Offbeat Destiny

Four months ago, when he was still serving as general manager and buyer for the San Diego Wine Company, Paris Driggers might not have decided to carry the Hofer Gruner Veltliner, an Austrian wine sold at $9.99 for a liter, in a fat green bottle sealed with a bottlecap. That would have been a shame; the Hofer is an interesting wine, possessed of Gewurztraminer's spicy-floral character, but bone-dry and acidic. Four months ago, he explains, "I was not working for myself, not wanting to take certain chances with somebody else's money. That made me a more conservative buyer."

But today, Driggers is a partner at Bacchus, the downtown-downstairs wine shop on G Street. Driggers says that Bacchus founder Francesco Pinzauti "used to sell me wine when I worked at the Wine Company. He knew the way I bought. I don't buy wines just to fill a niche. When you buy something, you get behind it and sell it feverishly. In any given month, you try to provide a snapshot of the very best you can find in the marketplace, and show people that there are great wines at all price points. Then, next month, it's on to the next hot item. I think there was a mutual respect there."

When Driggers paid Pinzauti a visit in his shop, "I fell in love with the feel of the place -- very relaxed. I opened up an old bottle of Brunello, noshed on some bread and cheese, and had a really fun time. He was a competitor, but I said, 'Give me a stack of business cards; let me help promote this place.' He had been trying to do the Italian-only format, which is a noble cause, but it's only 10 percent of the market. When he saw me light up on the place, I think a light went off in his head. He called around, talked to other customers that we shared, did a little background check. Then he called me up and offered me a deal."

Though he admits he was "scared to death," Driggers accepted. "I had some personal goals. By the time I turned 35, I wanted to be part of something that I owned. I wanted to control my own destiny." Still, "I wasn't sure it was going to be a hit." Though he says that not a day has gone by without someone who knew him from his last job "finding" him at Bacchus, "I didn't get as much pull as I anticipated." Some former customers from the moneyed environs of North County will look at Bacchus's website and order wines to be delivered. "They can ask, 'Paris, how do you feel about this?' 'Oh, I love it.' 'Give me six bottles.' 'No problem.' I have a reputation." But many others "want to walk into a shop, choose their own wine, and take it with them. They don't want delivery, and they want to shop where it's convenient" -- i.e., freeway close, plenty of parking, no one-way city streets. In short, they're staying at the Wine Company.

"What's really kept this thing going are the locals. I've got a large lawyer contingency. I get people who work in the restaurants. I get a lot of artists from the East Village. I get the hipsters and the beautiful people on Friday and Saturday nights," when Bacchus offers tastings paired with cheeses bought at Aniata in the Flower Hill Mall. "The owner there lived in Europe for 12 years, and when he came back, he realized we don't get the same cheese here. He got into the business so he could get the cheese he wanted," cheese from producers who drop terms like "pasture management." "I'll go up, try about twenty, and buy about seven. Then I'll go home and start playing with wines, see what works."

While we talk, Driggers pours me a splash of bargain French Pinot and offers a few translucent shards of Tomme du Savoie. "There's a word in French for 'forest floor flavor' -- when you lift up a log and get that kind of rotted, leafy, mushroomy thing going on. The rind of this cheese lends itself to that, so I leave it on but slice it thin so that it's not obtrusive. It's perfect for Pinot Noir. It's a Rhone cheese, not a traditional match, just something I stumbled on."

The most popular tastings are the ten for $10, with at least one higher-end wine tossed in to make it a deal. "They're forced to go for it," says Driggers, and that allows him to accomplish his real goal -- getting people to try (and buy) things they wouldn't otherwise: Italian Chardonnay, Lodi Viognier, even something as esoteric as Aglianico. "When I came down here, what I had in mind was bringing great inexpensive wines to downtown. But a lot of the great wines under $10 that I bought three months ago are still here. The market here is really hungry for $20--$50 Pinot, for $50--$75 Napa Cabernet. I'm responding to that, but at the same time, the ten for $10 tastings get some people who normally buy only $30 Cabernet to try the Grove Street for $8. Now it's starting to move." (People don't generally drink $30 Cab every night; Driggers is after their everyday as well as their holiday wines.) "When I get somebody to taste something off the beaten path and they love it and they buy it, that's what makes me think it can succeed."

"Off the beaten path" seems to be where Driggers prefers to be, especially now that he doesn't (yet) have the market for big-ticket wines (First-Growth Bordeaux, Cult Cabernets) that he enjoyed at the Wine Company. "I've always liked that offbeat stuff, and people who are in that world keep in touch. I'm creeping up on 13 years in the business; I've taken a lot of trips and made a lot of contacts. I went to Italy last September with an import company, and I was actually able to earmark certain barrels -- obscure stuff like Riesling from Italy's Alto Adige, made by a biodynamic-organic producer." Or two bottlings from Ramian, picked up after the owner spotted him chatting with a mutual acquaintance at a tasting in Napa and then grilled him on his wine savvy. "He was looking for a certain type. He drives the wine down in his truck because he doesn't want anybody else to take possession of his wine. He's got three people selling it retail in California, and I'm one of them."

By the time I leave, about 15 people are starting their Friday by working their way through the ten for $10 lineup. Driggers is optimistic, as every business partner must be. And he is spreading the word however he can. "I've gone out and talked to concierges, but the thing I feel has been most effective so far is eating out. I'll go to a restaurant -- say, Region -- have an appetizer and a glass of wine. I'll hear somebody talking about wine, strike up a conversation. Before I know it, I'm handing out five cards to people who are into wine. I've met them, talked wine -- and they're customers. Or I'll go to a restaurant and bring five bottles for two of us. People see us and come over -- 'What's going on here?' I'll say, 'Here, try this wine with this dish,' that kind of thing. It's been huge."

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