'There are sheep and there are shepherds," says wine broker Sean Fisher. "And I consider Bill Boyer" -- whose wine bar/wine shop/cigar store the Wine Loft has been open in the Encinitas Forum Mall since March -- "more of a shepherd. He follows Wine Spectator, Parker, and everybody else, but he's also an activist." For example: "The wines from Sineann and Owen Roe have been getting huge scores, and they're very allocated. I might get anywhere from 10, 25, maybe 40 cases of a particular wine for San Diego." Who gets it? "It's usually allocated to the people who were already carrying it" before the scores hit.
Boyer, says Fisher, "came to my tastings," when others didn't. "He had an opportunity to taste the wines and fall in love with them, and he carried them at Fumar in Del Mar" -- a shop that leaned much more heavily toward the cigar end of things. ("Cigar sales are really strong," says Boyer, "even if they don't have the publicity they had in the mid to late '90s. There's a loyal following, and it's such a similar product to wine. The growing, the regions, the care, the storing. There are just so few products that are so hands-on.")
Because he bought back then, says Fisher, "now, he has priority," along with such other early fans as Arterra, Meritage, Gaffney's, and the Wine Sellar & Brasserie. So, despite its modest size, the Wine Loft is lousy with these sought-after Pacific Northwest wines, wines that Fisher thinks combine the best of both worlds: Old World pedigree with New World fruit. Cabernets, Syrahs, Zinfandels, Gewurztraminers, blends, Pinots, the works. "Those guys are truly what I like," says Boyer. "Artisan, passionate -- it doesn't seem like it's about quantity as much as it's about good wine. It's more of a specialty thing that I can pour at the bar and get behind." (Along those lines, Boyer plans to start selling a $30 flight that will allow him to open some pricier wines, things in the $40--$70 range.)
There are plenty of the usual high-end suspects as well: Phelps Insignia, Dominus. Pinot Noir from Belles Soeurs, Beaux Freres, and Siduri. Alban Viognier. "A lot of vendors like the store," explains Boyer. "They like the demographics, and they feel it's a good market for them to be in -- so I'm lucky that way."
About those demographics: "Have you driven around the new areas up here? It's unbelievable. Thousands and thousands of new homes, pushing all the way to San Marcos. It's just an explosion of growth. And it's families; you would not believe all the strollers that come through here. On one of the first days after we opened, we had two or three strollers lined up against a wall with infants sleeping in them. The moms were at the bar, having a glass of wine. Nights, we get couples -- they've got a sitter and they're getting out. There's not too much nightlife around here, and this place has some camaraderie around the bar. And it's a pretty affluent crowd. I'm amazed at how many people walk by the door, stop in and say, 'Oh, I didn't know you guys were here.' Then they drop several hundred dollars on wine."
That kind of passerby foot traffic is hard to come by in San Diego, outside of a mall. Which is part of the reason why the Wine Loft is inside of a mall. "I don't know if anybody else is doing this -- selling wine in a real mall. I was here when they were breaking ground on the first buildings. I was able to get fair rent, because they wanted some smaller, local shops. I figured that if I didn't spend my money in rent, I'd spend it in advertising so people could find me. It's nice to just be where they're at. On the weekends, it's really crowded through here; this center is a real destination. There's not another center in North County that has really nice, higher-end stores. People would have to drive to UTC, and no one wants to deal with the traffic. That keeps them here." Boyer had considered Little Italy, with its booming condo market. "But I don't think Little Italy has quite hit the critical mass of people. And, I could never park to meet the broker."
So what is the demographic drinking? "Reds more than whites, for sure. If I like something, I tend to put it out on the bar, and it sells. I have Spanish wines that do well there. There's this one distributor with a good rep -- when he sees a small quantity of something hit the warehouse that he knows is good, he'll just ship it to me. He doesn't even call. He sent me this Juan Gil Monastrell, and I cracked it -- and it was good. It's got the big, New World fruit, but also a kind of rustic minerality on the back end -- just a really nice balance. And reasonably priced" -- $9 a glass, $19.95 a bottle. (Boyer is trying to stock "everyday" wines as well as "Saturday night" wines; one such offering bears the label, "The 3rd Bottle." The kids in marketing must have been on fire for that one.)
Pinot Noir gets front-and-center treatment on one of the two wine display cabinets that flank the register, though Boyer says that the post-Sideways buzz has begun to subside. "People don't mention it like they did when we opened the doors. They seem to go for entry-level, and that can be a delicate thing, because some entry-level Pinots are horrible. But there's still interest -- $30 seems to be a really good point with us for Pinot. I've got two or three cases of three different Loring Wine Company Pinots; I'm amazed they're still there. If people knew about them, they would be long gone."
And as Pinot cools, Cabernet -- the old standby -- beckons. "There's just a perception that you need to spend a little more money on Cabs, and people are willing to do it. My best-selling wine for the past month has been the Stuhlmuller Cabernet. It's good, and it's Alexander Valley. Like Silver Oak, it's supple and soft, but it's got a little more depth and complexity. When I first sampled it, I thought, 'Ah, I don't need another $50 Cabernet that nobody's heard of.' But at $30, it's really good. I put it out at the tasting bar, and I'm blowing through it."