When Brad Harrington started the West Coast Wine Network -- a San Diego-based online wine forum that ended up becoming one of the web's premiere wine resources -- it was the act of a passionate amateur, a neophyte in love with wine and eager to discuss it. He wasn't alone in his eagerness. The site, founded in '96, took off: winemakers started visiting, and the industry soon realized the value of a virtual community of serious wine lovers interested in finding and evaluating new products.
But, says Harrington, as the years went by, "I saw people come up and find different places in the industry to work. People saying, 'I'm an accountant, and I don't really like it, and I've got a chance to do something with this winery. What do you guys think?' I saw a lot of people make the jump, and some of them are getting successful now. A couple of guys have their own wineries. I kept looking at them and thinking, 'Geez, I know so many people in the industry, and I know a fair number of buyers. How can I make my passion my job?'"
He didn't want to go down the media route ("It's a tough road"), and he lacked the capital to start a winery. A retail shop looked to be the best use of his connections and talents -- in particular, his knowledge of what's new and relatively unheralded. The WCWN was (and is) one source; frequent visits to Central Coast wine country were another. "Every time I go up to Santa Barbara or Paso Robles," he says, "I always walk away with something new."
And something new is what he wants to offer. "What I want to sell people on is the concept of discovering. Don't just sit there and rely on the same old things. Ninety percent of the joy I've gotten from having this wine obsession comes from finding new things. It's great to sit there with a $150 bottle of Napa Cabernet that everyone's been hyping for 20 years. I'm not knocking it; it's good wine. But you didn't discover anything. It's not like you had an insight that hasn't already been made by a million people. But with some of these other things, when you find that gem, you're onto something that 99.9 percent of people don't know about. I think there's a lot of value in that. It's what I like to do." It's one of the reasons wine is able to inspire obsession, or at least devotion -- the endless variations of vintage, of provenance, and of varietal.
And so, a little over three years ago, Harrington opened Varietals Wine Merchant on Rosecrans. "Varietals, to me, are what it's all about. There's so much out there that's awesome, and I think it's been fun to watch California develop these grapes. They're getting so much better at it. In the last ten years, we've gotten to watch Syrah just blossom. To me, it's definitely the number-two grape in the state. I'll put it up against Cab anytime. I've done it and watched Cab guys realize that they just got beat by a wine that cost a third of what theirs cost. I think we're in the beginning to mid-stages of seeing the same thing happen with Grenache, and after that, I think it's going to be Tempranillo." (He carries at least three California versions, in various styles -- ranging from quasi-Old World to fruitily New.)
The Tempranillos share a room with (among other things) a number of Cabs from Washington State ("I think they're the perfect cross between California and Bordeaux"), a Napa Valley Malbec (!), a domestic Tannat (!!), high-end domestic Pinot Gris, high-end Italian Sauvignon Blanc, vineyard-specific Champagnes, a fruit-forward Albarino, and a declassified Mersault for under $30. "Decades ago, the guy put six inches of topsoil on his vineyards, and he got declassified. He can't put 'Mersault' on the label, so he can't get the price. But it's everything a decent-to-good Mersault should be."
That room is one of four that make up the shop's new digs. Harrington began in a 600-square-foot space below street level and without signage. "I was trying to do this on a real budget. When you apply for licensing in the wine industry, you've got to have the lease in place." Things got tight; boxes stacked to the ceiling, reps wondering why they should bother bringing product to such an overstuffed location. Customers got frustrated trying to find the place. So, after he had worked through the licensing morass -- everything is in place now but the tasting permit -- Harrington moved upstairs to his suite of tidy white cells. "I like the space," he says. "I think it works."
The front room houses Harrington's bargain wines -- cherry-picked stuff, most of it under $15 -- plus a number of rosés. (Here again, he leans toward the domestic, which takes a bit of digging when it comes to rosé.) "I'm going to try to expand this section," he says. "I don't think I can carry just my exact niche wines." But neither is he particularly excited about carrying stuff that can be found at Costco -- the shop's too small for that. The second room holds the Cabs and Tempranillos and such, and the fourth may one day be a tasting bar. The third? "That's my real love -- all my Rhones, with my Pinots in this corner. These are all the people I know. I've got more Central Coast Pinots and Syrahs than probably anybody in town." Some of his old favorites have been lost to big distributors that don't want to bother with him, but, he says, "There are people who will be sure that I get stuff when nobody else is getting it in Southern California."
Often, his most precious gems will sell out quickly through e-mail customers, but for his first weeks in the new shop, he wanted to leave a few on the shelf. "I've got tons of Samsara," the shedista side project from Chad and Mary Melville. He's got the wines from the Melvilles' shedmates as well: Jim Knight's Jelly Roll, and the Piedrasassi from Sashi Moorman and Peter Hunken. "And I've got all the Tensleys," he says, referring to a coveted lineup of seven single-vineyard Santa Barbara Syrahs. (At least, he had them as of this writing.)
"I think my timing might be perfect," says Harrington. "I think the Central Coast is getting very popular. People are starting to understand that these are great wines. Santa Barbara is world class; the wines are as good as they are anywhere on the planet. I'll stake my reputation on it. I know a bunch of winemakers from France who have tasted them and been blown away. It's just a matter of getting everybody to realize it." By year's end, he's hoping to have a tasting license so that the wines can help make the argument for him. Until then, "I just tell people that it's awesome stuff. I get excited about the wines. And people who come in usually come back."