From Corporate Lawyer to Wine Mogul
It was after only three years of practicing law that Gurvinder Bhatia decided to pursue his passion for wine. Alberta had newly legislated private liquor stores, and Gurvinder saw an opportunity to open a wine shop in Edmonton. More than 20 years later, Gurvinder has built a thriving business and established himself as one of the leading wine experts in the country.
Gurvinder recently merged his business with UnWined wine boutique, where he is now the head Wine Buyer, and Director of Wine, Business Development and Education. Gurvinder is also a wine columnist for Global TV Edmonton, wine editor for Quench magazine, and an international wine judge. On top of all these tiles, he is the founder and director of Northern Lands, the largest all-Canadian wine and culinary festival.
We wanted to know more about how Gurvinder got there, and how his experience as a lawyer has impacted the course of his professional life. We recently sat down with him and asked him all of this and more…
The Road to Law School
Gurvinder Bhatia never considered attending law school until a year into his MBA. He was unsure about what type of business to get into and he saw law as a way of helping him gain the knowledge to succeed in any business pursuit.
“On the first day of law school I might’ve been the only one who already knew that I wasn’t going to practice law for the rest of my life.”
In law school, Gurvinder concentrated on corporate law, while pursuing sports law on the side. He interned at Sports Management Group in his last semester, and was considered for a position teaching sports management at the University of Massachusetts.
Ultimately, Gurvinder went the corporate route and took an articling position at a leading Edmonton law firm. Then after three years of practice, he opened his first wine store and his life began to change.
Unlike many other lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs, Gurvinder did not leave practice outright to start his wine business. He juggled both jobs for a while, and when the business needed more attention, he became a part-time lawyer and a full-time business owner.
While working part-time at his firm, he tells us that many partners and other lawyers disapproved. They thought it was inappropriate to practice part-time because it didn’t fit into their traditional ideas of what it meant to be a lawyer. Eventually, a new managing partner gave him an ultimatum: to commit to full-time or no time at all. Gurvinder chose the latter.
Taking on a New Role
Fortunately, Gurvinder’s business was thriving by this point. Occupied with the opening of his second wine store, it turned out he probably didn’t have any time to focus on legal work anyway. No harm, no foul.
With all his time focused on the wine business, Gurvinder began to grow his brand, Vinomania. It quickly became one of the busiest wine stores in the province, supplying over a hundred hotels and restaurants. He was also getting his own name out there by writing about food and wine. He became a wine columnist for CBC radio, as well as the wine editor for Quench.
His passion is in discovering new wines, growing the business, evolving the wine and food culture in Canada, and educating others. With the recent merger of his business, Gurvinder gets to focus more on these passions.
We asked Gurvinder more about his transition out of law and how he was able to balance legal work and entrepreneurship for so long. He explains that initially he had a set schedule for working at his firm, but oftentimes with the growing demand of his business, he wouldn’t be able to follow it. Some days he would have to spend more time at the firm with clients, and some days he would have to work at the firm in the morning, and go run his business in the afternoon. He says this is where the trouble started with partners at his firm, because many did not understand why he was not always available.
Gurvinder spent his very little free time learning everything he could about the wine industry. He acknowledges that in wine, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. His work ethic was clearly effective.
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to be the best at it. If I’m in the wine business, I’m going to learn everything there is to learn about it and I’m going to go way beyond what the average person does.”
When asked about how his legal education has impacted his business, Gurvinder believes it has always been a benefit and that it equipped him with a versatile set of skills. Whether it was dealing with a supplier, strategic planning for the business, or negotiating a lease with a landlord, having the legal background was invaluable.
“A legal education is such a valuable thing regardless if you are practicing law in the traditional sense or not.”
When asked what advice he would give to others considering leaving law, Gurvinder said first and foremost, do it.
“Never leave a desire to do something else unpursued because you never want to have regrets.”
However, he quickly followed this up by saying never put yourself in a situation where you cannot support yourself.
“Make sure you have a plan.”
Gurvinder knows many people like himself that did something else in addition to practicing law, and he advocates for that if it makes sense for the individual. The last thing he left us with was to keep in mind that if you do decide to pursue something else, “chances are you’re going to have to bust your ass to make it work.”
We couldn’t have said it any better. Gurvinder’s story is evidence of perseverance and hard work paying off.