Bergamot’s bar-crossed lovers
By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent
Kevin Wardell and Sarah Johnson met on the top of a mountain in Switzerland 15 years ago. It was a chance meeting of two self-professed “kids” who spent more than a decade, traveled thousands of miles, traded hundreds of phone calls and letters to get to the same place.
Like the best Hollywood romance stories, they finally found love in Healdsburg, where they share a home and a business, the popular new Bergamot Alley Wine and Beer Bar.
“I think it’s just a testament to the way life can be so crazy,” says Johnson, 37, an Oregon native who studied design management at Portland’s art institute. “We spent a lot of time circling each other.”
The journey began on two different coasts.
Wardell, 39, grew up in Westchester until his father moved the family to Connecticut. He found a good job in the advertising business but longed to get out on the road.
“I loved my job, not the industry,” he says now. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just I knew in my heart that I had to do something else.”
And so he gave in to wanderlust. Wardell quit his job and bought a ticket to Europe,planning to spend a summer backpacking.
Meanwhile, Johnson had been bitten by the travel bug herself. She left for Europe, planning to go on to the Middle East. She never got past Switzerland, instead falling in with a group of travelers into hiking and biking and extreme sports. It was her kind of heaven.
That’s where Wardell found her, about a month into his trip. After hiking with a group in the picturesque mountains far above the town of Interlaken, he was sitting out on the porch of a hostel when, he says, a lovely young woman wearing headphones walked up the trail.
She took off her headphones and said, “Doesn’t Jimi Hendrix rock?”
Wardell was shocked — and smitten.
“That blew me away,” he says. “I just had to get to know this girl. I just had to find out what she was about.” The feeling was mutual, and in a photo taken those first days, they seem young and very happy.
A few days later, Wardell continued his trip, meeting friends in Munich for Octoberfest. Instead of going on to Budapest, he returned to Interlaken instead.
“I walked around town until I found her again,” he says. Johnson was blown away.
“This was a place people came through to visit and then went on their way,” she says. “I was so used to meeting people and never seeing them again.”
She was doing odd jobs and was in the process of applying for National Outdoor Leadership School.. Reluctantly the couple parted again a few days later so she could return home.
With promises to stay in touch, Wardell set off for six more months of travel through Europe and to Australia. He went back to an advertising job in New York. Johnson went to Park City, Utah. They kept talking and writing letters, and he convinced her to visit on New Year’s Eve. He visited her a few months later Utah, but continued to pursue lives apart.
“It was as if we could never find any time to confront what we had,” says Johnson. “I don’t know if it was a series of missed opportunities or bad timing. Or maybe the truth is we weren’t quite ready to commit at the same time.”
Wardell moved to Aspen to run a restaurant and a nightclub. Johnson returned to Switzerland and a longtime boyfriend. She got pregnant, but before the baby was born the relationship dissolved and she returned to the stability of Portland. By then Wardell was in San Francisco, training to be a sommelier.
Their relationship continued with once-a-year meet-ups, usually camping in the Utah desert, and seemed destined to end that way. She considered it the perfect time to commit, but he wasn’t yet ready to settle down. It caused a rift between them, and they stopped talking.
Wardell moved to New Zealand to make wine, and Johnson married a man she knew in Portland. After she spent a grueling year nursing him back after a bad mountain biking accident, they decided to split.
Johnson found herself back on her own with a son nearly 10. That’s when she decided to reconnect with Wardell, this time on Skype. A little older, a little wiser, they haltingly began a conversation about their future — together.
“I told her that the one regret I had in my life was letting her go,” he says. “It was true. A week later I flew to Portland.”
They discussed their options and developed the idea for Bergamot Alley. Wardell was a frequent visitor to Healdsburg, working at Scopa Restaurant and Unti Vineyards and regaling Johnson with stories about its charms. Almost on a whim, they moved to Healdsburg, open a bar and began their life together.
Now more than two years later, their club has become a locals’ favorite, a busy night spot and a community gathering place. During election season, they streamed the Presidential Debates live, and over the summer they began showing films on Monday nights.
On Halloween they hosted a costume party that drew 100s of banditos, cops, a lion and lion tamer, a mime and Pee Wee Herman. The bar also has hosted cribbage and Scrabble tournaments and features live music on Sunday afternoons.
“We want to encourage the community to be part of what we’re doing here, and for them to encourage us,” says Johnson. “This place is for everyone.”
At the center is the ever present couple, whose love story has found a happy ending.
“It took a long time to get here,” says Wardell. “I feel like we’re the luckiest people on Earth.”