“When you smell and taste a wine,” Betty Dunbar tells me, a few days before the veteran winemonger opened Laplace Wine Bar & Shop, “it should grab your attention and make you feel like you are in another place.”
For Dunbar, that other place is often France, where she was wooed into a love affair with Burgundy and discovered the well-priced treasures of Languedoc and Roussillon more than 20 years ago, before any of those regions achieved the mainstream acclaim they enjoy today. But that place can also be Santa Barbara wine country, which Dunbar was exploring by the early 1980s, when she worked for the Liquor Barn in Thousand Oaks. Along the way, she sold wine for the Henry Wine Group, worked most every winemaking/growing/marketing/managing job for The Brander Vineyard, ran her own import company called Vinalia for nearly a decade, opened Wine + Beer in the S.B. Public Market, and worked for The Winehound as well.
All of those experiences and many more come together at Laplace, which Dunbar and her business partner, Dennis Peterson, opened in the Funk Zone a few weeks ago. The bar offers 24 wines by the glass, a number of beers on draft and in bottle, and a range of small foodstuffs, such as packed sardines and cheese plates. The bottle shop, meanwhile, carries about 250 wines priced from $10 to $400, with about 60 percent imports and 40 percent West Coast.
“These are all wines that scream sense of place and over-deliver,” said Dunbar, who considers the casual layout — which features light panels inlaid with wine bottles by Seth Brayer, a large corkboard by Dunbar herself, tabletop displays of Peterson’s collectible wine boxes, and lots of couches on the patio — to be a “conversational lounge setting.” She explained, “I want everyone to feel welcome here.”
Laplace’s opening came after nearly two years of remodeling and re-permitting the former Castagnola seafood facility on the corner of Santa Barbara and East Yanonali streets. It had been used as a commercial kitchen in years past yet retained the original 1975 permits for a fish processing plant. “It caught up to us,” said Dunbar. “We really wanted to make sure all of our cards were on the table.” That took time, brand-new plumbing, and a lot of frustrating trips to City Hall.
Dunbar first met Peterson at a millennium dinner almost 18 years ago. A former U.S. Marine, like Dunbar’s father, Peterson had found financial success in the self-storage business and learned to love wine through Bob Wesley, who sold wine at Lazy Acres in the 1990s before starting The Winehound and, most recently, Savoy Wines. Peterson, who is now 75, finally retired a year ago and was happy to support Dunbar’s dream. But other than financial support and emotional encouragement, Peterson explained, “I don’t have an active presence here now nor do I plan to be.”
Dunbar’s dream goes all the way back to a mid-1990s visit to France, which she won for selling tons of Champagne that year. “This feels like home,” she thought, and recalled a particularly meaningful connection to a passionate maker of biodynamic wines. “That’s it,” Dunbar remembered concluding. “I’m gonna get rid of my microwave; I’m gonna slow down; I’m gonna enjoy the moment. That brings us to today.”
There were plenty of highs and lows along the way. Dunbar started Vinalia in 2000 and found a great tour guide and mentor in Paul Wasserman, son of legendary importer Becky Wasserman. “He was my teacher, and he introduced me to Burgundy,” she explained, listing off a retinue of prominent people she met. “I didn’t even realize at that time, but they were the superstars of Burgundy. That started my love affair with Burgundy, and it was also the demise of my business.”
That’s because she invested heavily in Burgundy just before the Great Recession, the wrong time to be sitting on a lot of expensive wine. “I closed my doors pretty clean,” said Dunbar. “I paid my debts, but I lost my house.” This time around, Dunbar found investment help in Peterson before venturing out on her own again.
As to the name, Laplace, Dunbar settled on it after six months of searching. It’s an ode to the French scholar, Pierre-Simon Laplace, who developed a theory on tides, among other advancements in math and science. It’s pronounced “la-ploss,” but Dunbar realizes “some people are gonna say ‘la-place’ and that’s okay.” In the rear of the bar hangs a poster of Laplace, with one of his most famous axioms from 1827: “What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.”
Dunbar does know that, in addition to special tasting events like the upcoming one on sparkling wines, she’ll be offering flights of sherry, madeira, and other less common beverages, all to encourage “palate exploration.” Said Dunbar, “I want to push that every day here.”
Laplace Wine Bar and Shop (205 Santa Barbara St.; laplacewinebar.com; 880-WINE ) is hosting a tasting of more than 20 sparkling wines on Thursday, February 8, at 6-9 p.m. for $60.