Walk into The Liquor and Wine Grotto and you’ll find that, nowadays, it doesn’t quite live up to its name the way it used to. That’s because, after buying the 33-year-old shop, Jason Herrick and Brian Brunello have revamped the place. In fact, as of the celebration of their one-year anniversary of ownership on August 3, the Santa Barbara natives and old high school buddies can be said to have created a great new spot for wine devotees and recreational drinkers alike.
Within the past year, Brunello and Herrick have brought prices down, expanded their hours, organized the library wines, opened up previously blocked windows, and updated the shop’s dated look. They’ve made it a much more customer-oriented business. They do deliveries and custom-orders. And while they have kept the store’s reputation of carrying high-quality wines and spirits, they’ve obliterated fine wine’s often inevitable snob factor almost entirely.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Brunello admitted of the prestige. “Having high quality wines, some people assume you have high prices.”
At this, Brunello proudly displays another new addition—the shop’s “Tuesday Night Wine Wall”—an entire section devoted to superior wines under $20. “We want people to feel like they can come into the store and always have an everyday go-to wine,” he added. “And if they ever want a special bottle, we have that, too.” They also feature stylish, rare liquors, like Chartreuse and absinthe, and have built a beer wall to which they hope to add increasingly more local brews.
Perhaps the biggest change of all, though, is their new wine bar, which serves wines by the glass—an amenity made possible by a tasting permit and the Santa Barbara-made Winekeeper, a device that allows one to store open bottles for about two weeks. Having wine, liquor, and tasting licenses not only sets the Grotto apart from other local shops, but it allows Brunello to declare, “People shouldn’t be obligated to buy a bottle if they haven’t tasted it.”
The Wine Grotto holds free weekly tastings on Thursdays from 4:30-7:30 p.m., often featuring local winemakers. These new activities and services bring the two owners even closer to a community they already felt such an affinity for. In fact, Herrick has over 20 years experience in local wine store management. Brunello, meanwhile, grew up with an Italian father who made award-winning wine in the family’s garage with two 500-gallon milk tanks, storing and aging it in two cellars he dug for himself out of a hillside in their yard. His dad was “making wine before winemaking was cool in Santa Barbara,” quipped Brunello.
The community has certainly noticed the Grotto’s neighborhood-shop ambiance. The two owners’ wine-indulged pasts have allowed them to build strong relationships with local winemakers and distributors, which has hoisted the shop’s verve. With a miniscule advertising budget, The Liquor and Wine Grotto’s success shines extraordinarily amid today’s bleak market. “What we’re seeing is that people know quality, they know service, and they know prices—and when they see them, they’ll come back,” Brunello said, “It’s a story that, in this economy, you don’t hear a lot about.”