Paul Karcho's campaign to buy landmark downtown wine shop the Wine Bank began eight years ago and concluded early last August. Since then, he's been remodeling and retooling, and now that the dust is beginning to settle, he's willing to chat about it.
Karcho, who still owns a wine shop back in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, recalls that the saga began while he was visiting his new in-laws in the Mount Helix--El Cajon area. Feeling restless, he asked his wife to join him on a survey of the local wine retailers. "I like seeing what other stores are doing, finding out where I'm lacking, what I can learn. So I opened up the Yellow Pages." He stopped at Vintage Wines, San Diego Wine Company, "and then the Wine Bank. I went downstairs, and I was like a kid in a candy store -- all the different labels, all the hard-to-get stuff. I thought, 'Whoa -- this would be a dream store to have.'"
Back up at the checkout, he started chatting with owner Mike Farres. "I found out that he's Lebanese, and I told him I'm Chaldean. We started talking, and I told him that I was in the business." After a while, Karcho noticed a half-bottle of '82 Mouton Rothschild on the counter.
"What do you want for that?"
"A hundred bucks."
Karcho fished out the money, bought the wine, and asked, "You have more?"
"Give me some more."
"No. That's all you get -- one. If you want more, you have to come back. Every time you come back, you can buy one."
"But I'm from out of town!"
"That gives you a reason to come back."
Karcho decided to inquire after another sort of purchase. "I said, 'Do you want to sell the store?'"
"Kid, do you know how many people I get a day asking me that question? Everybody wants to buy this store. It's not for sale."
"Okay. But if you ever decide to sell it, will you think about giving me a chance?"
And so Karcho began the wait, and to woo. Every year or so, he called Farres from Michigan so as to stay on his radar. He sent customers who decided to visit San Diego to the Wine Bank. Then, in October of 2005, Marketwatch magazine ran a profile of Farres and the Wine Bank. Karcho called to congratulate him. "He was very happy to hear from me, very excited. I said, 'I want to be just as successful as you are.' He said, 'Hopefully, you will be. Just keep doing what you're doing.' He was very sincere with me."
"Mike, if you ever want to sell, I'm your guy."
"I know. You're my guy, and I'm ready to sell. I'm ready to retire."
"I can be out there tomorrow."
"No, no, no. Wait a week. Come next Thursday."
Karcho came the next Thursday. "I got here, and Mike said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'You told me to come Thursday.' He said, 'Yeah, but I didn't think you were coming.'"
Eight trips and "a lot of time and money" later, they closed the deal. "At the closing, I asked him, 'Mike, why did you want me to own the store?' And he said, 'I want the legacy to live on.'"
Once he took possession, Karcho set about taking what he loved best about the Wine Bank -- its ability to source and sell the stuff most folks only read about -- and ramping it up. You can see it from the moment you walk in the door: Silver Oak Napa Cabernet, floor-stacked just inside the entrance, $89.99. This is a wine that has its devotees -- and there are many -- calling shop to shop, asking if they can get any. And here you have case upon case. At the bottom of the stairs, the display becomes even more astonishing: an artfully arranged tableau of wooden boxes and bottles from Italian superstar Gaja. The Sori San Lorenzo from '98 and '00; the Sperss, the Sori Tilden, even a smattering of magnums. These are wines that often never see the shelf but rather wait in some dark, cool place for collectors to ask for them by name.
"There's no back room anymore," says Karcho. "I don't believe in storage. I believe in putting everything on the floor; my philosophy has always been 'Stack it high and watch it fly.' I like the product visible: if you build it, people will come. You can walk in here with your list of Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines and find them all over the place" -- including the floor stacks. For instance: over in the Bordeaux department, there's the Château Léoville Barton, the Number Three wine on the list. Stacked up against it: Château Mouton Rothschild. Other high scorers sit on the floor throughout the store, casually sporting their 95s from Parker. It's an unusual move but also a calculated one. When I arrive, Karcho is negotiating with a rep to get all the Cristal Champange he can buy: "Three liters, one point fives, rosés. If you've got it, I'll order it." To me, he says, "It's things people would never expect to see on the floor. That's what they get boggled by." This is what the Wine Bank can do.
That ethos of the-same-only-more-so is visible upstairs as well. Before Karcho, the liquor was mostly relegated to a set of shelves behind the counter. The selections were interesting, carefully chosen, often harder to find, often expensive. Now, wood-fronted shelves line most of the upstairs wall space, with more on the way, and Karcho is midway through his effort to "do the same thing with what we've done with wine. Stuff you can't find everywhere; that's what we want to specialize in. Right now, we probably have one of the best selections of vodkas around." Tequila already fills two banks of shelves, but Karcho wants more, along with "a huge selection of Scotches and Cognacs."
The new shelving and the abolished storeroom (which will eventually be given over to rented cellar space) are just two of the physical changes Karcho wrought. Pretty much every downstairs wall that wasn't load bearing came out; what was a meandering succession of themed rooms (Champagnes, dessert wines, Italian and Spanish, large-format, etc.) is now a few wide-open spaces. It's not the sort of place through which a devotee might be tempted to wander and browse and get lost anymore. It's more orderly, more open, more user-friendly. It's not a warehouse: the ancient and massive beams overhead -- together with a low, wood-plank ceiling and blocky wooden supports -- see to that. But it is more efficient than it was, and there's more to come.
"Our goal is to be an online store," says Karcho. General manager Bryan Farres elaborates. "To move things like the Gaja, we need nationwide exposure, not just local." Farres is happy with the recent proliferation of wine shops, thinking that more venues only serve to fan the flames, but even with the downtown boom, you need a broader base to unload that much premium product. You need your shop to come up on Google searches, and you need to be able to sell product online.
What hasn't changed: most of the staff survived the transition, including Farres. Karcho professes a deep commitment to service, and there, Farres is his exemplar. "Look at that," he says, watching Farres advise one customer as he builds an impromptu gift box for another. "Just so he can please the customer. Can you get that from a big-box store? Here you have people coming in and saying, 'Bryan, what did you get in that's really cool today?'" And Farres will tell them.