Small world. Jeff Morgan, co-founder of a winery founded on the notion of making rosé its flagship product, gets invited to San Diego by the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. A few weeks later, Lisa Redwine, the chapter's newly elected secretary, decides she's going to feature Morgan's SoloRosa rosé this summer at Molly's Restaurant, where she is GM and wine director. Not because of Morgan's visit, but because "it's a good story behind a great wine." Also because she knew the product from her days at the Grand Café in San Francisco. "It was a French restaurant with a California influence" -- a domestic take on the pink staple from Provence fit nicely.
Redwine came to San Francisco from Wisconsin by way of New York's Culinary Institute of America. "I always wanted to be a chef," she explains. "One grandfather was a butcher, and the other was a cheesemaker. And the grandmother married to the cheesemaker is an amazing cook. I didn't grow up fancy, but I grew up eating really good food. I never had Kraft macaroni and cheese until I went to college. And at special occasions, we always had wine -- German Liebfraümilch, Blue Nun. That's how I grew up." The food thing took hold, and by the time Redwine was 15, she was working in restaurants. She got a degree in hotel and restaurant management, headed off to the CIA, and then ventured west for her apprenticeship.
Eventually, she came to "the point I think every person who works in this business comes to -- I really wanted to open my own restaurant." That's when a mentor told her she needed to spend some time working the front, out there among the actual patrons. "He told me, 'You need to figure out that waiters aren't just sitting back and dodging work and that managers do more than sit in their offices.'" She took his advice and moved into management. Once out front, she noticed that there was one group who seemed to be having more fun than anyone: the sommeliers. "I was at a little place called the Cypress Club. They've had some pretty amazing talent -- Tim Geyser was there, and Lisa Minucci. I loved wine, but I never thought I could get paid to do something that was so much fun. So I started at the bottom. I had my full day as GM, then I would clean the wine cellar and help with inventory. I would write down the names of four or five wines, then go look them up."
So began her education in wine, one that served her well when she moved to the Grand Café in 2000. Owner Umberto Gibin "let me take over the wine program, and over the course of four or five years, I built it into something. I defined it -- made it California and French, with representation from different regions and at different price points. I learned about making an inventory conducive to your budget, making sure wine costs were in line -- the business end." The creative stuff came later and took off when she moved south to San Diego in 2005.
Redwine moved because of her husband (the man responsible for her industry-appropriate last name). "His family was down here, and after we had our son, we were, like, 'Okay -- San Diego or Wisconsin?' It was amazing. I'd been visiting for ten years, and the first time I came down, my husband talked about the Gaslamp Quarter. I was thinking something like Union Street in San Francisco -- cute shops, little boutique restaurants. That's not what it was. I remember getting lost and finding a Cost Plus amidst all these boarded-up buildings. Then, when we were looking to move here, my husband had an appointment downtown." Redwine took a walk, "and before I knew it, I was standing in front of that same Cost Plus. I was shocked at how it had all changed -- all the new condos, the fun little stores, the restaurants. It's nice that in a city like San Diego, there are so many places I would send people to."
Still, a "go figure" expression crosses her face when she says that by summer's end, "It's guaranteed I'll still have some of Jeff's wine. I just don't understand -- San Diego screams rosé. When it's really hot out but you want red wine, it's a great way to go." A curious situation, but one she hopes to change, one bottle at a time. "It's very cool to turn people on to something that they may have never had before. You don't necessarily get that in the Bay Area."
Lisa arrived at Molly's just a couple of months after chef Brian Sinnott, also late of San Francisco. "We worked for the same company, about three blocks away from each other. We knew all the same people." (Again, small world.) Prior to this NorCal infusion, "The menu was a little unfocused, and so was the wine list. I'm sure you've eaten at places where you're not really sure what the concept is. That's what we set out to develop. We sat down together and ate a broad representation of what his menu consisted of and opened some wines from different areas. We settled on Oregon, Washington, and California. And because Brian really focuses on artisan farms and local produce, we carried that over into the wine program" -- at least the artisanal part.
Molly's, of course, is a hotel restaurant, the sort of place where out-of-town diners might be tempted to stick to the familiar -- sort of the way Americans eat at McDonald's in France. But Redwine has been able to sell people on obscure Pinots and Washington Cab by being liberal with the tasting policy and by guaranteeing her recommendations. "I tell people, 'If you don't like it, I know I'll enjoy it later. Anything else you want, I'll bring it.' That, and having a good understanding about the wines they like, where they come from." So far, it's been a success. "I can't remember the last time I ended up drinking a bottle of wine that a customer turned away. In fact, I had these little wine cards printed, because people would say, 'Could you write down that wine I just had? It was really great.' We made 500 of them at first. I've reprinted them once now, and we're reprinting again."