Frank the Wine Guy, resident wine expert for the Gay & Lesbian Times, is "sitting at the cool blue bar, nursing a flute of champagne and talking to the skinny bartender about Merlot" when Mr. Vino arrives. On his arm are Mary Melons and Talley Ho. "Besides being full-time supermodels," writes Frank, "the two women were masters of wine, the highest degree of learning in the wine biz." Frank joins the trio for dinner, and the ensuing conversation -- to which we are made privy -- revolves around the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, with John Huston (director, actor, wine-label designer) and Opus One thrown in for good measure.
Mr. Vino is not the only regular in Frank the Wine Guy's rather improbable universe. The Wine Police live there as well. In some columns, Frank seems to be in league with the authorities. The cigar-puffing chief -- possessed of "gorgeous gams and black stiletto heels" -- sends Frank to figure out exactly how the Pinot mob is taking over up in the Russian River. (The tactic, it seems, is simple deliciousness -- the fiends!) Sometimes, the cops have Frank in their sights. The Wine Police nab Frank ("How could they have found out that I put an ice cube in my Cabernet?"), and he is interrogated by Sergeant Bacchus -- "tall, about 6'3", with spiked heels, a tiny black leather skirt, and fishnet stockings; a sexy Amazon in full police uniform." He stands up under the questioning, laying out his account of what accounts for the differences in wines, and even defending the assignation of gender in wine description -- comparing "an elegant Oregon Pinot Noir" to a ballerina and a Stag's Leap district Cabernet to a "big and powerful" boxer. A bold defense, considering the woman doing the interrogating.
And Frank the Wine Guy has a friend in Mr. Peabody, a bespectacled canine, who, as some of you may recall, owns a Wayback Machine. Frank gets to zip back to 18th-century France to find out if Dom Perignon, the anointed "inventor" of sparkling champagne, ever actually said he was "drinking stars." It turns out that he did -- he said it after guzzling Frank's thermos of chicken-and-stars soup. Naturally, fiddling with the past this way carries consequences, and when Frank returns to the present day, the good monk's name adorns a line of canned soup instead of a celebrated bottle of bubbly.
"Frank the Wine Guy doesn't really live in the real world," says Frank Marquez, who authors "Frank the Wine Guy" and seeks to bring a Ray Bradbury sensibility to wine scribbling. "It's an exaggeration of the real world. All the women are beautiful" -- and masters of wine to boot! -- and all the men are manly, except maybe when Frank dresses as Fran in an effort to get into a women-only wine tasting. (He survives, despite the agony of high heels and the horror of seeing lipstick on his own glass, and is able to report that "the tasting started like a church meeting, with little noise, and ended sounding like a saloon in an old Western movie...I overheard conversations that were mostly about good wine and beautiful sex -- these ladies aren't getting enough of either, I thought." In between, he rattles off praise-laden descriptions of obscure Italian whites like Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, so named for the tears God cried upon beholding the beauty of the landscape around Naples.)
"I just try to make it fun," says Marquez. "Everybody's gone through the same territory over and over -- 'Wines under $10,' 'Let's talk about Chianti.' I try to add elements. And of course, Frank the Wine Guy is not really me." But sometimes, he's closer to really being Marquez than others. It shows in his column on wine liars: "The salespeople think of themselves as pirates, gangsters, or something equally idiotic...They will still ship wine to you even if you don't order it, hoping that you'll keep it...They often lie about the quality of the wine, its price, and about discounts...Merchandisers are taught to pull the tags off their competitors' product, move their competitors' wine to the bottom shelf, and bury the other guys' bottles of vino behind their own." Meanwhile, in the wineries, production at a solid small producer suddenly skyrockets, and by the time the public catches on to the corresponding dip in quality, the money is in the bank. This is the work of someone who's spent time in the trenches.
Marquez has worked all over this town, and all over the business. He started as a restaurant owner in Oregon, buying wines from distributors and getting to know the local producers. After landing in San Diego, he crossed over to the distribution side -- first selling California, and then Italy. Then he joined Mike and Bryan Farres at the Wine Bank, where he worked as a buyer. That led to a gig with Vons.
"They were number one in terms of overall sales among the chains," says Marquez, "but when Safeway took over, they wanted to change everything. Basically, they eliminated the newsletter, they eliminated shipping, they eliminated the labor involved in wine. Some stores actually did tastings. Others had partnerships with restaurants. They eliminated all that, and they increased their pricing. The idea is to fill the grocery cart full of wine. People come and buy the wine because they get a discount. No one buys eight heads of lettuce, but they might buy a case of wine. They lost the opportunity. Now they're doing an about-face; these things tend to run in cycles."
Meanwhile, Marquez is helping San Diego-based Dallo Enterprises in its effort to rev up wine sales. "Independent grocers have seen their traditional base eroded, so these are going away from traditional groceries into specialty stores, with wine as a big focus. I'm trying to help create situations which have a boutique-oriented fine-wine atmosphere." He hooked up Dallo through his work at Wally's Marketplace -- which is also where he started writing "Wine Waves," a two-paragraph column that was "basically a paid advertisement."