Soft Sell

'Thursday, October 19, is lobster night," read the sign in the entryway of the La Jolla Country Club. "First course: lobster and butternut squash bisque, delicate puff pastry, crème fraîche. Second course: vanilla bean--poached spiny lobster, truffle mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, citrus beurre blanc..."

People don't usually join a country club, even a country club in La Jolla, for the food and wine. They join for the golf, for the bridge, for the atmosphere and the social life. The food and wine are part of the deal, but they're not why you renew your membership. (And your membership doesn't cover the lobster night -- an extra $38 per person.) A glass of house Chardonnay, a bottle of red with your steak...good enough. You want sublime? Check out the view of the Pacific from the club's dining rooms.

But a few years back, general manager Andy Gorton decided to attempt a shift in the membership's attitude. To that end, he hired Paul Krikorian to be the club's sommelier. "The person before me had kind of gotten the ball rolling," says Krikorian, who signed on in 2003. "But he was the food and beverage director; his time was divided." When he left, "The GM said, 'We don't want to go backwards. We need to hire a wine person.' They made a very conscious decision that wine was going to be part of what we do here." And they decided that Krikorian was the man for the job.

A brief history of the sommelier: As his high school years drew to a close, Paul Krikorian was headed for the major leagues -- at least, in his own estimation. His mother -- "Mothers know you very well," he says -- said, "'Well, have you ever thought about cooking?' I always had this love for food, always loved the taste of things." When baseball failed to show interest, Krikorian started commuting from Worchester, Massachusetts, to the recently opened Johnson & Wales Cooking School in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating, he bounced around with friends -- Hawaii, Florida, Vegas, cruise ships around New England -- then arrived in San Diego and promptly met the woman who would become his wife.

A different woman, Cindy Black, took him on as a sous chef, and when she went corporate, she brought him with her. He started out as executive chef for the Boathouse Grill downtown, then bounced from here to there until he and his wife "started to think about having kids. The chef thing is a young man's game. I promised my wife -- who was tired of going to weddings and Thanksgivings and New Year's Eves alone -- that I would try to find something in the industry more suited to family life."

Fortunately, corporate liked him, and they offered him the position of wine buyer for Chicago and San Diego -- some 200 restaurants in all. "They said, 'We know you've done wine dinners, and you love wine, and you have a food background.' I think, before Costco came in, we were the biggest wine buyer in San Diego. We were buying on a massive scale -- but good wine. An entire trailer full of Napa Ridge wines. Beringer Wines, Chateau Souverain, Meridian. It could be 25 cases of Cardinale, or Opus" -- the hot ticket among dot-commers. "Someone before me had started the connections." And when you start buying by the trailer, you make a bunch of new friends in the vendor business. And if you stay friends, you start to hear things. "Wine vendors will tell you what's up." After 14 years in corporate, Krikorian jumped to La Costa, there to serve as food and wine purchasing director -- with an emphasis on wine. Two years later, those same vendors -- a trio from Young's Market -- helped get him an interview at the country club.

He presented a program, talked up his philosophies, and detailed his experience -- the highs and the lows. He got the job. Then he found out what was involved. "It was an opportunity to get carte blanche, put together a wine program, no questions asked." But when the time came to actually sell product, "People were really wary at first. You think you're going to come into a place with 700 very wealthy members, so money is no object. But that's not how it works here. People here are very smart. I had to be careful -- the new guy coming in. The last thing you want them to think you're saying is, 'I'm here to take your money and sell you something you don't want.' So we started very gradually, bringing in a few new wines." Step one to building the wine program was building trust.

"I think, before I got here, there was a kind of underground wine clientele. Because nothing great was offered, no one really talked about it or asked for anything." People drank wine -- Chardonnays from Goose Cross and Toad Hollow were popular, as was the house label -- but they didn't drink wine the way they would have down on Prospect. It wasn't that they weren't wine lovers or weren't willing to spend. Just the opposite: "The people who spend the most are the most conscious of value. They go online. They compare prices. They know what the shops are charging. They know the good vintages. They're voracious readers of wine publications. Some people like ratings; people will sit there with Parker in their Palm at the table." The problem was they were used to their old standbys at the country club, and the new, pricier wines raised an eyebrow.

So Krikorian set about winning trust. "I just told everyone, 'I want this to be the one place where you can come and not feel like you're getting taken advantage of." He presented the club as their sanctuary and himself as their advocate. And he started putting wine in glasses. "I run a higher wine cost than most sommeliers -- or most establishments -- because I walk around with bottles of wine all night and taste people constantly. We go through more hand-polished wine glasses than probably anywhere else in California. I have glasses everywhere -- on side tables. I'm always offering people a chance to taste. You run a little higher percentage, but you get people to try those wines. And then they start ordering. Maybe instead of buying a cocktail, they get that glass of wine."

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