I left Normal Heights for the wilds of La Mesa back in '99. But I never stopped finding reasons to venture up and down Adams Avenue — the bookstores, the street fairs, a few restaurants and parks, and so on and so on. My wife was often with me on these little excursions, and you'd be better off asking her just how many times I talked about what I'd like to do with the stately brick building at the corner of Adams and 34th. "Oh, we could put in a bagel shop and a pizza joint and a bakery and a bookstore and [wait for it...] a wine shop..." It was easy to project my fantasies, because there wasn't much there to get in the way — the building was mostly deserted, save for Rosie O'Grady's bar, and a nasty crack ran through the brickwork on one side. The place was a mess, but oh, that brickwork, and oh, those olde-timey windows....
They waited until I left to start fixing things up. According to Michael Rammelsberg, who, with his wife Barbara, bought Rosie O'Grady's four years ago, "Around 1999 they did the masonry reinforcement. They totally redid the nine apartments upstairs — remodeled, plumbing, wiring. Everything in the building besides us was an office up until about a year ago, and they reinforced all that also." I'm not sure when the sign went up on the place — "Wilkinson Block, circa 1928" — but I'm pretty sure it wasn't there in my time. (For that matter, neither were the south-of-Adams condo conversions.)
Now, Bamboo and Beyond occupies a storefront. Now, the A La Française, late of Mission Hills, has opened its doors along Adams. Now, the Rammelsbergs have "changed the structure of Rosie's, from an older crowd to a younger, more hip crowd. We have live bands on the weekend," along with 24 beers on tap and another 70 in the bottle. Oh, and in back, with frontage along 34th, they have the Proprietor's Reserve Wine Bar, open since late last year.
"About 30 years ago," says Michael, "that room used to be a TV repair shop. Then it was a sub shop owned by the Italian couple who owned the building." After they retired, "The first owners of Rosie's took it over. Since we've owned it, it's really been a difficult room to get people into, except for maybe overflow during a street fair or St. Patrick's Day."
The solution: offer a different product, attract a different clientele. "My wife's son is a lover of wine, and very knowledgeable. He said, 'Why don't you turn it into a wine bar?' I said, 'I don't think that will work here, but it's not doing anything now, so let's go for it.' We remodeled the room — stripped the walls down to exposed brick, changed the bar to granite." And ever since they put a sign out on Adams and a lighted sign over the door, "It's been very well received. We're probably the smallest wine bar in the world, but it's very comfortable and very cozy. Everybody becomes friendly, and it really enhances the neighborhood. The beautiful part is that if you're on a date, and you want to drink wine and the other person wants a beer or a cocktail, they can buy it in front and bring it back. Or if someone up front wants a really good glass of wine...."
On the night I visited, all 15 seats were full by 8:00 p.m. Two tables were held down by the San Diego Writers' Group, unwinding after a meeting at Lestat's. Manager Gilberto Bravo poured sample tastes into stemless glasses for newcomers. "I came up with the majority of the list," he said. "I got some of the hot markets, of course — Napa, Sonoma." (I notice a cluster of wines from Harrison and Rosenblum, plus an Arrowood and a Pine Ridge. Some are available by the glass, some — like the Sea Smoke Pinot Noir — by the bottle only.) "But I like to turn people on to alternative whites and reds. Maybe they haven't had a chance to taste a white from the Old World, or a rosé. I have a Picpoul, a Verdejo from Spain. Great summer wines on a hot day. 'You can always drink Chardonnay on the bay, but let's try something else.' I have great luck with them." (Both wines are higher in acidity than many Chardonnays, and generally dry, giving a strong impression of crispness.)
Bravo met Rammelsberg through his work as a tequila rep — Rosie's carries his Caballo Moro brand. Bravo's brother Guillermo is a longtime wine rep, currently working for Wine Warehouse, and the two developed a youthful acquaintance with wine into a proper devotion. Proprietor's Reserve "just needed the right person to run it, see it as a wine bar" as well as a retail shop. "The big thing was getting a retail license. You taste it, you like it, you can take it home for retail price."
Bravo never shared Michael's skepticism. "I've been in the area since I started coming to Michael. I've been up and down Adams many times, and I've seen a big change. Condo conversions, a lot of small mom-and-pop restaurants. We knew A La Française was coming. It was just a gut thing — I thought Adams needed a change, some kind of more sophisticated small place...It's beautiful — the brick building just gives a lot of character. I've had a lot of patrons come in and say, 'This does not seem like we're on Adams Avenue. It seems like we're tucked away somewhere in San Francisco. It's great.'"
It's the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a neighborhood undergoing turnover. Says Bravo, "I know that, north of Adams, there are a lot of single-family homes, and a lot of younger professionals. They tend to drink wine, and I don't blame them. Wine is here to stay. It's not like a fad, where we'll just have this place open for five or six months. We're here to provide a service. A lot of people that do come are couples -- married or dating."
And the response has been strong. The bar is currently open Wednesday through Saturday evenings, but there have been lots of requests from locals for Sunday. "We're doing monthly tastings," said Bravo, "and we get about 25 or 30 people in here. We have appetizers, and we do five wines plus a mystery bottle. Every patron guesses the vintage, the varietal, and the region. They totally get into it." And once, with an '04 Australian Shiraz, two people actually got it right.