By CHRIS BARNETT
On New Year’s Eve, when most wine and champagne purveyors were tallying up their holiday sales receipts, Vino at 2425 California Street closed its doors forever after a 20-year run — the victim of a potential $1,000 a month rent hike, shrinking profits and a retailing strategy that no longer works in the neighborhood.
Unpretentious, with decor fashioned mostly out of wooden shipping boxes and paper tubes, and resembling a ground level wine cellar without the chill, Vino was known for its straight talk on wines, good values and its 350-bottle inventory of mostly eclectic imports.
Actually, Vino’s owner, seasoned wine retailer and wholesaler Alan Pricco, decided to pull the plug even before the property manager hit him with a $12,000 a year rent increase. “I called him and said we’re leaving,” Pricco says.
Vino’s customers are taking the news hard. “It’s a huge loss — devastating,” says Charles Bush, a longtime store patron who lives nearby. “There is no other place like it in the neighborhood where the prices and the selection are both great.”
Bush, who was buying a mix of 12 imported wines, says Vino’s focus on value is unrivaled in the area. “They always display the well-priced wines in the front of the store, but always have high-end wines that are not overpriced,” he says. “Plus, the staff never has that annoying attitude you find in some wine stores here.”
A Vino customer for 10 years, Stedman Matthew was stunned to learn the store was closing. “I come here because I know I’ll always get expert help in buying the right wine,” he says. “You don’t get that kind of information in supermarkets or high volume wine stores.”
Vino has been managed by Alan Pricco’s son, Logan, the resident wine expert known for his knowledge and candor on wine pricing. Far more than just a check-out clerk, he is the opposite of the stereotypical wine snob whose palate claims to divine not just the aromatic flavors of pear or tobacco, but the microclimate where the vines were planted.
Logan Pricco said he was not planning a blowout inventory liquidation sale before or after the closing. He is spending January cleaning up the space, reboxing wines and distributing them to three other East Bay Vino stores owned by the Pricco family, which also owns a wine wholesaling company called Grape Expectations.
Also to be missed is Vino’s chatty one-page, two-sided newsletter with its Wine for the Week offerings — seven wines for seven days at one price of $70. That pretty much summed up Vino’s marketing efforts. While most wine merchants try to sell wine by the case, the local Vino shop largely promoted often obscure individual bottles like Jordanov, a dry white wine from Macedonia for $12.
Concedes Logan Pricco: “We haven’t done the best job of marketing over the years. We’ve always relied mostly on word of mouth.”
Adds his dad: “We always say we sell people, not wine.”
There is currently no tenant waiting to move into Vino’s space. And since the lease was up, Alan Pricco got no “key money,” a ploy commercial real estate brokers have been using in recent years to allow high-rolling corporate retailers to buy out the remaining lease of area storefronts from current tenants.
In fact, Dennis Danielian, property manager of the building, says the lease for Kuraya, the Japanese antique shop next door to Vino, is up for renewal soon and he hopes they will remain. “We would be thrilled to keep them in place,” Danielian says.
But the building owner might not be opposed to one large tenant occupying the two ground floor spaces covering 3,200 square feet — as is made clear in the new For Lease sign above Vino’s front window, which offers from 950 to 3,250 square feet for lease.
“Our goal is to get tenants that are financially stable and a good fit with the neighborhood,” contends Danielian.
Ironically, after nearly 20 years, Alan Pricco says he doesn’t think Vino is a good fit for the neighborhood.
“Our three other stores — on College Avenue in Oakland, in Piedmont and on Fourth Street in Berkeley — are in high traffic areas where people do their daily shopping at the butcher shop, the cheese shop, the deli, the bakery, the green grocer,” he says. “Our vision — and it works in the East Bay — is that these daily shoppers will duck in to our store and buy a bottle or two of wine they will enjoy that night from someone who’s really knowledgeable about serious wines. Our people have 15 to 30 years of experience.”
That marketing philosophy doesn’t work in the Fillmore anymore, says Pricco, because there are no more small food shops in the neighborhood. People are buying mostly popular, fast-selling wines at Mollie Stone’s or other major grocers without the benefit of seasoned advice. Says Pricco: “In the East Bay, our landlords are foodie people.”
Alan Pricco contends he wasn’t surprised by the landlord’s proposed rent hike or the magnitude of it. “I’m a free market guy. My family owns some buildings, so I know if he has the opportunity to raise the rent, he’ll raise it,” he says. “Me? I hate tenant turnover, so I artificially keep my rents a little below market.”
Meantime, son Logan Pricco has some parting advice for wine shoppers consistent with the guidance his family’s shop has been serving up for two decades. “Be wary of restaurants charging markups of 25 to 40 percent over retail,” he says. “And price doesn’t always dictate quality.”