I love the wine business, as do most people who work in satellite industries that complement it. Yet there is one thing about the wine world that I detest: snobbism. When I find some unwitting server directing it toward me, I won’t tolerate it. Neither should anyone else. My attitude started early in my career when I was learning to appreciate fine wine. The world of wine seemed huge and unapproachable, as it does to every novice, yet I embraced it eagerly. I’ve always believed wine is an integral player in the fine dining experience, and I was determined to understand it. Once you’re really into it, you’ll appreciate the fact that it’s a never-ending education.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
During the mid-’80s I moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy (CCA). I was a struggling student working to support myself while studying the culinary arts. One day I happened upon the Safeway-owned Liquor Barn, and walked inside to see what they offered. Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, they carried an impressive selection, albeit mostly extravagant Napa Cabernets. A sales clerk asked if I needed help, yet when I said I was looking for good quality wines at value prices, he dismissed me like some rube asking for Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I left in a huff, but it was just bad luck that I ran across that ignorant chump. He should have been as enthusiastic about helping a novice on a budget as he would at helping a wine connoisseur looking to score highly rated wines. Unfortunately, that guy scares away people who can’t take the condescending attitude. It’s a disservice to the wineries that work so hard at being consumer friendly.
That’s why I recommend that every novice visit the Avila Wine & Roasting Co., which was recently purchased by local wine expert Manny Luiz. A man who’s passionate about his work, he has 25 years of experience selling local wines. His goal is to deliver great local wines, whether they are the highly rated gems collectors seek or varieties and blends that deliver quality and value. It’s not surprising, given his extensive background, that most of our local winemakers are his longtime friends. Luiz keeps his shelves stocked with exclusive, limited-production wines such Alban, Linne Calodo, and L’Aventure, as well as the latest new brands and gems from regions outside the Central Coast.
Luiz began working in the Central Coast wine industry long before it gained international acclaim. Many wines he promoted in the early years are impossible to buy now. A SLO native, his Portuguese grandparents immigrated here and started the Sylvester Brothers Abalone Company in Avila Beach. Luiz (pronounced Louis—like San Luis Obispo) found his first job in the wine business managing the Cork & Bottle Liquor Store in SLO from 1982 to ’83. He left his hometown to attend Chico State, where he worked in a wine shop to support himself. In 1986, he returned home and found a summer job with the Wine Exchange, a Central Coast wine distributor that sold Byron, Castoro, Claiborne & Churchill, Saucelito Canyon, and Wild Horse. When that distributor later merged with the Henry Wine Group, a Bay Area-based company, Luiz decided he preferred staying connected to local wineries.
I previously thought of him as strictly on the industry side, but discovered he’s been sharing his knowledge with consumers throughout his career.
“When I resigned from Henry Wine Group to take job offers from local wineries, I entered discussions with Ken Volk of Wild Horse to become his regional sales and marketing manager,” Luiz said of the man who became his mentor. “Ken and I used to barrel taste for one to three hours at a time. We would taste 30 barrels of Pinot Noir, and on a different day only taste heirloom varietals that he’s so well known for making. This went on for weeks and months on end, year after year. The barrel tastings were so unique and all so different, it was one-of-a-kind in the business. It was an amazing learning experience working with Ken.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Volk, now of Kenneth Volk Vineyards, also taught Luiz how to connect with anyone, whether a connoisseur who knows everything about wine or a novice who knows nothing about it.
“I’m really into helping people at every level, especially those who don’t even know what to ask,” Luiz said. “I’ve showed people how to hold the glass, smell its bouquet, and how to hold it in their mouth to better understand its taste. That’s the kind of generosity I learned from Ken, and all of the people we helped became friends for life, and maybe customers.”
His relationships with vintners give him access to wines not usually found in retail shops, and he’s creating a library wine list similar to those in upscale restaurants.
“I can buy directly from small wineries that produce wines capable of earning high critical scores, but they simply don’t submit them for review because they make less than 10 barrels of those wines,” he said. “Buying direct bypasses warehouse, shipping, and distributor markups and assures that I’m getting the best quality wines at the best values.”
And he passes those discounts on to consumers. He’s planning a grand opening in early September and promises you’ll meet some of his “superstar winemaker friends,” and he’ll serve artisan foods during special wine tasting events. You can get details on his website at avilawineandroasting.com or on Facebook at Avila Wine Company.
These are among the many reasons you’ll find it worth the four-mile drive off Hwy. 101 to get to this Avila Beach wine shop. The pragmatic Luiz would never dream of being too pompous to carry popular wine styles despite his following for cult wines.
“A lot of people want White Zinfandel, so I carry it, but I try to show them other fruit-driven wines they might like, too,” Luiz finished. “I have a lot of people walk out of here completely satisfied.” ∆
Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.