San Diego is the eighth-largest city in United States and the second-largest in California, yet it rarely garners a mention in the gastronomic press. The climate is pretty much perfect year-round, there is a historic walkable downtown less than a 10-minute cab ride from the airport, you're never far from a beach, a taco, an orca or a mating lemur, and you can get good seats to a visiting Giants baseball game at a fraction of the cost of AT&T Park.
Save for a secret spot for homemade tortillas, the culinary scene has long been lackluster, but things are changing quickly, and the wine scene and its professionals are probably a step ahead of their culinary counterparts. Since distribution is usually available at the state level, a wine buyer in San Diego can likely order almost anything available to their colleagues in LA and San Francisco - whether they can sell it or not is a more complicated matter. Business convention attendees and tourists dominate the market, so it's no surprise that the best sommeliers may work for the Hilton and the Marriott, or the Grand Del Mar and the Addison.
The wine scene is solid and getting stronger. Chefs with experience in "A markets" are moving back home and opening restaurants. Wine availability is excellent; business is growing. The buyers are smart, pragmatic and lack pretense. In short... Watch out for San Diego.
-Geoff Kruth MS
Featured below are Joshua Orr (Sommelier and Bar Manager, Marina Kitchen), Mitchel Price (Sommelier, Rancho Valencia Resort), Lisa Redwine (Food and Beverage Manager, La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club), Brian Donegan (former Wine Director/Sommelier, Market), Rory Pugh (Sommelier, Amaya at the Grand Del Mar), and Tami Wong (Wine Director/F&B Supervisor, La Valencia Hotel).
Given the fantastic weather in Southern California, what are perennial favorites or themes in your beverage program?
Joshua: The perennial favorites are certainly the big four grapes: Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Malbec is a close third in the red camp as well. I try to emphasize rosé, sparkling wine and unoaked white wines as much as my outlet allows. The other major element is craft beer, a major player when it comes to bars and restaurants in San Diego.
Brian: Pinot Noir has always been a core item on the Market wine list. It accounted for more than 15% of the total selection. Its versatility and delicacy are perfect attributes for menus that have a wide range of proteins and flavors. Plus, who really wants to drink a big, rich red on an 80° day?
Tami: My threefold mission is to serve rosé year round, more Riesling and more magnums! Every year I sell more rosé; guests love it as soon as it is in the glass, reflecting the sun overlooking the ocean. Summer of Riesling helps put Riesling in guests' hands because I have so many open at any time, and we can easily pour tastes. Pinot Noir is always appropriate for anything here. Still working on the magnum situation...
While most of California’s fame for fermented and distilled beverages comes from the Northern part of the state, what do you support locally to showcase the importance of your region?
Brian: BEER! San Diego is a bustling market for craft beer. There are amazing breweries and alehouses here, like Societe Brewing Company. The owners/brewers Doug Constantiner & Travis Smith are making some of the most exciting beers in the city. For locally made wine I think Fallbrook Winery does a spectacular job. Their Sauvignon Blanc falls right between the raciness of Sancerre and the vibrancy of CA. Owner Ira Gorvitz has done a fantastic job. If you can get your hands on a bottle you will not be disappointed.
Joshua: Craft beer is the big thing that San Diego brings to the national scene. We have more craft breweries per square mile than anywhere else in the world. It seems like new breweries pop up every day, and the brewery community is definitely one of collaboration and support rather than pure competition. It is an infectious atmosphere, and a haven (heaven?) for beer lovers.
Mitchel: ...And beer. Local wines are still quite humble, but San Diego is one of the top craft beer cities in the nation. Here is a list of solid producers: Port, Lost Abbey, Stone, AleSmith, Ballast Point, Societe, Green Flash, Alpine, Iron Fist, Lightning, and Automatic.
What are some of your favorite spirits to work with?
Rory: Tequila is a local favorite in San Diego. It adds so much character and panache to cocktails. Everyone seems to have Tequila horror stories, so it is always fun to coax them into trying it again.
Brian: Sign me up for AA because I am an Absinthe Addict! At one point Market offered six different absinthes from around the world. USA, France, and Switzerland were all represented. The savoriness, herbaceousness, and anise are an incredible combination. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to serving it; 1 part Absinthe, 3 parts highly chilled spring water, 1 good sugar cube, and a slotted spoon are all I need. Keep everything else away.
Do you work with any Mexican beers, wines, or spirits?
Rory: We offer a wide variety of Tequilas. My favorite is Fortaleza Tequila. It is produced by a family committed to making an authentic, traditional, and tasty product. The owner now resides in San Diego but has a long history within the Tequila-producing community.
Mitchel: I will be making my third trip down into the wine regions of Baja California later this month. Serious money has been invested in the region in recent years and it always makes for a fun trip. There are some incredibly beautiful bodegas, haciendas, B&Bs, and quite a few fantastic restaurants along the “ruta del vino.” Winemaking in the region has been cleaned up considerably, so one runs into fewer flawed wines than in the past. I would say that there are two major challenges faced by the winemakers in the region. First, the region is very hot. Luckily, the cool, nearby Pacific Ocean slightly moderates temperatures and provides some fog to slow ripening. The diurnal temperature swing is substantial, but not typically significant enough to prevent the need for acidification. Second, precipitation is low at less than 300 mm per year. Water resources are scarce and irrigation is necessary. Producers often have to draw water from wells, and well water in the region is salty. I have noticed that this saltiness is frequently transmitted to the grapes and thereby the wine. The challenge for Baja California winemakers is to find the right match of varietals and rootstocks to match their unique terroir. As for beer, I’ve always been a fan of Mexico’s inexpensive, mass-produced pilsners. You won’t see me complaining if someone offers me a Pacifico, Modelo Especial, or a Tecate. Left to my own devices, I usually pay a little bit more for a malty Bohemia or a darker Munich dunkel-style Negra Modelo. The craft beer movement is slowly gaining steam in Mexico as well, but the road is difficult as the country's two main beer conglomerates (that produce 90% of the nation’s beer) often have exclusivity agreements with bars and restaurants. Cucapá Brewing Company is producing great beer in Mexicali.
How do you go about making selections for your beverage program?
Tami: I seek the most delicious bang for the buck regardless of price point, whether classic, blue chip, or up-and-coming. Above all else it must be freakin’ delicious. I like wine made by people with integrity. Small production, boutique. When I was in retail I wanted to build a wine library for the student. Now I am working on a West Coast-focused list with an Old World backbone. We have a large amount of guests from all over the world who want to drink California wine when they are here. I serve what I believe is the best, and most honest glass of wine.
Brian: A well-rounded beverage program has something for everyone. A breadth of different styles is important. I look at the list and ask myself, “what are we missing?” QPR (Quality to Price Ratio) is also vitally important: when working through samples I never ask the price before I taste the wine. Instead, I think about what price I would be happy to pay for the wine. If the wine is at, or below the price I came up with, I think it is a good buy. If it is over I probably won’t buy it.
In your opinion, what is the most important part of service?
Lisa: It's important to use every available opportunity in service to create a memory, rather than just another night out. We make sure needs are anticipated, we read the table, and we listen to what the guest wants and needs, whether verbalized or not.
Joshua: The interaction with the guests is the most important aspect to me. You can have flawless technique but if you have no personality then the experience will be awkward. It is like bedside manner for a doctor: you have to be engaging and personal while being technically sound. The guest should feel like they are having a conversation with you, and then somehow their wine is magically decanted and served and they didn’t even realize it until it had happened.
Rory: The absence of discomfort.
What is your barometer for the guest experience?
Lisa: When they ask me to write down what they drank! Seriously, when we see them back, or they send other guests in to the restaurant.
Tami: 93% of a communication transaction is nonverbal. If a guest shakes my hand and holds it for the extra beat, or they hug and or kiss me, or I see smiles around the table, I know the guest is satisfied.
In a city known for tourism, how do you keep both the locals and visitors happy?
Mitchel: I honestly feel like locals and visitors are looking for the same thing – good value for the experience provided. A good service staff will be able to personalize the experience to the individual needs of the client. If you have a solid business plan, do what you do extremely well, and offer fair pricing, then I think the majority of your clients will be happy.
Lisa: We offer local products and small production gems in all aspects of our beverage program, but we also offer more accessible labels, and we make sure to accommodate the guest that wants a glass of White Zinfandel or Budweiser with a smile!
Brian: Market always tries to offer the best it can provide to everyone. It’s really as simple as that. If you’ve ever watched the BBC version of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay (where they don’t give away all the fancy stuff they do in the US version) you’ll notice a theme in the advice he gives to all the restaurateurs: do something well and do it consistently well. If you do that every day you’ll get better at something every day. That is the secret to success.
Where’s your favorite place to grab a bite or a drink when you have some spare time?
Joshua: I love going to the new breweries and tasting their beers. They usually have some sort of food truck there if you time it well. Modern Times Brewery, Societe Brewery, and Mother Earth are a few current faves. Blueribbon Pizza in Encinitas is probably the best Pizza in north county and they have solid beer and wine options as well. Village Vino is a great wine shop with a wine selection that satisfies both the average drinker and the cork dorks.
Mitchel: It depends on what kind of drink I am in the mood for. If I want craft beer, then I often end up at The Blind Lady Ale House or Tiger! Tiger! in North Park. They are both under the same ownership, offer amazing craft beer selections with proper beer service, excellent food, and fantastic prices. The pork belly bánh mì sandwich with a fried egg and house-made pâté at Tiger! Tiger! is ridiculously good. If I crave cocktails, one of my favorite spots is The Lion’s Share in downtown San Diego. The cocktails are always unique, interesting, balanced, and delicious; and the place has solid eats with friendly service (which can be remarkably hard to find at places with serious craft cocktail programs). For a fine dining experience with wine, you can’t go wrong with California Modern at George’s At the Cove in La Jolla. George’s is a San Diego Institution with a great wine program run by sommelier Nolan Cooper. For casual dining with wine I really enjoy Wine Vault and Bistro. Owners Chris and Mary are obsessively detail-oriented and offer prix fixe menus and winemaker dinners at a quality-to-price ratio that can’t be beat. They make up for slim profit margins with volume and a few service short cuts. The house is always packed. And if all you want is the whiskey, the whole whiskey, and nothing but the whiskey, you should probably head over to Aero Club.
Tami: The Casbah is the happiest place in (my) world: live music, small venue, Hornitos and grapefruit. All the bands pass through Casbah when they are getting started. The owner of Casbah, Tim Mays, also has the Starlite Lounge which has an excellent wine list, handmade cocktails and outstanding food served late. El Dorado is my new favorite hipster Prohibition-era cocktails bar featuring live music on the edge of downtown. Neighborhood in downtown features craft beer and whiskey. If you play your cards right you can visit Noble Experiment, the speakeasy-style cocktail lounge. Closer to my home in South Park, my favorite places to drink wine are Alchemy and Counterpoint. Whistle Stop when I have cash and feel like hanging out with the cool kids. Station Tavern with my son. Station has a play area for kids, good beer and wine, great cocktails, burgers and tater tots with just enough of a dive bar feel. Carnitas Snack Shack for the Triple Threat Sandwich is off the hook!
Rory: Sycamore Den on Adam’s Avenue has been my new haunt. It has a great atmosphere: think 1980s Midwest meets modern-day hipster. They offer an amazing selection of spirits and some of San Diego’s finest crafted cocktails. For dining Café Calabria’s pizza has really impressed me. Authentic ingredients, a hot oven, and great espresso. It is simple and awesome.
What are some of your more successful food and wine pairings this year?
Joshua: One of the most successful (and shock-driven) pairings we’ve done lately is pear tarte-tatin with Stone’s Cali-Belgique IPA (A Cali IPA brewed with Belgian yeast to added fruit and floral complexity to the beer). We also did Sextant Central Coast Zinfandel with pan-roasted Alaskan king salmon that was served with cranberry beans, guanciale and a red wine sauce. Shockingly good.
Brian: Henriques & Henriques 10-Year-Old Boal Madeira with hot & sour mushroom soup and garlic meatballs.
Lisa: At our Marine Room, I die for a glass of the Krug "Grand Cuvée," paired with Chef Bernard and Ron’s Maine lobster tail with paprika butter, aged gouda polenta, and heirloom melon.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen during Comic-Con?
Joshua: You are working crazy hours and are busy all the time, but are surrounded by Princess Leah, a 10-foot-tall headless horseman, steampunk people, every X-man you can think of and pretty much all Marvel and DC comic characters, the Master Chief from Halo, and the real Mick Foley/Mankind from the WWE. It gets interesting because nothing seems real. One of my most memorable moments was taking a cocktail order from Stan Lee: screwdriver, light on the vodka. I felt bad and just charged him for orange juice.
Tami: I used to work at a PJ’s Coffee & Tea at the foot of 5th Ave in 2002 across the street from the Convention Center and wore my Vulcan ears the whole time. The nerds loved me, and I loved them.
Brian: Ugh. I can’t believe I’m admitting to this. A few years ago I lost a bet and had to dress up like Superman and “fly” down 5th Avenue. Much liquid courage was necessary. No, there are no pictures.
Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Mitchel Price, Rory Pugh, Lisa Redwine, Brian Donegan, Tami Wong, and Joshua Orr
Great list of Somm's, I love San Diego! Let us not forget Jesse Rodriguez though, who was the opening wine director for 7 years of the Grand del Mar resort, a former French Laundry alum, and who built the 1 and currently still only Wine Spectator Grand Award wine list. Oh and a James Beard nominated wine program. I personally feel his name deserves mention and acknowledgment. Very excited for the great things to come in San Diego. It is going to blow up for sure...
used to work at croce's back when they were pioneers in the gaslamp. sd has come a long way!
hhmm.. comic con + wine = Watch the virtuous Manseng Brothers battle the dynamic duo of Master Carignan and his tannic side kick, Tannat! Who will win the regard of the infamous Rhone sisters, Marsanne and Roussanne? Haha.
Mitch Price is my hero!
Here's to hoping for a Guild Event associated with Comic Con!
It's about time!
Great reading, and so nice to see all of you!!
Hope to see you around this town soon!
Great to see SD getting some reps! Good job guys, proud to be in San Diego!