As the daughter of famed recording artist Billy Lee Riley of Sun Records — where legends like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash first recorded — Erin Riley is no stranger to groundbreakers and industry trailblazers. Now the self-proclaimed “Queen of Bubbles” is breaking her own ground as the first to open up a Champagne and sparkling wine bar in Napa, Calif.
Born and raised in Memphis, Riley moved to Northern California in 2000 when her then-position at Williams Sonoma transferred her to wine country. After spending the next 18 years involved in multi-store retail management and hotel sales, Riley says she felt the “call of the wine” and decided to take her business, sales, and service prowess to wine industry, becoming a buyer for the Napa Valley Wine Train. However, another “call” soon came — this time, one of ownership. Two years later, Erin opened up the pioneering Be Bubbly in downtown Napa.
VinePair spoke with Riley on her love of sparkling wine, how she came out of the pandemic stronger than ever, and the story behind Be Bubbly.
1. What was your first experience with wine?
My family was very chill about sharing wines when we were young; my parents served us small glasses at dinner from about the age of 13. I remember the old Chianti bottles with the raffia wrapped around them!
2. Why is sparkling wine your favorite?
To me, it is the best beverage because it pairs with everything from breakfast to dinner and beyond. It also happens to be lower in alcohol and has less calories, which is always a plus! I find it to be fun and refreshing and has been my go-to for years, unless I’m drinking tequila.
3. When did you get the idea for Be Bubbly?
I was inspired by Jayme Powers, who owns Sigh in Sonoma. I loved what she was doing, and I was surprised it wasn’t happening in Napa. I was coming out of a fairly dark place and was attending a Tony Robbins seminar in L.A. when I started thinking seriously about pursuing a bubbles bar. He has a way of convincing you anything is possible.
4. How did previous roles prepare you?
Being at the executive level for large corporations such as Gap, Disney Stores, and Williams Sonoma was an excellent training ground for understanding multiple facets of running a business. I learned the intricacies of a profit and loss (P&L) in real time as well as how to build teams, manage inventory, and of course, these businesses are phenomenal branding experts!
5. How did you come up with the name Be Bubbly?
I credit Emma [Sepulveda], who I met at the Tony Robbins conference and shared many glasses of bubbly [with] throughout the event. I kept tossing out crazy names for the lounge when we were at dinners, and she eventually said matter of factly, “Sounds like you want to be happy. … Why don’t you just be bubbly?” Instantaneously at that moment, I snagged the domain!
6. You opened up during the pandemic. How did you manage to thrive?
In many ways, opening up during a pandemic was beneficial to a new business owner: Less expectation, less immediate traffic, and judgment of your decisions. But the primary reason I credit is the support and love we received from the Napa community! During Covid, while locals could not travel and many could not find places open to cater to them, they showed up for us in a big way, and we survived it together. We opened with 100 members, who in many cases we saw on a weekly basis. It’s actually sad that we don’t see them as often anymore now that life is back to normal and all of their regular responsibilities have kicked in.
7. Why did you choose to open in downtown Napa?
I moved to Napa in 2000. My daughter was born in St. Helena hospital, and I have lived and worked here the last 23 years. I have a wonderful connection to this Valley, and once I decided I was going to own my own business, I didn’t want to have the flagship location anywhere else! I have also seen the growth of downtown Napa and recognized where it was headed. I specifically chose Second Street, though, because I felt like it’s got more of a locals’ charm.
8. I hear you are looking to expand. What will that look like?
Be Bubbly is first and foremost a brand. I’ve always believed you can Be Bubbly anywhere, and so growth will be in cities where our desire to bring global bubbles, authenticity, and great vibes are welcome. I would love to see expansion in Napa first. Based on the response to offering entertainment, I see a need for a private event space in addition to the bubbly lounge. I’m constantly on the lookout for where that can happen. Meanwhile, we have expanded our offerings to include Go Bubbly, [a mobile sparkling wine bar] where we will go anywhere you need us to provide bubbles, food, and fun!
9. Are you really the first and only Champagne bar in Napa?
Most people don’t believe it, considering we are in wine country. I believe we are! I know there have been locations in the past that offered bubbly, but I always say we are the first dedicated sparkling and Champagne bar where bubbly is our primary emphasis and not secondary to cocktails, [still] wines, and beer.
10. I hear you have your own Champagne brand now. How did that happen?
I am very fortunate to have partnered with Michel Gonet Champagne! It was a two-year process but in April, we released the Be Bubbly Blanc de Noirs Champagne — and it is amazing! I had been speaking with my supplier from the very beginning before our brick-and-mortar location was complete and laid the seed that I would love to have our own label someday. My supplier responded that “anything is possible,” and with his help and guidance, that dream came true. I met with the Gonet family on my annual trip to Champagne, France, in 2020. Our first pallet arrived in April 2021 and sold out immediately.
11. Who are your biggest role models in the wine business?
The people who have stood out to me the most since I have opened are those with a willingness to support another female entrepreneur! I am sure I will accidentally leave someone off the list, but immediately coming to mind are Remi Cohen, Christine Mercnik, Sara Fowler, Aubrey Bailey, Elan Fayard, Laura Roach, Miriam Puentes, Lola Llamas, Paula Kornell, [and] Paula Harrell — all of whom have been a resource at one time or another and modeled success in the industry.
12. What does almost 3 years in business mean to you?
We opened Aug. 20, 2020. My dear friend Muguette always reminds me to celebrate this accomplishment of opening and thriving with my first attempt at owning my own business. I see all the things I don’t know or haven’t done, and she encourages me to focus on the successes. There are so many wonderful small business owners on Second Street and they, along with our patrons, have all been supportive, encouraging, and great ambassadors for Be Bubbly. So, what it really means to me is this vision has created long-lasting relationships that I would not have had without owning my own business.
13. I hear you partner with a lot of local charities and businesses. Talk to me about that.
I believe that when you are rewarded with success, you are also obligated to share that with those in your community who need it most. We focus on charities in the Valley who serve children, women, and people who are otherwise not always supported. This may result in something as simple as donating a tasting for a raffle, donating a percentage of sales, or hosting an artist whose sales will result in a donation. Our motto is: “Be Kind, Be You, Be Bubbly!”