'It started with couches," says Mike Kallay, co-owner (with his wife Stephanie) of the Cask Room, a wine bar in East Village. "It started with wanting a comfortable place to sit." Kallay had injured his back. He was sitting in traffic and thinking he'd like to take Stephanie to a wine bar. But he wasn't looking forward to two hours in a chair, or worse, standing. "I just thought, 'Hey — maybe I could own a wine bar.'" A wine bar with couches. "Then I started going over things — 'Wouldn't it be cool if there were barrels on the walls?' I had the whole look and feel of the place in my mind."
Of course, it didn't all start there. The wine bug had been buzzing around Kallay for years, starting with an in-house sommelier program at a hotel (he'd been hired to do accounting for their wine sales). "I started drinking a lot of wine and keeping journals. Even then, I wanted to make sure I knew why I liked or didn't like something."
Fast-forward a decade or so. Kallay is a software manager, burned out and sensing that it's time for a dramatic shift. He's vacationing up in Santa Barbara wine country with Stephanie, enjoying "a total Sideways moment — sitting under an oak tree at Andrew Murray's winery, having a picnic and a great bottle of Syrah. I was saying, 'Why do we both work so hard in jobs we hate just to get glimpses of this? I know it's hard work owning a winery, but it's a lifestyle. Family is involved.' That's where we really started talking crazy: 'Let's buy land and have a winery.' It seemed great until we sobered up, and then it was not spoken of again. But that fired something in me." Cue the couches.
Kallay started researching, trying to figure out what it would take to run a wine bar and still keep his life in San Diego. "I was going to wine bars after work, borrowing menus, guessing at the wholesale prices." Guesswork turned into hard numbers, and after three months, he had a business plan and an idea of how the place might work.
"My wife Stephanie and I had our very first date at a wine bar — Gaffney's up in Encinitas. We modeled this place, a bit, after what they had done. Specifically, in endearing the wines to people. Wine really is a commodity; you can get good wine all over town. We need to endear ourselves and the wines to people. If they get excited about the people who are making the wines — and they get excited because we're excited — then they're going to come back, and they're going to tell people about us."
Step one toward endearing: make the space comfortable. Leather couches, chairs, and loveseats — only the occasional table. Low lighting, dark wood, dark floors, earth tones complementing the wood of the barrel halves lining the walls. No TVs, and no DJs — just jazz. This is not a downtown hotspot. "I have two fears," says Kallay. "One is that we won't be busy, and the other is that we'll be too busy. I don't want to be a bar. I want to be a hangout — an oasis away from those bars. One customer called it 'the Living Room of East Village.' We're a locals' place; I'm betting on the neighborhood. We're part of the infrastructure. I've hosted parties. I'm open until midnight on the weekends, and I'll get people coming down after they run out of wine at their dinner party."
(Besides wine, Kallay will carry one or two interesting beers, but that's it. "And I'm not interested in being a restaurant. We have food on the menu — shrimp, crab cakes, salad — but it's there to support the wine. Oh, and there's also cake, brought in from Extraordinary Desserts, and cheese from Venissimo in Mission Hills. I'll send the owner an e-mail saying, 'I've got this Lava Cap Cabernet, and it's got these qualities. I'm looking for a couple of things that will match up.' Boom, she'll put four or five cheeses together, and I can go pick them up.")
Step two: free samples. "It's an educational thing with people," says Kallay. "I'll always give a sample before I'll let somebody commit to a glass. It goes under marketing. That way, people are going to feel comfortable and that I've got their best interests at heart. They might not like the Pinot I've got on the list right now. It's not a standard Pinot. But it's indicative of a place. Everything coming out of that part of the Central Coast — from San Luis Obispo up to Santa Lucia Highlands — it all, to me, tastes like cranberry. It's got that tart, kind of earthy quality. But it's polarizing; some people don't like it. So I'll give them a sample." And if samples make folks comfortable, Kallay hopes they'll also make folks more adventurous, willing to taste new things — say, a Malbec with more structure than usual. To help keep things interesting for the regulars, he changes the roughly 15-bottle list every two weeks.
Which brings us to step three: a general devotion to the wines. Most of what gets opened on a given night gets poured that night. What doesn't sell gets spilled out. "If it doesn't have the bouquet on it, I don't want it," says Kallay. "To me, that's wine. I would be mortified to serve somebody something that's corked or turned."
Most wines have to manage the tricky combination of being from small producers — things you might not find anywhere else in town, like the Renard Rosé or the Voss Syrah — and still running between $7 and $12 a glass, with bottle prices around $30. "I end up getting a lot of family wineries — people who were growers and started making their own wines." He carried the '04 Olivet Lane Pinot for a full month. The vineyard has long supplied some of the best names in Russian River Pinot Noir, and as he wrote in his newsletter, "This might be the best bottle under $30 we've had the opportunity to taste!"
The newsletter/magazine gives Kallay an opportunity to give background on the wines he's pouring — but if people seem interested, he'll do it himself. "I know the wines, and I know the wineries, and people appreciate that. We're making people feel physically comfortable and, I think, mentally comfortable."