My friend Kenny visited Australia recently, and he tells me that the really good Australian wine -- with the exception of luxe stuff like Penfolds Grange -- never leaves the continent. Before Julian Velovan defected from Romania in the '70s, he had a similar experience -- only there, the really good Romanian wines never even hit the Romanian market. "They all went to the Communist officials," he says.
Defection took him from Turkey to Rome to New York to San Diego. In 1982, he began working as the maître d' for the Fountainbleu Room at the Westgate Hotel downtown. "There was no Horton Plaza, there was no Gaslamp. The Fountainbleu was one of the top restaurants in town. All my waiters were in tails and white gloves." He began to learn about wine. When, in 1987, he took a job at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, working with master sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji, he learned a great deal more. "We used to go to my house with a bunch of waiters -- after their shifts, in the middle of the night -- and do blind tastings." And then Velovan headed to Vegas to open Fiore, a restaurant in the Rio Hotel, which he says quickly became the top new restaurant in Las Vegas. There, he worked with master sommelier Steven Geddes, who went on to create the 5000-bottle list and Wine Tower at Mandalay Bay. "The Rio had a history of sending people to New York, to the big auction houses, and buying millions of dollars' worth of wine."
By 1999 Velovan had come back to San Diego and was running the floor at the U.S. Grant. "I saw an ad in the paper for the Wine Lover," the Hillcrest wine bar that had recently replaced the less upscale Rainbow Room. "It was a little extra money for me, two shifts a week. Then, I kind of fell in love with the concept. I don't have a sommelier's schooling, but I have a more precious background: working with people, knowing how to figure out what they want. It's not like a restaurant, where the wine might just be sauce for the food. Here, the glass they are choosing really makes their evening." Over the next year and a half, the other four employees either left or were let go, and Velovan eventually took over running the place.
The Wine Lover was easy to love. Because relatively few customers could fit into the small space, and because there were only two employees, tops, on the premises, the bar chose to make the prices high and the wines fine. "If you have lower prices, you maybe get a more massive amount of people -- like Wine Steals, maybe. But then you need more employees." Two servers and a premium list kept things intimate, luxurious, and profitable. Velovan was sometimes frustrated at the owners' concentration on California, but he made the place hum for three years.
The September 11 attacks damaged business, as it did throughout the wine and food industry. What was perhaps a little more unusual was that the Wine Lover was slow to recover -- in part, says Velovan, because of the owners' policies. "They were very nice people -- classy, elegant people. My only problem was getting the funding to buy wine. They constantly cut my budget." Wine in inventory "was money out of their account, money that they needed for other businesses. The Wine Lover was not their main business."
His ticket out came when "some very dear customers of mine looked at the place and liked what they saw. They were high-end wine drinkers. They liked the concept, and they liked me personally. They said, 'Let's open up something with a larger magnitude. '" That was the starting point for the Wine Encounter, the shop where Velovan now works as manager. Looking at the temperature-controlled wine cellar, with its candy-store presentation of bottles tilted up toward the windows, it's clear that Velovan got his inventory. Looking at the list, it's clear that he got his magnitude and international range. "Right now, at 160 wines by the glass, I probably have a hundred more than I ever had at the Wine Lover." Possibly more than anywhere else in San Diego.
The Wine Encounter is part of the same University Avenue strip mall that houses Uncle Biff's California Cookies -- barely a block away from the wine bar/cocktail lounge Crush, two and a half blocks from the Wine Lover, and not much farther from Wine Steals. Plus, Amarin Thai restaurant on Richmond now features a next-door wine bar. All five serve wines by the glass, all but Crush sell wines retail. "We toyed with downtown, La Jolla, Little Italy, and Del Mar," says Velovan. "I decided to wait until something opened up in Hillcrest for several reasons. One, Hillcrest is emerging as a very fine area for dining. Two, it's easier to park here. There are 80 parking spaces in front, and at night we are virtually the only ones open until one in the morning. What I discovered at the Wine Lover is that people will not hesitate to come in and spend 10 or 20 dollars for a glass of wine, but to put a car in a parking structure for three or four dollars bothers them. People do not want to pay for certain things. Three, when I worked at the Wine Lover, I developed a very good relationship with the gay community. They call me the gayest straight guy in Hillcrest. Every month, we have a gay club that meets here -- the Back Room Wine Club. They're all high-end people with a passion for wine who just happen to be gay."
Generalizing for a moment: The Wine Lover has the high-end wines and the fancy crystal glasses. Wine Steals has the great bargain wines. Crush has the hip decor and the cocktails. Amarin has the restaurant and the exotic vibe. "What we try to do is capture a little bit of the market from everywhere," says Velovan. Our house wines are $4 a glass, which is less than I spend going to Red Lobster or Olive Garden. It's five ounces, and it's in a crystal glass. Or, people can spend $100 for a glass of Chateau d'Yquem." The range in price is matched by the range in geography. All the usual suspects make appearances, but so do wines from Lebanon, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Greece, and Velovan's Romania. Nine bucks will get you a glass of Boutari Moschofilero, still characteristically Greek but not brash about it. The cheese list is similarly far-flung -- Argentina to Cyprus to Finland to Ireland to Spain to Switzerland, $5 a slice. Your $5 will also procure an appetizer such as smoked duck breast, pâté, salamis, olives, or smoked salmon. Cold suppers run $9.75, and desserts are, again, $5.
For a clubby, in-crowd feel, one wall is lined with single-case lockers -- cherry wood with wire mesh windows, so that the treasures within are visible. The lockers aren't designed for long-term storage; they're here as a perk to the bar's best customers. Nameplates adorn the doors: the Godfather, Los Amigos, the Nice Lady, Kiki. Only a few remain empty. "They can say to their friends, 'Come see my locker; my name is on the door,'" explains Velovan. "Already there is a kind of Cheers atmosphere."