Acting and the Art of Wine: Vino Amore

Posted in Community, Feature, More Stories, Theater and Dance

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
December 17, 2014

It all began in Mr. Pendrick’s ninth grade acting class. Brian Plebanek and Gail Liston met as high school freshman in California. They were acquaintances—nothing more. They wouldn’t meet again until their 20th high school reunion.

Liston went on to get her BA in Design and Technology for the Theatre, with an emphasis in Costume Design and an MFA in Acting, both at California State University, Fullerton.

When they reunited at their class reunion 20 years later, sparks flew.

“I had just arrived, alone, and was frantically scanning for someone I knew,” Liston recalled. “He came in, also alone, shortly after I did. I saw him and his nametag and thought, ‘He’s gotten even cuter! I went up to him and said, ‘Brian Plebanek!’ He obviously had to check my nametag to figure out who the hell I was, but seemed pleased, and within 60 seconds had asked me to be his dinner partner. I think he hurried because another single classmate was about to swoop in. They were kind of vying for my attention most of the night. Ah…the good old days!”

Jeannie & Norbert

Liston and Plebanek in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” (photo by Ned Farley)

Plebanek had already moved to Whidbey Island and he found excuses to make business trips to visit Liston, a freelance costumer designer working with prestigious performing venues such as the Los Angeles Opera. After a year of travel and racking up lengthy phone bills, Liston took a leap of faith and moved from Garden Grove to Whidbey Island.

She started directing shows at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, casting Plebanek as Paravancini in The Mousetrap—his first acting role in more than two decades. He succumbed to the acting bug and the pair has now acted in over fourteen shows together, including “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Guys and Dolls,” “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Inspecting Carol,” “The Murder Room, “See How They Run,” “August: Osage County,” “A Murder is Announced,” “Night Watch,” “Blue Virgins,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “On Golden Pond.”

Buddy and Koa

Buddy and Koa help ring in the holiday season at Vino Amore. (photo by Gail Liston)

They married in 2000. The first show they acted in together was “Sylvia.” Director Tim Rarick, who cast them as husband and wife before he knew they were a couple, was delighted when they showed up at the first rehearsal together. The comedic play about a dog fit them perfectly; they have two dogs of their own: Koa, a Golden Retriever, and Buddy, a Pug they adopted from WAIF.

Liston loves dressing the canines up in costumes of her own creation. “I’m a stage mother,” she boasted proudly.

Shortly after they got married, the pair decided to start a small business on the island. “Gail’s folks were small business owners and they were encouraging us,” Plebanek explained. They consulted with Bob Betz, who graduated from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. With Betz’s encouragement, they opened Vino Amore in Freeland in May, 2002.

In the 12 years since, they have grown from carrying 500 labels to 1,300. They were aided in their early years by Stefano Carosi, who would sit with them, on Friday nights in the summer, on the grassy spot behind their shop and teach them about Italian wines.

“A lot of Americans are used to fruit forward wines,” Plebanek said, “and then you taste this Italian wine where you can taste the earth. That launched us with food and wine pairings.”

brian and gail

Plebanek and Liston surrounded by over 1,300 wine labels in their Freeland shop. (photo by Patricia Duff)

They encourage customers to bring in the actual recipe that they want to partner with a wine from their store. The greater specificity helps them to find the perfect wine to pair with the meal.

When asked if their theatrical lives intersect with their small business, the answer is simple: “Actors drink!” Liston said with a smile.

They are grateful for the patronage of the Whidbey community and find that both fellow actors and audience members make a point of getting their wine at their shop.

If you’re looking for a recommendation for a wine to bring to a holiday party, Liston suggests Delmas’ Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine. Plebanek suggests Betz’s Blos de Betz, a Bordeaux blend.

For these two, the pairing of wine with acting is a match made in heaven. “We love working together onstage,” Liston beamed. “We really do look forward to those opportunities.”

“I just love working with her,” Plebanek said with a smile.

Vino Amore is located at 5575 South Harbor Ave., Suite 102, in Freeland. Find out more about them and their business at their website:

Image at top: Plebanek and Liston starred in “Inspecting Carol” at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.  (photo by Tyler Raymond)

Katie Woodzick works at Hedgebrook as an External Relations Manager. She is also an actor and director who can be seen on local stages. Learn more at


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  1. What a wonderful story! And if you stop in at Vino Amore, you can get more stories from these two. They seem to have stories for every bottle in the place. Their storytelling is another blend of their passions for wine and acting.

    Oh, and if you think Vino Amore isn’t in your budget, you’re wrong. It’s the best place to find really great wine at low prices. All I have to do is stop in, explain the type of wine I want (using my usually inadequate descriptions), and they find the perfect selection for me. I’ve never been disappointed. And for you gluten-free folks, you’ll also find a nice selection of beers.

    Brian and Gail are a pleasure to be around, and that alone is worth a trip to Vino Amore. I’ll be there picking up holiday gifts. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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