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Eureka, a wine rush!

One-ounce pours by debit card, tasting notes via audio wand, 'love tents' for sipping: Wine merchants are selling a lifestyle, and we're slurping it all up.

March 07, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

IT'S an automat for wine lovers, albeit one that requires lots of quarters. At Vinum Populi in Culver City, tastes of 48 wines are for sale from "Enomatic" vending machines. With your glass under one of the spouts, you insert a prepaid debit card, punch a button and you've served yourself at the wine bar. An ounce of 2002 Tua Rita Redigaffi: $15.24. Owner Miguel Garza hopes that that thimbleful of wine will convince you to buy a bottle of the Tuscan merlot for $351.92.

The gimmick just might work. Because in wine-thirsty Los Angeles, everything works these days. Wine bars are selling bottles. Wine shops are adding wine bars; chefs are opening wine stores. New fine wine stores are opening all over town, and established shops are expanding.

The new guys are selling more than wine -- they're selling a wine lifestyle. Plans for a downtown wine store-wine bar envisioned by "Top Chef" contestant Stephen Asprinio include museum-style audio wands that deliver recorded spiels about each individual wine that customers can access while they are sipping and shopping.

In six weeks, five Enomatic machines costing a total of $40,000 will arrive at the Wine House to outfit a new self-service tasting room in the center of the West Los Angeles store. "You have to create a social environment," says Jim Knight, whose father founded the store 29 years ago. "We're the biggest store in Southern California. We need to create foot traffic, get people into the store." The new wine drinkers aren't signing up for wine classes, Knight says. They like the idea of self-service.

A Manhattan Beach entrepreneur has launched Wine Styles, a new chain of franchised wine stores with party rooms tricked out with such flourishes as the red organza "love tent" in the chain's Pacific Palisades store. Store owner Thierry Pierre Oliva says the tent creates a supernatural vibe for the fortune tellers he hires to work during wine tastings -- a perfect accompaniment for "spiritual" wines. The bordello red velvet couches and dim lighting, however, scream unbridled hedonism.

It's not all silliness. Mark Peel, chef-owner of Campanile, plans to open a wine store-takeout restaurant/wine bar on La Brea near Melrose this summer. His niche: stocking perhaps 1,000 labels of moderately priced wine -- $10 to $25 -- to take home with the Campanile food available at the takeout counter. "It's something I've always wanted to do," Peel says. "I'm really happy with things at Campanile. So we're doing it now."

Perhaps most significantly, for the first time, a fine wine retailer based outside the region has expanded into the Los Angeles market. K&L Wine Merchants from San Francisco is opening an 8,700-square-foot store this week in Hollywood that will dwarf most of Southern California's fine wine outlets.

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We love our vino

BY any estimate, Southern California leads the country in wine consumption; it is the most populous region in a state that consumed 46 million cases of wine in 2005, more than any other state and twice as much as New York, according to statistics compiled by Impact, a beverage industry trade publication. That translates into rising wine store sales. At Liquorama in Upland, owner John Solomon says, "Our average sales have gone up 30% in the last five years. And I think that's common among retailers."

But people such as Jennifer Nugent, 38, and her husband, John, 33, weren't happy with the wine stores. When they turned their avocation into a profession and opened Colorado Wine Company in Eagle Rock two years ago, they designed a 1960s-style wine bar that reminded them of the basement rec rooms they grew up in -- modern sofas, Scandian-style wooden tables and a sleek wooden bar decorated with upholstered insets. "We found a surprising gap in the market for the kind of store where we wanted to shop, a place where no one is ever made to feel stupid," Jennifer Nugent says.

A Los Angeles Times telephone survey of 61 specialty wine stores in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties shows there has been recent, explosive growth in wine retail outlets. Of the stores queried, 14 opened in the last three years and 11 stores expanded. More than half of the stores serve wine to customers while they shop, representing twice as many in-store wine bars as existed three years ago.

The survey did not count the proliferation of Beverages & More warehouse-style stores -- 17 outlets in this region with nine more to open this year -- or wine departments in grocery stores such as Trader Joe's or retailers such as Target and Costco.

"In California, everyone can sell wine," says Steve Zanotti, co-owner of Wine Exchange in Orange. "It's the most competitive market in the country."

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