Mention pinot noir and watch Victor Pugliese's eyes light up.
Then again, his eyes widen at the mention of sangiovese, chardonnay, nebbiolo, syrah, grenache, aligoté and sémillon. Victor knows wine grapes and the varietals that make great wines. His Vin Vino Wine bottle shop and tasting bar has been a fixture on California Avenue for nearly three decades.
He didn't grow up in wine country: quite the opposite, geographically and substantively. "Grew up in south Florida," the trim and energetic Pugliese said. "No wine growing up."
His wine exposure came when he was a business student at Stanford University.
"Knowledgeable friends became mentors," he said.
There were learning trips to Napa Valley at the time the California wine industry was about to explode. (According to the Wine Institute, there were about 500 bonded wineries in California in 1980; today there are more than 3,700.)
After graduation, Pugliese became an economics consultant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He loved wine, but it remained an avocation; "I had college debt to pay off," he explained. Still an avid wine lover, he located a boutique wine shop in Cambridge that sold the legendary -- and hard to find -- Stags' Leap vineyard, and learned all he could there.
Inspired, Pugliese migrated west again and began a self-directed education in Napa and Sonoma. In 1985, he opened a 500 square-foot shop on Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto. Four years later, he moved to the current location on California Avenue.
"From the beginning, I had a tasting bar to let patrons tell me what they liked," he said. "Some of those customers are still regulars. It's not a classic wine bar, more wine geek oriented. We have tastings every day and will taste everything in the shop over time."
The tasting bar is "a community of people where friends and small groups meet. It has a social aspect of its own," he said. "We have never advertised; it's strictly word of mouth."
The shop has small tables scattered about where patrons can engage in serious wine contemplation or just enjoy a glass or two with friends. Upstairs, there is space for larger groups and private functions. A wall-mounted chalkboard announces the tasting lineup.
The daily wine bar selection highlights six to ten wines from a specific viticultural region. Recently, old Volnays, Pommards (Burgundies), Southern Rhônes, Austrian rieslings, Chablis, California pinot noirs and French dessert wines were featured. The 2.5-ounce pours can be bought individually or as a wine flight. Prices vary accordingly. Buying three or more bottles qualifies for a discount.
In addition to aficionado tastings, Friday and Saturday weekend samplers typically feature less rarefied wines, with a wider variety and more earth-bound prices. It's a great way to learn about wines, wine regions, styles and growers. The staff is there to help, educate and encourage.
Besides the wine bar, Pugliese produces a monthly newsletter, available online at vinvinowine.com. The newsletter contains detailed notes on the wines featured at the tasting bar plus specials and discounts. It's one-stop shopping for oenophiles at every level of experience and sophistication.
Vin Vino is French-centric. More specifically, Pugliese stated, "This is a Burgundy shop." About half the extensive inventory is French (mostly Burgundian); Italy and California get about 15 percent each and the balance comes from other wine regions including Austria, Spain and New Zealand.
Burgundy is complicated wine territory, with many small producers. To simplify, it can be broken into five main growing areas: Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. The principal reds are made from pinot noir grapes and the whites from chardonnay. Terroir is critical in Burgundy. It is the symbiosis of soil, climate and topography plus the human element. There are quality classifications as well; the most important are Grand Cru and Premier Cru, but lesser classifications can be delightful and easier on the pocketbook.
Pugliese doesn't routinely travel the world searching for great wines. Instead, he trusts the professionals: top-notch importers who have developed personal relationships with growers and have the experience to identify and codify vintages, regions and microclimates, and to understand how barrel-tasted wines will mature.
"When I travel, it is with the best importers, and we often have lunch with a winemaker where I can get to know him and his wine-making philosophy," Pugliese said. "Unless you spend a great deal of your life tasting wine from a barrel, it is impossible to understand the nuances and subtleties. I rely on the experts."
Even with extensive travel and tasting notes, keeping up with more than 1,200 mostly tiny wineries spread over 74,000 acres in Burgundy is impossible for any single merchant, importer or wine writer. To keep abreast, Pugliese quotes talented, highly-regarded critics such as Allen Meadows at Burghound, Stephen Tanzer and Josh Raynolds of International Wine Cellar, Robert M. Parker, Antonio Galloni and others with longstanding ties to growers.
"Fads come and go -- it's often about what's fashionable," Pugliese said, and rattled off several decades of trends: Beaujolais nouveau, white zinfandel, Australian wines, oaky chardonnays, fruit first chardonnays, merlot, pinot gris -- and, currently, rosés. Vin Vino adjusts its inventory and satisfies its customers. In the end, it's always about high quality and small lot production. That is the bedrock of Victor Pugliese's philosophy. His patrons agree.
Vin Vino Wine
437 California Ave., Palo Alto
Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.