Inside a shop named Happy Wine, J.C. Restrepo wipes tears from his eyes.
“Everything was falling apart,” he recalls. “I’m sorry. Let me gather myself.”
Around him, diners are laughing, popping bottles and munching on tapas, salsa music playing almost too loud to speak over. He and his longtime partner, Joanna Fajardo, huddle close at one of the high-top tables where stools are homemade from wine crates. When he speaks, his usually booming voice is a raspy whisper.
This wine shop and tapas bar they bought together almost 10 years ago usually lives up to its name, particularly for the owners. Christmas lights crisscross the ceiling. Bottles of wine, ranging in price for neighborhood abuelitas to connoisseurs, are sorted neatly by region and stacked on shelves made from wooden 2-by-4s. Happy hour starts early, music plays every day of the week and every inch of wall space is scrawled with diners’ messages like, “I got dronk here.”
It’s an open secret and a longtime favorite for Miamians who know you have to use the back door although it’s on busy Calle Ocho.
But the last year has been a test of faith, love and perseverance for the couple that owns one of Miami’s favorite hidden gems.
This time last year, Restrepo, 52, was diagnosed with kidney failure and told that without dialysis and a transplant, he would die within a week. That came a month after the couple took on an investor in their second Happy Wine in Coconut Grove — and eventually lost the business as they struggled to keep it up. He sold that store and let them use the name to avoid lawyers.
He may eventually have to change the name of his Calle Ocho Happy Wine.
A pair of lunch regulars pops in to join the jovial atmosphere around them, and Restrepo tries to compose himself when Joanna hurries to greet them.
“I felt the worst for my wife,” Restrepo says, watching Fajardo. “I’m supposed to take care of my family, and I couldn’t do that.”
Restrepo thinks he first developed diabetes in the late 1980s, when he was in his early 20s and working long hours as an undocumented Colombian immigrant in the New York City kitchens where he learned to love wine from some of the greats.
Between polishing off fallen souffles at Jean-George Vongerichten’s or taking sommelier classes while working at Daniel when the eponymous Boulud was still tossing a culinary student’s dish across the room with a four-letter word, Restrepo disregarded his health. A fellow Colombian doctor, unlicensed in the United States but seeing patients out of his apartment in Queens, first diagnosed his diabetes. Restrepo bought medication on the gray market.
“I would have blurry vision. I was tired all the time. But I couldn’t afford health insurance or to go to a hospital,” he said.
It was decades before Restrepo, by then a U.S. citizen, took a job that offered health insurance, working as a South Florida sales rep for Southern Wine & Spirits. Happy Wine had been his best account when the former owner offered to sell him the business in 2010.
“The disease had progressed a lot over the years,” he said.
A customer last year first noticed Restrepo had taken a turn for the worse.
Restrepo had been working 16-hour days, six days a week, at the Coconut Grove Happy Wine he and Fajardo opened on their own in 2013 when a longtime customer called him over. A wine lover and cardiologist, he noticed Restrepo’s gaunt visage, sallow skin and wouldn’t take no for an answer when he told Restrepo to come see him at his Baptist Hospital office for blood work.
The nephrologist who got the results wasted no time.
“He said, ‘You might have a week left to live. Your body is shutting down. I don’t even know how you’re walking,’” Restrepo recalls the kidney specialist telling him.
That afternoon, he was rushed to the clinic to have a catheter put in and underwent his first daily dialysis for the next eight months. By January, though, he had lost all hope. He stopped going to dialysis one day, ready to bring about the end, despite Fajardo pleading with him. It took a social worker showing up at his house to get him to go back.
Meanwhile, Joanna was struggling to keep up both Happy Wine locations. Then, they said, their investor started calling for repayment.
“That woman is a saint. She was working like an animal,” Restrepo said. “She’s the one who paid all the price.”
On April 5, a Friday, Restrepo was placed on the organ transplant wait list. He didn’t have much hope. He had seen a man he was doing dialysis with die while waiting for kidney.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, while he was receiving dialysis, his phone rang. A 25-year-old who’d had a genetic defect died unexpectedly in North Florida. He was an organ donor.
“J.C. called me crying,” Joanna said.
By midnight Sunday, they were at Jackson Memorial Hospital so Restrepo could receive the kidney. His anesthesiologist and a surgical assistant were both Happy Wine customers.
“I’m on the stretcher going into surgery, and I’m talking to these guys about wine,” Restrepo recalled.
Restrepo takes anti-rejection medication for what he lovingly calls his baby, tapping the spot in his lower abdomen where the donor kidney was added.
Since the surgery, he has let go of his other baby — “We had too many babies,” Fajardo tried to joke — the Happy Wine in Coconut Grove. They signed the paperwork Aug. 1.
“The first day, I felt bitter. The second day, relief,” Restrepo said. “Right now, we are in heaven.”
The couple has refocused its efforts at the original Happy Wine. Restrepo sits at the corner of the bar so he can greet every guest, Joanna runs the books in a side office and oversees staff that has been with the couple since Day One, keeping the spirit of the happy shop in the name.
“In life, unfortunately, you learn by mistakes,” Restrepo said. “It nearly cost me my life. But now, I get a second chance.”
5792 SW Eighth St., Miami