Hillcrest is home to San Diego’s oldest wine bar
By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Back in 2000, when the notion of opening a bar that serves only wine was considered financially risky, longtime gay couple and world travelers Reuel Olin and Bob Grinchuk decided to take the gamble after returning from a trip to Paris.
They were impressed by the city’s “unique civilization” of wine bars and the myriad varietals and artisan cheeses they served.
Months later, they purchased Waterloo Station, a dingy gay bar at 3968 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest that had run its course. They renovated the space and turned it into The Wine Lover, adding a curvy marble-top bar, pinewood shelving and cherry wood cabinets to house an inventory of mostly California wines that were alien to cocktail bars.
They soon added an adjoining patio to accommodate cigarette smokers disgruntled over California’s ban on smoking inside of bars and restaurants.
In no time, The Wine Lover became a novel departure for consumers seeking quieter and more sophisticated drinking establishments, ranking as San Diego’s second wine bar at the time and the first in Uptown. (Predating it was The Grape, which opened Downtown in the late 1990s and shuttered several years ago.)
Now under different ownership, The Wine Lover reigns as our city’s oldest wine bar. It has also outlived others that came and went throughout Hillcrest, such as Wine Steals, The Wine Encounter, Jake’s on 6th, and Crush.
Helming the operation is sommelier Serge Chable, his brother Nick, and their mother Gini. The trio purchased the business in 2011 after Olin and Grinchuk moved to Palm Springs.
Serge initially spent about nine months working for the couple as a wine tender while pursuing his level-2 sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along the way, he helped them expand their inventory and organize onsite wine tastings.
“I started reaching out to more wine reps and bringing in a bigger selection of better wines,” he said, adding that his wine knowledge originally took root from working in various front-of-the-house positions for Roy’s restaurant, Donovan’s Steak and Chop House, George’s at the Cove and the former Cavaillon.
Nick had also worked in the fine-dining industry and learned the ins and outs of selling wine to customers.
“After my first day of helping to open Eddie V’s as a server, Serge called to tell me there was an offer to buy The Wine Lover that we couldn’t refuse,” Nick said. “So I took the leap of faith and ended up working only one day at Eddie V’s.”
The two brothers and their mom began making cosmetic changes to the business, focusing mostly on the patio.
“I used to have to beg people to sit out there,” Serge said. “There were no tablecloths and most of the plants were fake.”
So in came black linens and a host of live flora growing from plant beds that run along three sides of the cozy patio, which is fronted by an equally quaint sidewalk patio. At night, colored uplights illuminate some the greenery, as the brothers send out low-volume tunes from playlists that don’t exclude jazz and classic rock.
During the Christmas season, their mom takes the honors for elegantly decorating the patio and interior, the latter of which shows off artfully placed driftwood and handmade signs highlighting the wine selection.
Under its previous ownership, The Wine Lover had a reputation for being pricey, whereby a bottle of chardonnay or zinfandel with a cheese plate might cost $50 or more. Visit now during late-night happy hour, which starts at 9 p.m., or any time after 5 p.m. on Fridays, and you can score a bottle of wine selected by the house plus a two-item cheese board with fruit, nuts, olives and bread for $35.
The Wine Lover stocks nearly 200 labels from global regions by the bottle and offers about 35 choices by the glass. The selections change frequently.
Bottles consumed on the premises or purchased to go generally cost between $25 and $40, but can climb as high as $200 for “trophy bottles” from esteemed Napa Valley producers, such as Perry Moore and Beckstoffer/Dr. Crane Vineyards.
“I look for the best wines I can get that are value-driven and buy straight from the wine makers — even for the European wines, which are half my inventory,” Serge said.
“You learn something new every day about wine,” Nick added. “My favorites since running The Wine Lover are Rhone blends, syrahs and grenaches. And I love crisp, clean European whites, too.”
The brothers admit that operating a wine bar is a labor of love.
“The margins for wine are very short,” Nick continued. “You’re not going to buy Porsches and Ferraris from doing this. But me and Serge love to teach people about a wine they might want to drink for the next million days of their lives.”
In addition to meat and cheese boards, the food menu extends to bruschetta, a spinach-cranberry salad with goat cheese, and a chicken panini made with smoked poultry from Brazen BBQ Smokehouse a couple doors down.
Other specials and events throughout the week include: buy one bottle and get a second of equal or less value for 50 percent off on Tuesdays; sample “back shelf” wines on Wednesdays, when four-pour flights of the bar’s higher-end inventory cost $17; and “hang with somm” on Thursdays as customers get to pick the brains of Serge and the winemakers and purveyors he sometimes hosts.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.