Bill, Distilled 

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Bill Robinson, owner of Grape and Cheese at 1531 W. Main St., lives exactly 41 paces behind the store, and he's "still always late for work," he says. Since he opened The Cellar Authority in 1981 at what's now Ipanema Café, he's developed his self-described exuberance about wine, food and the occasional romance with a series of wine-industry jobs. Crediting his colleague Michelle Lane with beer expertise and an unwillingness to hit him, Robinson explains why business is good but not serious.

Style: Most of the uninitiated do anything to avoid a wine store -- they're more comfortable at Kroger. Have you noticed a certain level of fear in the wine-buying public?

Robinson: They look at me like I'm sticking my entire arm into their pocket and grabbing their wallet. But hey, this stuff isn't intimidating — it's a lot of fun. And I could live the rest of my life on an island with wines under $20, happily. Here, unlike New York, putting on airs is just not done in wine shops. People are a little more humble, which is really nice.

If they want to get wasted, wine might not be the best choice anyway.

If you want to get plastered, there are cheaper and better things to use. But not as much fun. Wine is a good social lubricant. Wine is different than having shots of tequila or smoking a bunch of pot. It really does lend itself to conversations and empathy. People listen to people while they share wine, and I like that.

What's the typical Richmonder looking for in a wine purchase?

Richmond has always had a problem with Italian wine. This is the worst Italian wine market I have ever seen. It may be my sheer incompetence, and I do sell a good amount of it, but compared with the rest of the world, it's not what it should be. For the life of me, I don't know why. A lot of Italian reds tended to be high in acid, and Richmonders tend to like something softer. These are not the most cutting-edge people. The good news is, they don't go in for fads. By and large, these are people with good taste.

Then what are you suggesting they try?

In the midprice range, $10 to $25, good wines are from everywhere. It used to be California and France, then nobody wanted anything but Australian. Now Argentina is producing wonderful wines. Pretty much everybody is making tremendous wines at a good price, except, by and large, California. Some of theirs are pretty boring and slipshod at that price.

And you're no longer selling Cristal.

I stopped selling it because the costs went up. There's no way I can justify charging huge amounts of money for a champagne like that — it's not the electra from heaven. You can get three bottles of great champagne for that price. Egly-Ouriet, which is like Clicquot, used to be but richer, bigger, better. And under $50. Or Lilbert-Fils, elegant, more like Dom Pérignon, at $41. A '99 vintage is $70, for big celebrations.

What's with the photos of strangers around your shop?

I collect them. As long as they're older pictures and the people are wearing hideous clothing, as long as that happens, I want that. If you go to enough estate sales, you'll find that people are more than willing to get rid of their uglier relatives' pictures. I have got pictures of men holding fish, and it's hard to tell which is which, except the man is usually wearing pants.

Do your Friday-night wine tastings have a reason for being?

We've done everything from wines that smell bad but taste good, to the thickest wines — as in dessert wines, some almost like ketchup — or wines with weird labels. I get older students, attorneys, stockbrokers, the scum of the earth, I swear. I get people who come in on a Friday for a tasting and it would kill them to buy a bottle of wine. But we get a good cross section, and they're lots of fun. And I'm not nearly as dangerous as people have heard. S

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