Photos by Chris Rov Costa
There was one name that I heard time and time again, which lies clearly at the center of the web: Gary Parker from The WineSellar & Brasserie in Sorrento Valley.
It's hard to overestimate the impact that Gary Parker has had on San Diego's wine culture. Those, like myself, who have arrived more recently on the scene will be forever in his debt. My own business partners in Le Metro spent a cumulative decade working with Gary, as did several of our wine purveyors. Angela Osborne, a rising star of California winemaking with her label A Tribute to Grace, did her own stint at the WineSellar. And as of 2012, one of San Diego's up-and-coming urban wineries, Vinavanti, is even located right on site.
I had the opportunity to meet with Gary at the WineSellar for a cup of coffee, which was of course quickly followed by a glass of wine. It was fascinating to learn about the WineSellar & Brasserie's evolution from wine storage facility to San Diego wine establishment.
Edible San Diego: What year did you open the WineSellar?
Gary Parker: '88–'89 was when we started here, and it was in 1984 that we began storing wine commercially [in our first location]. Originally I was actually going to people's homes and conducting wine tastings, but my customers didn't have a place to put the wine they bought. So I asked, "If I got a locker for you and stored it at the right temperature, would you buy more?" And they said yes.
ESD: Did you ever think that you'd still be in business 30 years later, let alone considered an institution?
GP: It's hard to believe. We were recently celebrating our 25th anniversary here, and it was touching, you know? A lot of nice things were said. No, 30 years ago I did not know what was going to happen.
ESD: You're often credited with pioneering the business model of a combined restaurant and wine shop, which was groundbreaking to say the least. How did that come about?
GP: As I understand it, there are some states that don't allow you to have a retail license in your restaurant. Here we pioneered the concept, but there was no resistance from the ABC (California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) at the time. I liked the restaurant industry; I thought it was great. And concurrent to when I started working in restaurants I started the storage facility. A few years later, once I decided that my [wine storage] business would support me, I started out on my own.
ESD: I've heard many people say that this hybrid model sustained San Diego's fine wine culture through the recession. What do you think?
GP: I think it helped, especially when other significant restaurants took on the concept.
ESD: One of the things that makes the WineSellar so unique is its location. How did you end up in Sorrento Valley?
GP: When we opened the place traffic wasn't as bad as it is now. People would travel from downtown, Carlsbad, El Cajon. If you throw a dart into San Diego County, this is central to everywhere.
ESD: The wine world has seen immense change since you opened your doors, yet you've remained extremely relevant. This is an impressive feat given the many challenges faced by businesses in our industry and the rate at which they come and go. Is there a secret to your success?
GP: I look at what I had when I opened up the place, and it was half the size. My wine shop is a different wine shop than it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. The restaurant started off with no tablecloths, and it was a deli-like kind of concept. You go through booms and busts, and you have to be able to modify the model of the business.
ESD: Do you have any sage words of wisdom to impart to younger wine entrepreneurs like myself?
GP: It takes a concept that you believe in, that has an economic foundation that's foolproof (or close to it). For me that's the storage—if the restaurant failed, or if the wine shop failed, I could still pay my rent with my lockers. I could still exist. The second step is some support. And that's either from business partners or friends. And then you need to have positive feedback from customers. Then you just have to hang on, because you never know. Even if you're wildly successful, it's still scary.
Aaron Epstein is the founder and curator of the wine subscription service Le Metro—Wine. Underground. (LeMetroWine.com). He has been studying wine since before he could legally drink it and has traveled the world to work in almost every aspect of the wine industry. Aaron writes a blog about his adventures in fatherhood and wine (Winedad.com).