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VIProfile: Bob Gilbertson




STORY BY GAY LYONS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN FINCH

Bob Gilbertson’s first day in the liquor business was at Beverage Control, the distributing company his father owned.

“It was 1966,” he said. “I was just back from the Coast Guard. I unloaded a train car full of Seagram’s Gin. It must have been 100 degrees in that box car.” Bob opened his first package store, a small place downtown on Church Avenue, in 1970. “There were at least six or seven liquor stores downtown,” he said. “In those days, you had to buy an existing store. There were so few customers I read ‘War and Peace’ in three days.”

In 1972, Bob’s father bought the property on North Winston Road where Bob’s Wine and Spirits is located today. The 2,400 square foot building was initially divided among three businesses: Convenient Food Market, a lighting gallery and Bob’s. The space expanded to 6,000 square feet, then 8,500 until it reached its current size of approximately 11,000 square feet with only one tenant: Bob’s.

Even early on, the space was always huge by liquor store standards. “Most liquor stores were 1,200-1,500 feet,” said Bob. “People thought I was crazy. They asked ‘are you going to have a square dance in there?’”

“I realized if I had more room, I could sell more stuff,” he said. “I added a stock room so I could sell larger quantities.” With the combination of additional space and the repeal of the Fair Trade law that prohibited discounting of liquor prices, Bob was poised to lead the market. 

“I was predatory,” he admitted. “I reduced prices on the most popular wines and liquors and put the competition out of business. If it hadn’t been for [the repeal of the Fair Trade law], I couldn’t have been as successful. Being able to discount prices made us competitive. I could buy it cheaper and sell it cheaper. No one came close to our volume. We were in the top four or five in the state.”

“Wine grew throughout the 80s and 90s,” said Bob. “I could see it coming. I started devoting a lot more space to wine.” “When studies showed red wine was healthy, we started selling a lot of red wine,” he continued. “Knoxville was the epicenter of box wine. We sold it mainly to price conscious older people. Wineries sent a team to Knoxville to see what was going on. They wanted to know why we were selling so much box wine.”

Bob thinks the “wine boom is losing steam. Now people are excited about bourbon.” Bob’s personal favorites are California Cabernet and Johnny Walker Black Label. One product you will not see on the shelves at Bob’s is Russian vodka. Shortly after Russia invaded Crimea and Ukraine, a sign was posted: Due to Russian adventurism, we will no longer sell Russian vodka.

“It has probably cost us some money,” said Bob. “But we got thousands of letters from Ukranians. I thought it was a joke when I was contacted by Fox News.” Bob and his wife Karen, a retired supervisory instructor at the Speech and Hearing Center, support the community by giving to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Episcopal School of Knoxville and Knoxville Museum of Art. Bob was involved in the planning for L’amour du Vin, the KMA’s successful wine auction, since its inception.

After 53 years in the liquor business, Bob recently sold Bob’s Wine and Spirits, the oldest liquor store in the state with the same owner and same location, to his daughter, Ashley Haun.

“Ashley would help when we got busy,” said Bob. “About a year or so ago she started working more. This keeps ownership local.” “I miss the relationship with customers,” said Bob. “You become friends. We’ve always had good staff. I go by there and look in on them every now and then. I don’t want her to think I’m looking over her shoulder. I’ll give advice if I’m asked. My father said, ‘Solicited advice is rarely heeded; unsolicited advice is never heeded.’”

Will Ashley sell Russian vodka? “I told her she could sell it if she wanted to,” said Bob, “but she says she’s not. We’ve staked out a position.”

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