A simpatico focus on wine in the dining room and the neighborhood shop next door.
By Ruben Morancy as told to Chris Mohney
I’ve been living in California since the early 90s. I’ve lived in LA before, but this is my third attempt to establish myself here. I enjoy Southern California as much as I enjoy Northern California, and for different reasons.
I’ve worked in food and beverage my entire life. My last position in the Bay Area was wine director for Coi, a two-Michelin-star restaurant run by Daniel Patterson and the Alta Group. Coming down here was something that had been in the plans for some time, but COVID pushed it along rather more quickly than I anticipated.
I moved to LA in mid-June of 2020, right in the middle of it all. At the time I was living up in Oakland, sitting in my apartment quarantined and not doing anything. That’s when I got the call from Daniel that he was looking for someone to come down to help manage service at Alta Adams and redirect the beverage program. That really excited me.
When I arrived down here, they were trying to figure out what to do with the cafe next to the restaurant. This is where people would congregate on a daily basis with laptops and drink coffee or whatnot. The space itself was not being utilized during COVID. They were attempting to pivot into showing other things besides coffee and such. I said to Daniel, “This is a great opportunity to turn this into a wine shop.” He was like, “A wine shop?” I said, “Yeah, we should make it a wine shop because it’s not being used and it’s a really nice space.”
So we talked about it for a bit, and he asked me, “What kind of wine shop do we want to do?” Having worked in the sales and marketing of wines in Northern California, my thinking was there has been a lack of focus on wines made by women particularly, and also wines made by people of color. I said we should make those the focal points of a wine shop, bringing in other small producers that are off the beaten path. It would be an anchor in the neighborhood of West Adams, which didn’t have a wine shop then. It’s been a really fun change—not only for the restaurant’s patrons, but also for people in the neighborhood.
The interesting thing about COVID is that it has afforded a lot of people the opportunity to rethink what their business operation should be, or could be. We’ve been playing with all kinds of different ideas here at the restaurant and wine shop just to sustain ourselves. Take-away is a major part of what we do here on a daily basis, as well as special events like large lunches delivered to hospitals and other institutions—things that weren’t being done before that we have to do now just to maintain the flow of business.
I actually got my start working in a retail wine shop. I spent a year working at K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco back in the mid-90s. There’s one in Los Angeles, one in Hollywood, one in Redwood City, and one in San Francisco. That was the beginning for me in terms of wine appreciation, tasting, and getting a deeper understanding of regional wines. We had such a wide selection, and the opportunity for me to taste wines from everywhere was absolutely amazing.
What’s great about working in a small shop, especially a specialty shop, is that you get much more personal interaction with the customers than you do in a restaurant. At a restaurant, people just want a wine recommendation to go with their meal. When they’re on a date, they don’t want to spend the whole time talking to the sommelier. Once they select a bottle of wine, it’s pretty much the end of the conversation.
In a wine shop, you really get to know people. You get to know what they like, and also what you might want to steer them to try. Especially if you work in their neighborhood—the neighborhood wine shop is almost like a barbershop. You come to know the people in the neighborhood very intimately. Sometimes you get to meet their kids. Sometimes it’s the wife who’s buying the wines, and sometimes on a Saturday she’ll bring her husband. You find out what he likes, and what she likes.
Not all the wines in the shop are available in the restaurant. It gives us an opportunity to rotate and keep the wine list fresh and interesting. Since its inception, the restaurant has always been known for its great cocktail program. The wine side was lacking. That’s one of the main reasons I was brought down here.
Wine is now much more of a focus at the restaurant—not only with our staff, but also with the customers. They’ve come to know it’s not just a place to have a great cocktail. On their way out, the servers let them know that we have a wine shop. It’s a good opportunity, because sometimes guests want to know where they can purchase a bottle of the wine they’re having at dinner. So people can come into the wine shop and say, “I just had this wine for dinner. Can I get a bottle to go?” It’s a win-win situation.
I don’t foresee dining in restaurants indoors coming back until mid-year, and outdoor dining coming back until mid-February at the earliest. I think it’s been more than a challenging year for wine distribution companies. Having worked in that environment for so many years, I can’t imagine what people in sales and marketing are going through in terms of finding distribution channels for their products. There are companies that were at one time focused on selling wines solely to restaurants, and they are really having a hard go of it right now trying to reinvent themselves and focus on the retail side. The last time I heard, retail was up somewhere between 30 to 40 percent versus restaurant sales. So there’s been an incredible shift in terms of how wine is distributed in California. Even if things go back to normal, it’s going to take a while for them to regain their market share in that world.