‘Why don’t you write a book about wine?”
You write about a subject long enough — nine years here at “Crush” — and you’re bound to hear it a few times. And every time I hear it, my answer is the same: “I would love to write a book about wine. I’d call it Riesling: On the Trail of the World’s Most Transparent Wine. ‘Transparent’ here refers to a wine’s ability to transmit the character of the place in which the grapes used to make it were grown. The slatey minerality of the Mosel. The peachy richness of the Rheingau. It’s terroir in the most fundamental sense, and nothing shows it like Riesling.” (Yes, there are more than a few Pinot Noir fans out there who would probably take issue, but in today’s book market, modesty and nuance do not generally win the day.) “Add that to the remarkable number of styles in which Riesling may be made — the manifold permutations of must weight and fermentation level — and you have the most fascinating single varietal in the wine world. And one of the least appreciated. It’s a sleeping giant.”
But there’s a rub. Given the profound importance of place in a book on vinous transparency, travel to various wine regions would be not merely a pretty selling point (giving the reader a vicarious tour), but a genuine necessity. I could start right here in San Diego with Rudi Wiest, whose Cellars International has been importing wine for 30 years and is now among the top importers of German Riesling in the country. Then I could head up to the Pacific Northwest, where one or two bold souls are doing good things with Riesling and where Kirk Wille published The Riesling Report for a few years at the turn of the millennium. Then over to New York’s Finger Lakes region, where Konstantin Frank and Hermann Wiemer make Riesling near my hometown of Cortland. But after that, the travel would start to get pricey — no book on Riesling can afford to omit Alsace, Germany, Austria, or even Australia. And what publisher wants to front an alt-weekly wine writer from San Diego covering a grape that relatively few people buy?
But it could be worse. I could be trying to sell the stuff retail, with only a sandwich-board sign on top of a curbside BMW to serve as signage. I could be Damon and Sabrina down at Truly Fine Wine on Morena. “It’s commercially zoned here, and so they don’t permit retail signage,” says Damon. “I’d love a big sign — we may approach the city about that. We’ve been lucky that once people find us that first time, they come back. But it’s been very hard, over our first year, to get people in here. The message we’re trying to get out now is, ‘If you’re coming to Costco, you’ve got to stop into this place. We’re this hidden gem in San Diego that people don’t know about.’ ”
I shouldn’t overstate things: it’s not all bad news. The wine is good, which is the important thing, and the company’s main focus is still importing and distribution. “We just got a new shipment in, and we’re getting into some new markets,” says Damon. “We’re in Las Vegas now, and we’re open in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. And I just talked to Katherine Strange at Strange Wine Co. about L.A., Orange County, and Palm Springs. That’s where 90 percent of our business is. But I’d love to get more foot traffic in, for the educational component alone. Just to get people drinking the stuff, so we can break down that stereotype about all German wine being sweet. A big focus of ours has been introducing people to the esoteric wines — the ones you’d drink if you were in Germany.” (A Spätlese Fineherb, for example — fermented just this side of bone dry.) “We have people come in and say, ‘I drank some of the best white wine of my life in Germany, and I can never find that stuff here.’ That’s what we’re trying to provide.”
The shop, meanwhile, recently underwent a bit of an overhaul. Damon realized that he couldn’t make the shop more visible, but he could make it bigger and more appealing — and he could start getting aggressive on price. “We’re doing three retail pricing tiers. There’s the regular price, which is still very competitive, and then there’s 10 percent off for a six-pack, and then 15 percent off for a case. And for items that we have extra inventory of, or that we really want to promote, we do a red-dot special that gives you an extra 10 percent off on top of that. I just want to encourage people to drink more Riesling.” If the discounting program takes off, Damon is thinking of rolling it over the company website as well — a retail draw to a site already laden with more informational goodies. “Also, we took a bunch of footage at the wineries on our last trip to Germany, and we’re going to be posting that.”
And of course, if you want people to come to you, you often have to start by going to the people. The couple recently held a tasting of Rieslings paired with exotic mushrooms (from the local mushroomers at Golden Gourmet) at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center. About 25 adventurous tasters attended: a broad mix of graying couples, middle-aged women, and eager youngsters. “When I joined the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, I got a table set up at the center as a German importer/wholesaler. One of the first people I met was [Culinary Center director] John [Alonge], and he got behind what we were doing here.” They followed that with a Riesling-paired dinner at Firefly up in Encinitas.
In other felicitous news, San Diego–based Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland discovered the shop and took an interest. And that led to a dinner with FoodBuzzSD’s Marcie Rothman. “She made a lamb stew with all kinds of Chino Farms veggies, killer stuff,” recalls Damon. “And I brought over a bunch of big, dry white wines. It can be done.” Apparently, Rothman agreed. On her blog, she wrote that “the diners were happily surprised with the duo…we dragged a couple of skeptical pals to meet Damon and Sabrina at the shop. We tasted and talked, and the skeptics became believers!” And not long after, wine writer Mark Stuart gave the shop a loving review in the La Jolla Light: “According to the Wine Market Council, consumption of [Riesling] increased 24 percent over the last year. Truly Fine Wine has championed this wine wave in San Diego by bringing these superior products to market.”
So there’s cause for hope — if not necessarily for my Riesling book, then at least for Damon and Sabrina. “Lisa Redwine just called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m doing a class at San Diego State, and we’re doing Germany on Monday. Can you come over and pour a bottle of something and talk to people for half an hour?’ Absolutely. Any opportunity we get to talk about this stuff. And it’s an interesting market — the food scene is improving, new products are coming in. People are coming in and asking really interesting questions — they’ve heard that Germany has really great wines, which is awesome.”