In 1973, Chris Gluck fired up his motorcycle and headed north to Napa. "The 1970 BV Private Reserve had just been released. You couldn't get it in town, but it was $10 at the winery. I drove all the way up there and got my three bottles." If it sounds like the act of a true believer, it was; his devotion to Bacchus had begun years earlier. "I think my first wine tasting was when I was 16 years old. I actually went to a wine tasting at a wine shop on El Cajon Boulevard; it was probably the first wine shop in San Diego. I cut my teeth on a Trockenbeerenauslese" -- a German Riesling of incredible concentration. "It was $85 dollars a bottle -- back then." After that, "The interest never waned."
Eventually, he wound up a general contractor, running a design-and-build firm with his wife Mary, who is trained as an interior designer. But the interest in wine not only persisted, it bubbled up into a professional side venture. "We were in the pasta-distribution business for ten years," says Gluck. "I started developing recipes for our customers, and those turned into a couple of cookbooks. Both of them had wine pairings with all of the recipes." Cookbooks gave way to cooking classes. "I was part of the original lineup of chefs that taught at the Great News! cooking school." Again, "We would always pair the recipes with wines, and people loved it. We've had a tremendous amount of hands-on experience -- constant research and constant tasting. Which is why my right arm is stronger than my left, from lifting all those glasses."
The grind of teaching caused the classes to give way to dinners. "We thought, 'It'd be a lot more fun if we did something where we focused more on the wine and less on the cooking aspect.'" Chris and Mary had already begun developing an e-mail database of interested clients, and they took that list to a San Diego wine shop. "We started an e-mail newsletter for them, but it got to the point where they couldn't keep up with our demand. We started doing wine-and-food-pairing dinners in other restaurants. We would do them for very reasonable prices, and we were able to do that because we fine-tuned the portion control on everything. I would do the math on how many ounces were in a bottle, how many ounces in a pour. We'd cut reservations at a certain point, because eventually, if you're serving ten different wines, one more person will mean opening up ten more bottles. We had it down to a pretty good science."
They must have been doing something right, because even the dinners grew to be overwhelming. "We could only accommodate 40 to 50 people, and we'd sell out eight, nine times in a row. It was very labor-intensive -- we had to schlep the food in. It became obvious to us that we would have to get our own place." Armed with design expertise and their customer database, they started casting about. "We were taking a walk -- we live in Mission Hills -- and we found this place," up above Saffron, out at the end of India Street. "The guy was in the back kitchen. We walked up and I said, 'Hey, do you want to sell?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Okay, we'll buy it.'"
Once they bought the space that would eventually house the Wine Vault & Bistro, they set about stripping it down to the bones and building it back up into their vision of what a wine bar/restaurant could be. They re-shingled the exterior, striving to maintain the cottagey feel. They installed shade-sails and broad gutters over the patio, for an indoor-outdoor effect. Inside, "Our trademark, in terms of design, has always been: pure white. That's why everything is white." (Well, not quite everything -- the tables are wood-toned, and the floor is gray -- but you get the idea.) "Everybody that comes in here says, 'Where's the artwork?' We say, 'There's never going to be any artwork, because the wine is the artwork.'" This is true both figuratively and literally. Besides providing its own sort of aesthetic pleasure, the wine is in fact what decorates the walls. In the lower dining area, bottles for sale fill the built-in cubbies, each with its own tasting note, usually written by Chris. In the bar up front, empty trophy bottles line a high shelf. Some are famous (Bryant Family Cabernet), some are interesting (a 1979 Keenan Cabernet), and some are signed (a Trevor Jones Shiraz). (Some, of course, are all three.) And in the arch leading to the dining room, an alcove boasts a few (also empty) all-stars: '76 Petrus, '75 Latour, etc. Besides the bottles and a message board, the walls are bare, the white expanse broken only by shifts in shape and texture -- white wainscoting, white arches, white fireplace.
"It's very stark, but it's very comforting," says Chris. "People will come in here, and it's like they instantly decompress. We have a couple of customers who, as soon as they walk through the doors, say, 'I'm home.' They're so relaxed -- you can just see the stress drain away from them. We try to make this a Nirvana, an oasis, where you can get away from the real world, if only for a few hours."
However relaxing the effect, the Glucks take care not to let wine and white walls (and carefully matched food) do all the work. They want to provide personality as well as atmosphere. Says Mary, "Chris and I are here all the time -- we're very hands-on, and we know most of our customers by name. It's not uncommon to walk in and get a hug from somebody. If you come in and you're a doctor, you might get seated with another doctor. We'll put people from Pacific Beach with other people from Pacific Beach, and at the end of the evening, they're all exchanging phone numbers, walking out together. Someone will call up before a dinner and say, 'Is Mr. So-and-So coming that night? Because we want to go that night, too.'"
Next week: "This is what makes us different."
(A word of advice -- if you plan to visit, check the calendar on the website, www.winevaultbistro.com, to make sure they're open. Generally, Thursdays and Fridays are drop-in anytime, with more formal wine-pairing dinners on Saturdays.)