My dad is the kind of old-school character who arrives four hours ahead of departure time for a domestic flight from Miami to New York. All of his bills are paid via paper check, which he drops off in person. And, naturally, he’s a big believer in going into the gas station to pay the clerk directly before filling his tank with gas, putting zero trust in the card machines out by the pumps. And so, when I was home in Miami a couple of months ago, he didn’t even have to ask before I marched into the Mobil station on the corner of Coral Way and 32nd Avenue to ask the clerk to fill us up at number four.
But when I opened the door, I had to take a beat to marvel at the collection of wines lining the metal racks inside. On shelves, next to six-packs of Corona Light and local plantain chips, were the wines I used to sell at the small, natural-focused New York wine shop I worked at — Subject to Change’s Sleepless Nights, a cab franc from Lo-Fi in Los Alamos, California; Martha Stoumen’s juicy Post Flirtation. I didn’t expect to see these wines in this residential part of Miami, one that’s mostly known for a nearby Hooters and the enduring Cuban restaurant Sergio’s, let alone at Mendez Fuel.
By design, gas stations are there to get us out of a range of tough spots: air when your tires are flat; bathrooms and tampons when you need bathrooms and tampons; crunchy chicharrones when the road snacks you packed are starting to lose their luster; a handy — even if unwieldy — vacuum when your homemade trail mix flies everywhere. And in some cities, the local gas station is the place where you can pick up well-curated craft beer offerings and bottles of wine made by small producers on your way home or to a friend’s place for dinner.
Mendez Fuel is a chain of Miami-based Mobil stations where customers are just as likely to peruse the racks of wine and beer as fill up their tanks. Twelve years ago, Michael Mendez bought the stations from a close friend. He called his brother, Andrew Mendez, to see if he was interested in working on the new project together. The plan was for Andrew to take over the Mobil location on 32 Avenue, since it was a bit far away from the other three, and the least convenient for Michael to get to. At the time, Andrew was just out of college and staying on his parents’ couch. “Yeah, I’m down,” Andrew says he told his brother.
“Just know that we’re starting from the bottom,” Michael said.
About one year into their new project, Andrew started taking over beer orders at the other three Mendez Fuel locations, too. He remembers that there were pretty standard options like Heineken and Stella; the trusty brands you’ll find at any corner store. But after working with a beer rep for a few months who introduced Andrew to slightly less well-known beers like Chimay, Lagunitas, and Blue Moon, the contents of the store’s shelves started to change. “Me being a 24-year-old, I remember thinking it was just so cool, all these new beers,” he says.
In 2012, the year craft beer really began to boom in cities like Miami, Andrew began adding craft brews to the shelves; he started with beers from Funky Buddha, a brewery in Oakland Park, Florida. “Then I started to pick up more distributors to try to figure out who has what and go from there,” he says.
Soon, all four Mendez Fuel locations were craft beer destinations in Miami, and on May 5, 2014, they solidified that status by adding growlers — the air-tight jugs that allow you to easily take draft beer from one place to another. According to Andrew, no one else in the area — gas station or not — was doing growlers at the time. “That really helped,” he says. “Being ahead of the game on that.”
By the end of that year, the craft beer and growler business was flourishing at all Mendez Fuel outposts. Eventually Mendez Fuel even added its own specialty lager to the lineup, a private-label beer that Miami’s The Tank Brewing Co. helped them make. And when the pandemic hit Miami this past year, Andrew says the beverage business only got busier.
In the weeks and months surrounding the first COVID-19 lockdowns, Mendez Fuel was inundated with online beer and wine orders from people stuck at home. At the time, unlike beer, the wine selection was, in Andrew Mendez’s words, pretty basic: Mondavi, Josh, Woodbridge; “nothing crazy,” he says. Around this same time Andrew had started hearing about natural wine from a few friends, and when the requests for wine picked up, he saw an opportunity to give the wine selection at Mendez Fuel a lot more attention. So just like he did with beer all those years ago, Andrew started reaching out to natural wine-focused distributors and seeing what was available. “Today we’re at the point where I had to take away from my craft beer section to make more room for natural wine,” he says.
It speaks to the steady rise in popularity and availability of natural wine across cities in the U.S., driven largely by one woman: Jenny Lefcourt, who started natural wine importer Jenny & François Selections in 2000. But while natural wine has had a developed presence in New York for nearly two decades and has been widely available in Los Angeles and San Francisco for many years now, it’s fairly nascent in other major cities, like Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, and Philadelphia.
Five years ago, natural wines were already starting to hit the shelves at Sunrise Mini Mart — a gas station-convenience store in Austin, Texas’s Crestview neighborhood that Eater Austin named one of the city’s best wine shops. It’s all the work of manager Sam Rozani, who, like Andrew Mendez, started changing up the usual convenience store wares by offering craft beers. But unlike Andrew Mendez, Rozani didn’t start adding natural and organic wines because of word of mouth or customer demand; he just wanted to try some of it himself.
“The thing is that the best place to buy myself natural wine will be my store, because I don’t have to pay retail prices,” says Rozani. He started ordering natural wine in small quantities; he’d buy, say, a half case of wine, open one bottle for himself, and then sell the remaining bottles at Sunrise. This way he’d also be able to speak about the nuances in a bottle of Broc Cellars’ Love Red when a customer came in asking about it. These days, those same customers know to ask Rozani what he’s been drinking lately, confident that he’ll lead them in the right direction.
“I tell them the region I’m really into, or something I recently liked, and they usually say ‘Man, I haven’t had it, I want to try it,’ and that just opens things up,” he says. The same goes for when someone comes in asking for the Bichi pét-nat they saw someone drinking on Instagram. “I’ll say ‘Hey, you know what? I don’t have Bichi right now, but I have something else you might like, it’s from the Canary Islands.”
It makes for a positive customer experience, Rozani says; people know they’ll learn something when they visit one of his four stores. Rozani tried to channel that expertise into the retail website he launched in March 2021 in response to demand from customers who either moved away from Austin during the pandemic, or who wanted to send wine to Austin-based loved ones. Now they can order their wine and beer from Sunrise, without ever setting foot in the gas station.
Just one year into offering natural wine at Mendez Fuel at the location on 32 Avenue, Andrew Mendez has seen a growing following, especially among younger customers. “There’s a consistent flow of people in their late 20s and 30s coming into the gas station looking for natural wine,” he says. Still, he does periodically get gas-seeking customers who come in and are surprised or curious about the seemingly nontraditional wines Mendez Fuel stocks.
Andrew Mendez thinks a personalized feel is what keeps his regular customers returning to a corner Mobil station over going somewhere like Total Wine or Publix for their wine, even with prices $1 or $2 higher than they would be at other retailers. “If I’m in the store, I’m going to try to help you as best as I can,” he says. While by his own admission he’s not an expert, it is Andrew Mendez, officially Mendez Fuel’s vice president of operations, who is doing all the wine buying, so if a customer comes in asking about a bottle, he has the answers. He tells me he’s lucky to have developed a rapport with a number of small natural wine distributors, like Arash Selects, which is open to selling him three bottles so he can see how they move before having to commit to a case.
As those bottles, made in small quantities, sell, and word continues to spread about natural wine, its availability should only continue to expand. The reason Rozani was sold out of that Bichi pét-nat is because these days he’s only able to buy one case versus the five he used to get; the rest go to nearby restaurants or other shops in the area. But just three years ago it was hard to find wines from California winemakers Scribe and Les Lunes, or Maryland’s Old Westminster, outside of New York City. If there’s any indication that these wines are reaching the mainstream, it’s that you can now find them at a gas station — and that’s something worth toasting.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.