By Brett Stephens
Despite his quiet, reserved exterior, Richard Brower is every bit the knowledgeable expert on the pleasures of the grape. And he’s not afraid to share anything and everything he knows on the subject.
His business card at the Venice Wine & Coffee Company may read “Wine Manager,” but Richard, as he is known to everyone on Nokomis Avenue, is the Pope of the Grape and every part the Sommelier of Downtown Venice.
Pronounced “suh-mel-yay,” it’s a French word that evolved into wine steward and Richard qualifies in every respect, tending to the over 2,500 varieties currently offered at Venice Wine & Coffee. Richard is completely at one with the Wine Company’s emphasis on small, hard-to-find California boutique wines.
While Johnny Carson had his own segment of “Stump the Band,” Richard plays a version of “Stump the Sommelier” with a track record that is far more impressive. We happen into Venice Wine & Coffee on election night on our way to any and all of the victory parties planned throughout the downtown area. Tonight, under new ownership, Richard announces to us that it’s “Share a Bottle Night.” I went to kindergarten. I love to share. We belly up to the bar.
“How about a Louis Martini Cabernet?” I ask, while scanning the wall for a bottle. To my disappointment, Richard informs us that they’re “renegotiating a better case price,” which, to my dismay, is long speak for out of stock.
“So what’s a good Louis Martini Cab look-alike?” I wondered, hoping to stump the band.
“Route Cellar,” is the instant reply, “Over there on that wall, third from the right.” I couldn’t have Googled it any faster. We sit and share as company joins us. Richard’s call is spot on.
Later, I ask Richard what got him in such a fascinating line of work. “Back in the ’80s, I used to drink white Zinfandel,” he said. The mere thought rekindles a memory of the t-shirt reading “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink White Zinfandel” from the movie “Sideways.” While managing the liquor department at an area grocery chain, Richard befriended a good customer who frequently bought fine wines and held them for aging. “He gave me a bottle of ’74 Chardonnay that opened my eyes about wine,” he lights up. “It was fantastic.”
Today, that passion keeps him at Venice Wine & Coffee six days a week. And if you’ve ever been around Nokomis Avenue during Sertoma’s annual WineFeast, or any number of the tastings held there, you’ve experienced Richard’s magical talents.
For nearly as long as Sertoma has held its Wine Feast fundraiser, Richard has been instrumental in pairing wines with the local restaurateurs in this culinary shootout that blocks off Nokomis Avenue downtown, drawing a crowd of over a thousand. In fact, pairing food with wines is his own passion, as well as leading tours of people to wineries in the California region and inviting guest vintners to the store. “You name a food and I can pair a wine with it,” he insists. So I test him with my barbecue party plans. “You know, it will be the usual barbecue fare, chicken, ribs and sides,” I add.
With less than a nanosecond of thought, Richard rattles off, “Shirazes, a Meritage, even a Malbec. Perfect for barbecue.” And he’s happy to help me start shopping.
On this particular week in mid-November, Richard is preparing to entertain boutique estate owner B. R. Cohn in both private and public tastings at Venice Wine & Coffee, including pairings with local cuisines. Past guests included Anthony Bell of Bell Wine Cellars in Yountville.
Early each October, Richard leads a small group to Cohn’s annual fundraiser concert at his Sonoma vineyard, complete with V.I.P tent accommodations. B. R. Cohn, as some know, was manager of the Doobie Brothers, who reunite each year to perform in an idyllic wine country setting.
Because of many close, first-name-basis relationships throughout Napa and Sonoma, Richard is welcome company at select eateries throughout Venice. Richard’s name and the list of his wine suggestions crop up at known establishments, including Café Venice, where some featured tasting and food pairings allowed the vintner to romance the character of the wines served. I personally enjoyed one such event and it was the next best thing to being there.
While wine is the company’s middle name, Venice Wine & Coffee is home to many things gourmet, including foods, coffees and a gift basket department that also allows Richard to help you reach out and impress someone.