Bruce Davis has a reputation around the valley for knowing his stuff when it comes to wine. After one conversation with him, I understand why the wine specialist at Palm Desert’s Bristol Farms has this sterling reputation.
Davis, like a lot of great wine people, loves to tell stories. He casually connects wine history with the present without being didactic. He considers himself an educator—although he says his customers cry mercy when he gets too detailed about, for example, soil types. To him wine, is a grocery. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he says.
Davis grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has worked off and on in the grocery business since he was a teenager. He got a taste for wine thanks to the roadside tasting booths in Napa, which he passed en route to his inlaws’ cabin in Clear Lake. He’s been drinking and selling wine since the ’70s and has seen the progression of the items on store shelves from Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy and jug wine through the explosion of the varietal—chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir—to today. He sees the pendulum swinging back, both on the producer and consumer side—away from big, high-alcohol wines toward more acid-driven, low-alcohol wines made from diverse varietals. Bristol Farms’ inventory reflects this: Half of the inventory in the wine-shop-within-a-grocery-store is imported, mostly from the Old World.
To chat with Bruce Davis and taste his wine picks, I recommend one of Bristol Farms’ wine dinners, which take place on Thursdays, starting in October and going through the season. It costs just $20 for dinner and four or five wine tastes.
I’d normally bring a bottle of wine to enjoy while we talked, but since it was 10 a.m., and Davis was at work, coffee and water had to suffice—though I did buy a couple bottles, based on Bruce’s recommendations, to take home.
How did you get your start in wine?
I moved to Lake Tahoe in 1979 and started working for (grocery-store chain) Raley’s. They had a very large wine selection, and the company that provided us a lot of our high-end products sponsored me to go to Napa, where I went to Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyard and learned an incredible amount. We tasted a ton of wines—different vintages and varietals—and learned about wine-making techniques. That went on for about six years, and meanwhile, I became very much a consumer. I had a cellar with 200 bottles and experimented with aging. I then worked in real estate for many years before “retiring” to Rancho Mirage in 2000. Around that time, Jensen’s opened a La Quinta store, and I answered an ad (looking) for a wine steward. From there, I went to the Palm Desert location and worked there until 2014.
How is working at Bristol Farms?
I’ve been at Bristol Farms for two years, and I’m never leaving here. I’m not going to open my own wine shop. I’ve been offered other jobs, but I have a lot of support from the store, and the company is very aware of the symbiotic relationship between wine and food—that wine is food.
How do you select the wines at Bristol Farms?
We have a corporate director of wine and spirits and a buyer who does all the buying companywide. (Bristol Farms has 12 locations.) They’re stored in a warehouse that I buy out of. It’s large enough that I have everything I need there—it’s huge. We have thousands of items. It’s changing all the time based on vintages and buyer trends.
What is a trend that is taking hold?
One trend that is really, really hot is rosé.
Yeah! It’s interesting, because when I was at Jensen’s, the rosé selection I had there was probably only 11 bottles, and I probably sold 10 cases a year. The rosé selection I have here is closer to 50 to 60 bottles, and I sell 50 or 60 cases—maybe even more! I have promoted rosé, and the company has promoted it, too.
What is your sommelier/education strategy?
A lot of people allow themselves to get locked into varietals, and I’m constantly trying to get them out of the box. … Maybe they’re stuck on chardonnay. So the first thing I’ll say to them is, “You know, have you tried a Rhone white? Let’s find a Côtes du Rhône that’s a marsanne, roussanne, viognier blend, and (by drinking it), you can then understand the beauty of those grapes and how they blend together, and that they can make a very refreshing, interesting wine that gets you out of your chardonnay box.” The same with sauvignon blanc—if someone is stuck in their sauvignon blanc box, I’m going to point them to a verdicchio, verdejo or albariño. Any of those varietals from Italy or Spain are beautiful wines. For myself, I’m a huge fan of arneis.
Another thing I try to do is give people is information so they can make a decision. Often times, people won’t understand it if I put the information in wine terms, but they will understand if I use an analogy. I use two analogies very regularly: human beings and cars: the age/stage of a human being—for example, a teenager, or middle-aged person. And makes and models for cars: Is a wine a Smart Car, or a 7 Series BMW? They’re both cars; they both have a motor and a steering wheel, and they both get you from point A to point B, which is the reason you got in the car in the first place, but beyond that, the pleasure that is derived from being in that car is very different. It can range from ordinary to ethereal.
What’s are you drinking right now?
Scotch. (Laughs.) But if I’m drinking wine, my wine of choice is pinot noir. It’s just beautiful, and it goes with everything. I’m a big Santa Lucia Highlands fan. Of all California (American Viticultural Areas), it’s my favorite for pinot. If I was going to get put on a desert island …
Hey, that’s my next question!
… and I had to choose one varietal for the rest of my life, it would be pinot noir.
What are you loving in the store right now?
A wine that I’m really taken with is the Orin Swift Mannequin. You’ll recognize the label, because it has about 15 mannequins on it, which is all you see. It’s technically a chardonnay, because it exceeds the 75 percent rule, but it’s referenced on the label as a “white wine,” and there are four or five other varietals blended in. That, to me, is a phenomenal wine; I’m a big fan. I’m also really loving garnacha (grenache) from Spain right now.
Your favorite wine book?
The Oxford Companion to Wine. It’s a doorstop, but if one wants to learn about wine, check that out and just peruse it.
Where do you like to go out in the desert?
My wife and I like to go to Kaiser Grille, or Le Vallauris if it’s special, or Jillian’s if it’s special. Ristorante Mamma Gina. My favorite Mexican is Salsas Restaurant in Cathedral City—phenomenal.
Your favorite thing to do besides drink wine (and Scotch)?
My passion is tennis. I played this morning for two hours before I got here. My wife and I both play tennis four to five days a week at Mission Hills. My other passion is golf.
Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.