Sarah Trubnick had a master’s degree in Laser Physics from UCLA and was pursuing a Ph.D when she made a dramatic career switch, enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and, in the process, falling into wine. After working in cellars in Europe, Australia and South America, she moved to San Francisco to work in restaurants, eventually opening The Barrel Room with business partner Carolyn Johnson, creating a low-key industry hangout with plenty of quirky wines available by the glass. They change the wine theme each quarter and offer their selections at retail as well. Earlier this year, she opened her second location, The Barrel Room Oakland.
On selling unusual wines
Guests are willing to try more interesting stuff because we’re not just leaving them to choose from a list. Every one of our servers is a sommelier, so you don’t have to ask to call over the sommelier.
On working around biases
One of the ways we sell merlot is that when people say they like big California cabs, we pour them a merlot. People have a bias against merlot, but the grapes are very similar, and if it’s made in a certain way, you can get a big, intense merlot. It opens their eyes a bit. They come back and say, “Do you have any other merlots I would like?” It’s kind of about tricking them, but it works. You have to get around the biases, you now?
On Portugal and Spain
Before the first week of December we were on a Spain and Portugal focus. The baga [a 2004 Quinta das Bágeiras] was pricey, at $18 a glass, and it just flew off the shelves. People were amazed that Portugal is making serious, almost Bordeaux-style wines that can age. People bought bottles and said, “I’m going to keep this in my cellar.” They had never heard of the grape, they didn’t have a lot of faith in the wines from the region, and when they tasted it and it was a rich, serious, leathery, dark wine—it appealed to people who like California cabernets, but in an earthier style.
For Spain, we did an older vintage Rioja flight. People think of Spain and Portugal as just modern Rioja or cheap Trader Joe’s fruity garnacha. I wanted to show people: this is what a properly aged Rioja should be like. It’s going to be a little more expensive, but worth it.
Also Canary Island wines, those were really fun. People would say: the Canary Islands, where are they again? And then we could launch into the really interesting vineyards, the fact that they’ve been making wine there for a very long time.
The Bordeaux flight highlights three different regions of Bordeaux. People don’t understand that the different regions of Bordeaux produce different kinds of wines. We put on a simple Graves, then a St-Emilion, and then we splurged on a Château Dufort-Vivens Margaux. It’s big, oaky, powerful wine, but without a lot of fruit, more leather and spice and earth. Guests usually do the flight and get food. On its own it wouldn’t do as well, but with food it’s amazing, especially if they’re doing steak or something. When they do that flight and that big heavy hitter comes last, they’ll drink another glass or two of that. The St-Emilion sells really well, too; the Château Côte de Baleau. It’s an amazing Right Bank Bordeaux: velvety, with really nice fruit, but still very serious.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.