‘Problem Solvers’ and Wine Experts: JWU Alums Shine at Winestore

Ian Coyne calls his Johnson & Wales University graduate employees “homeruns.”

“We hire smart people and we’ve been lucky,” says Coyne, who is the executive vice president of winestore., a North Carolina-based chain dedicated to demystifying the wine selection process for consumers. “[JWU alums] are problem solvers. As a manager, one day you are fixing toilets, the next working on inventory or tracking orders. …There’s something there. They come pre-loaded with wine knowledge which is really nice, but their work ethic is amazing.”

“We’ve become teachers to our everyday customers. I still expand on everything I learned at JWU.”
Coyne has hired at least six alumni to work in his Charlotte area stores — all of whom quickly earned management promotions.

JWU alums Matt Rehm and Kolton Davis wrapping a wine order.Josh Robb '16 works in the Raleigh location and is the first vice president to open two stores. To this day, he is reminded of his wine studies at JWU. “Any class, any semester, doesn’t matter what course you were taking, you had to do a group project. It forces you to work with a plethora of people and different personalities. That prepared us for management positions.”

Winestore has trademarked the phrase, “You’re the expert,” explaining the job of a great retailer is to make sure to understand the customer’s preference first and then find the very best version of that style and type of wine possible. But to do that, this company, any company, needs the very best version of its employees. Catherine Rabb, associate professor in JWU Charlotte’s College of Hospitality Management, knows that better than most. Besides teaching, she and her husband have owned Fenwick’s Restaurant since 1984.

“I connected Joshua and some other students with area wine employers during the CUL4185 Sommelier Capstone course,” Rabb recently said. “We have a strong connection with several local wine shops and regional distributors. It works because they take this course as a senior and are often looking for post grad employment. These local and regional businesses, such as winestore., often come speak to class or we take field trips and often the timing is right for a good placement. It’s an ongoing effort to find meaningful post-graduation employment for our students!”

JWU alum Kolton Davis at the Chapel Hill winestore.Rabb also connected Matt Rehm '20 and Kolton Davis '19 to winestore., both of whom earned a sommelier management minor at JWU.

“Best move I made,” Davis recently said from the winestore. Cornelius location where they are an assistant manager. “I was interested in the beverage courses and met Ms. Rabb and she got me hooked! Today, I am constantly, every day, using my knowledge from those wine classes.”

Rehm, who is also an assistant manager at the Cornelius store, acknowledges that he’s constantly using skills he learned at JWU. “I use Google Sheets a lot,” Rehm says. “We use Excel and Google Sheets throughout the business and having a background thanks to that class helped me understand and how to use those programs better.”

While Rehm was finishing his studies, the pandemic hit and classes cleared out, giving him more experience for his new career. “Because I had to start using Zoom for classes, I’m more comfortable with remote meetings today.”

“Because customers can’t taste, our core knowledge is super helpful.”

JWU alum Brenna Stith at winestore.Due to COVID restrictions, customers are temporarily no longer allowed to sample, so these graduates really lean on their JWU education: “A lot of our job is focused on all the new wines we get in,” Davis says. “Recognizing the different styles of wines from all over the world. Because customers can’t taste, our core knowledge is super helpful.”

Rabb says that’s the sommelier minor magic: “We call it looking behind the label. The goal is to look at a label and predict what it tastes like with some degree of accuracy, including what kinds of grapes were used.”

That kind of conversation still thrills Brenna Stith '16, vice president of winestore. Chapel Hill. “Now I often teach customers new things about wines. They get excited about facts they never knew. We’ve become teachers to our everyday customers. I still expand on everything I learned at JWU and I think even at school I understood there was going to be more to learn in this field.”

So whether it’s mopping up after a broken pipe, assisting an order for a daughter’s wedding, or getting back on that Excel spreadsheet, these JWU “homerun” hitters are batting a thousand.


Interior of winestore. Chapel Hill.