'I move wine around," says Mark Dubiel. "I've done everything in the wine business except make money. I ran the Big Bear market on Via de la Valle" -- one of the early outposts for serious wine in San Diego -- "for 12 years. I've done importation, restaurant consulting. Now, I'm part owner of the Del Mar Wine Company, and I have another partner -- we buy cellars together." And together with chef/wine broker (well, until recently) Sean Fisher, he is co-proprietor of Tastes: The Total Wine Experience, a new wine restaurant in Encinitas.
Dubiel met Fisher while working as the wine buyer for Harvest Ranch Markets. "Sean sold me some wine, and then he came back, and I bought five cases of Chardonnay, and then he came back again and he said, 'What is this I hear about you?'"
"'What do you mean?'
"'I hear you really know about wine.'
"'I've been doing it long enough. I should know something.'
"'If money wasn't an object, what would you drink?'
"'Simple,'" answered Dubiel -- Grand Cru white Burgundy and Grand Cru red Burgundy. "He almost kissed me."
Wine and food have that kind of significance to Fisher -- and to Dubiel. Over the years, as Dubiel continued his work and Fisher's brokerage began to grow, the two ate and drank their way around Burgundy and the rest of France. "There have been moments in our lives," recalls Dubiel, "when Sean and I and some of our friends will go to a restaurant like Arterra with three different Burgundies or something, and Carl will make something specifically for us -- three different dishes, one for each Burgundy. You taste, and you get the food and the wine just going together, and you wish that you could have the whole world be with you at that moment, to understand the feeling when it works, when it meshes."
But all too often, they had trouble getting their vision out there. Recalls Dubiel, "We would go to restaurants and show them really great stuff, and they would say, 'This is really great!' 'You want to buy it?' 'No, I can't sell French wine.' Or, 'I just changed my wine list nine months ago.' Once, we went to a guy who was buying $3 Chianti. We had one for $3.25 that was damn good -- night and day. He was getting $6.50 a glass, and he wouldn't give up the quarter on the bottle." And market concerns aside, says Fisher, "At so many places, they pick the wine list without thinking of the food and create the food without thinking about the wine. It's usually coming from two different ends -- the sommelier wants to get all the top-scoring wines, and the chef isn't very concerned." When Fisher was selling to restaurants, he says, "Very few chefs used to come and sit and taste the wines."
So when they heard the building that used to house Bistro Soleil was going vacant, Fisher and Dubiel saw their chance to open the sort of restaurant where they could "have the whole world be with you at that moment" when the wine and food mesh. It had the casual feel they needed to make serious wine approachable -- originally a steakhouse, the place was built in the shape of a Porterhouse -- and to match the unfussy character of food prepared with the wine in mind. "The plates come out looking like you're in the wine country of France -- Provence, maybe," says Fisher, who is putting his long experience as a high-end caterer to work in the kitchen. Also, it was small enough that one or both of them would be able to visit every table, explaining their notion of the Total Wine Experience.
"People ask, 'Do you have a tasting menu?'" says Fisher. "The whole thing is a tasting menu! All the plates are half- to three-quarter-size main courses. The idea is to taste around. Most people who come in have three to four items between two people; they share. You can order as you go -- I can put anything out of the kitchen in 12 minutes."
The two-page menu changes weekly -- tastes of wine on the left, tastes of food on the right, with multiple pairing recommendations for each dish. "Mark and I will sit and discuss," says Fisher. "We taste everything together. We use top-quality ingredients, but not too many ingredients" -- as he puts it, you won't have to choose between highlighting the mushroom (Pinot Noir?) or the citrus (Gewürztraminer?) in your dish. "We're trying to create things that are more simple, that blend and balance with the wine."
On the wine side, "We have about 40 wines by the glass. About 15 are boom, boom, boom." The rest, which may not turn over as quickly, are stored in what may be the largest cuvinee in town, which dominates (and nearly matches) the old oak bar. The cuvinee keeps all the wines under gas and dispenses pours through spigots. "Six, seven days, you still won't notice a difference. The air never touches the wine." Three-pour flights are available, as are exalted offerings such as a half-glass of '02 Chateau Lafite for $29. The list has a distinctly European flavor, but Dubiel is quick to note that "We have everything; we don't alienate anybody. We have a good inexpensive California Cabernet in the White Oak, and if people want something more expensive, we have the Arrowood Reserve. If you want to experiment, you can; but if you don't, that's fine, too."
Still, the two take obvious delight in selling Europe in a Cal-heavy market. Says Fisher, "People will walk in the first time and say, 'Can I have a glass of Merlot?' We'll explain to them that the St. Emilion and Pomerol regions of Bordeaux are mainly Merlot. Now, they'll walk in and say, 'What do you have in a Pomerol?'"
Racks of wines run down the center of the restaurant, where the Porterhouse's bone would be; the racks serve as the restaurant's by-the-bottle list. "Our policy is that when you buy any bottle retail, you pay $19 more to drink it in the restaurant," says Fisher. (The $19 table-service includes getting your red wine [and sometimes your white] decanted, and good-sized stemware.) "It gets to be more of a value when you start spending more on the bottles." Like, say, the older and/or reserve wines kept in the glass-front cooler along one wall -- Barolos, Burgundies, Bordeaux, and a healthy sampling of '90s California Cabs. (Dubiel still buys cellars.) Yes, you're spending $100+ on the bottle, but the $19 charge is well below standard markup for cellared wines. And on occasion, Dubiel will make a few such rarities available for tasting: "I'll take the '90, '94, and '95 Caymus Special Select, have a special flight of that."