 1814, she left behind an inventory of more than 13,000 bottles of mostly Bordeaux, considered inferior at the time. France would later come to realize that Empress Josephine was on to something.
“This is a woman who drinks what she wants. I love that story,” says Jill Cohen, owner of Josephine Wine Bar on Spring Street.
She says she picked the name Josephine for her wine bar not just because of the story about the empress but because the name could be for any strong woman, something she knows a thing or two about. When Jill was an attorney in Chicago, she recalls having to prove herself, such as at a deposition in which a doctor assumed Jill was the court reporter, even though the male sitting nearby was the one with the stenography machine right in front of him.
Jill and her husband were looking for a new place to live after enduring a particularly brutal Chicago winter when they read a story about the charms of Charleston and decided to visit. She says they fell in love with the city and, when she was looking for her next venture, she knew she wanted to do it in Charleston.
A wine bar made sense, Jill says, because she saw a void in the Charleston market for a chef-driven wine bar and she knew from her time in France that modern bistros worked.
“I wanted a place where the wine is the focus and the food cooked by the chef is based on whatever ingredients he can get, with a rotating menu and beautiful atmosphere without spending a ton of money,” she says. “It’s the kind of place I would go with girlfriends in Chicago or New York – a neighborhood place that’s casual without sacrificing quality.”
She leased the space in December 2016 and, after extensive renovations, the bistro opened in August 2018.
Meanwhile, Jill studied.
“I educated myself while the place was being built out,” she says. “I learned how to run a restaurant/wine bar. I hired people who knew what they were doing, too. My chef has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, and he’s been doing this for 20 years. And I met with so many distributors and went to a lot of tastings and trainings and talked to other wine experts in Charleston. I also hired a bar manager/certified sommelier who’d been in the business 18 years because I was smart enough to realize I need F&B professionals to help me run the place.”
Jill says her company is called Third Act.
The first act was when she worked in retail in Dallas after college. The second act was as an attorney in Chicago. And Josephine Wine Bar is her third act.
Is it the final act?
“I don’t know. To be continued,” Jill says with a shrug and a smile.