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With Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

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Having lunch with Gavin Newsom yesterday put me in a nostalgic mood. Actually, it doesn’t take a lot these days [daze?] for me to take a little trip down memory lane, because I have a lot of memories in this wine business, and most of them are good ones.

Gavin is of course the Lieutenant Governor of California whose future may hold far more glorious office. It was about 21 years ago that a very young Gavin, with various partners including the billionaire Gordon Getty, decided to open a wine shop in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco.

At yesterday’s lunch, I reconnected with Pat Kelley, a wonderful woman I met back in the day but haven’t seen for many years. She’d been a partner in the Balboa Café (since acquired by Gavin’s PlumpJack Group), who reminded me how controversial the decision was in 1992 to open a new wine store just up the block. Wine shops were not opening then in San Francisco. The town was dominated by a handful of old stalwarts (Draper & Esquin, Hennesey’s, The Jug Shop, Connoisseur’s). And certainly no one was opening a wine shop in Cow Hollow, which then was known as The Bermuda Triangle: With its pick-up fern bars, even post-AIDS, there was still a Tales of the City vibe:, the saying was that singles would go there at night and never be seen again.

And yet Gavin, through sheer hard force, made it happen; and that original PlumpJack wine store proved to be the seed for a range of businesses that now includes resorts, restaurants, night clubs and wine shops, not to mention of course his political achievements, which include two terms as San Francisco’s Mayor.

In 1992, Gavin had asked me to be a part of a small group that included his Dad, Judge Newsom (and it was wonderful to see him at lunch, looking dapper). The idea was for us to gather once a week, at night, and go through a bunch of wines that distributors or vintners had dropped off for possible inclusion. This was months before the shop opened; Gavin wanted to be able to tell his customers that each and every bottle of wine on the shelves had been personally selected by him and a cadre of experts.

So the day came when the store opened. I wasn’t there, but, returning from some event at Fort Mason a few days later, I stopped by on Fillmore Street to see how things went. Gavin was working the register. The conversation went something like this:

S: So how’d it go?

G: [frowning] This guy comes in and says he wants to buy a mixed case of wine. He doesn’t care which ones–we can pick them ourselves. There’s just one requirement.

S: And what was that?

G: [face darkening] He said that every bottle had to have at least a Parker score of 90.

S: [!!!] What did you do?

I won’t say what Gavin said next, except that Gavin is of Irish extraction, so use your imagination.

I was raised to have respect for our elected officials, so it’s hard for me to call our Lieutenant Governor “Gavin,” even though his employees do and I’ve known him way longer than they have. His proper title is “Governor” [notwithstanding Jerry Brown, whom I met way back in the day, and was my Mayor here in Oakland, and the only successful one we’ve had in the last 20 years]. I admire Gavin’s forward thinking, so visionary, entrepreneurial and daring: to think he put PlumpJack into screwtops so many years ago, and is a champion of LEEDS-thinking, not to mention so many fabulous politics in other spheres. He has a taste for the niche, not the safe that advances us nowhere, but intelligent innovations that actually progress human life and its enjoyment.

PlumpJack’s most recent acquisition, Odette Estate, was carved out of Steltzner’s Stags Leap District vineyard; it is a new brand that won’t appear on the market for a while. I will be reporting more on Odette and Gov. Newsom in a future Wine Enthusiast article, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. I will say that it’s refreshing to see new entrants into Napa Valley who understand how to make balanced wine (not just a consultant-fueled fruit bomb) and have the means, understanding and dedication and–let there be no mistake–taste to make that happen. But I do wish Gov. Newsom would heed my advice and try his hand at Far Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. He admits to a partiality for Burgundy; I’ve tried to convince him for several years to try his hand at Pinot. So far, he’s not listening. But I think a successful politician, such as he is, always has his ear to the ground.

  1. Barnaby Hughes says:

    Did you know that this entire blog post has been republished here?

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