Hollywood's Favorite Wine Expert Expanding Wally's Globally With Backing of Guess Founders

THR_Wine_Christian_Navarro_Armand_Marciano_Main - P 2014
Emily Berl

THR_Wine_Christian_Navarro_Armand_Marciano_Main - P 2014

The town’s top purveyor of Pouilly-Fume and Pinot aims to expand as longtime sommelier Christian Navarro — without whom Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson won’t take a sip — assumes ownership and prepares for his grand opening Tuesday

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At his company's first-ever Los Angeles-based wine auction, Christian Navarro is surprisingly chill. Standing in the back corner of the SLS Hotel's Albert Ballroom in a gray Prada suit punctuated with a pink shirt and navy tie, he monitors the action as guests and longtime clients trickle in for what will be a six-hour affair featuring the collection of Roy Welland. Welland, part owner of the New York City restaurant Cru, shook the wine world in June by announcing he'd be parting with his 120,000 bottles of (mostly) Burgundy -- and consigning it to Navarro, the man whom Tom Cruise, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson look to before uncorking anything.

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Navarro's face lights up when he hugs chef Jose Andres and again as he leads various VIPs to their seats (he pairs Cedars-Sinai's Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, an orthopedic surgeon, for instance, with Disney-Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter because the two are old friends). "This isn't about us, it's about them," says Navarro. "I want everyone to have a good time." And good times were had by all: With a top lot of $44,400 (12 bottles of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair La Romanee 2005), Wally's L.A. Welland auction fetched $5.6 million (on top of the $6.6 million raised at a New York Welland auction in September).

For Navarro, the successful night was just the latest chapter in his improbable, only-in-L.A. story: from homeless high school dropout to sommelier to the stars. Navarro, 47, moved to Los Angeles in his 20s to be a painter and ended up working as a salesclerk at a wine store. His natural aptitude developed on the job. Last year, he bought Wally's from its namesake, Steve Wallace, and plans to make it as widely known in the wine world as the fashion label Guess is in the style world. It helps that three of the founders of that clothing empire -- Maurice, Paul and Armand Marciano -- went in on the purchase. With the Guess cash behind him, Navarro is expanding Wally's into what Jerry Casale, winemaker, commercial director and founder of the band Devo, predicts will be "the premier wine organization in the world."

Navarro, who is modest to a fault and declines most interview requests, engages in hyperbole only when discussing his concept for the hybrid restaurant/wine shops he plans to open worldwide. They will "break the mold" and be "gastronomic nirvanas," he says.

The first Wally's Vinoteca is set to open Dec. 16 on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, replacing the former Monsieur Marcel restaurant. Others will follow in U.S. cities -- Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, New York -- and in England, France and Italy. Think gourmet dining with more than 100 wines by the glass, plus books and other accoutrements for sale. People who can't step into a Wally's Vinoteca can peruse the company's catalog, which got a glossy makeover by Paul Marciano, the award-winning creative director whose iconic Guess ads put Anna Nicole Smith, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Upton on the map.

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For now, the sole Wally's store location sits across from an auto body shop on Westwood Boulevard. At a diminutive 2,500 square feet, it is bordered by wines stacked eight shelves high, accessed by a rolling ladder. Some vintages are displayed in the wood crates they were shipped in. There are spirits and beers and decanters and openers. "As long as it looks like a mom-and-pop shop, that's great," says Michael Rotenberg, the 3 Arts partner who depends on Wally's to keep his personal cellar, which comprises thousands of bottles, stocked.

Don't let its humble address fool you. In the '70s and '80s, Wally's was instrumental in popularizing Bordeaux. It also turned directors, producers and actors on to the juice in their own backyard. Founding owner Wallace would shuttle cases from Napa and Sonoma in his station wagon. Now, Wally's finds the best stuff from Australia, Chile and other far-flung regions and does the majority of its business online. But what has set Wally's apart from L.A.'s other great wine stores is marketing savvy. Navarro amped up tastings, for instance, from quiet in-store affairs to 1,500-guest, hotel-ballroom extravaganzas.

You still can sip samples in the Westwood store. The boutique is one of four buildings on a campus of stockrooms and offices, plus a tiny cheese shop. Wally's also has a few buildings scattered around L.A. that house the personal collections of stars, royalty and politicos.

As valuable as the liquid millions in secret L.A. locations, though, is the database in Navarro's head, which one TV producer describes as "encyclopedic." Adds Wallace, who founded Wally's in 1968 as a liquor store in Mid-City before moving to the Westside, "Christian knows what everyone in town drinks." Navarro also wields the power to wrest rare bottles from a parsimonious winery (or collector). "Wine is really good for making you feel important, like you did your homework," says Wallace, who observed Hollywood's obsession with pecking order and flash when he ran a Beverly Hills valet service in the early 1960s. "It's insecurity and ego as much as it is hospitality."

One of Navarro's first Hollywood customers was Michael Ovitz. Taking a shine to the scooter-driving, pony-tailed prodigy, Ovitz offered him encouragement and a steady stream of new industry customers. "He's responsible for where I am today," Navarro says. "He has done a lot of things for a lot of people that you don't hear about that often." Stars flocked when Wally's proved trustworthy with their information.

"What I do is discover what you like to drink and we develop our own little language," says Navarro. Upselling is not a part of that conversation. Several entertainment customers say they stopped patronizing other stores when they suspected they were being pressured, or overcharged. "Wine is not supposed to be complex," says the man who understands its complexities better than almost anyone. "It's supposed to be fun and enjoyable. My job is to not give you fancy terms. It's to break it down in a way we all understand."

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"I started getting into wine in 2002, and Wally's was a big part of that," says Mark Beaven, CEO of the music marketing powerhouse Advanced Alternative Media. "Christian knows everybody, and he goes to far lengths to take care of people." Those lengths include cataloging someone's cellar for free or inviting them to chateau-hop with him on a buying trip to France. Navarro will curate a nuanced collection for a dot-commer that doesn't reek of the new money that it is. When Rotenberg asked Navarro to recommend wines for his annual Hollygrove charity dinner, Navarro did more than select the vintages; he got the stuff donated by distributors. And when Ken Ziffren, the top entertainment attorney and L.A. film czar, got married in 2002, Navarro showed up to handle the tricky task of decanting jeroboams. The fact that the wine had not been bought at Wally's was entirely moot to him.

Despite Navarro's humility, he is as much a celebrity as his clients are. He's a member of the Purple Palate, a super-secretive international wine-tasting group. He's also a regular at the BYOB dinners of media executive Garth Ancier, writer Kevin Orr, Village Roadshow COO Matthew Velkes and Matthew Lichtenberg, the business manager for Larry David and Will Ferrell. Navarro lived with Dana Delany during her China Beach years and was briefly married to Traylor Howard, an actress who played the assistant to Tony Shalhoub's character on Monk.

Wally's was a debt-free offering, and Navarro's advice on buying wine futures over the years has proved so prescient that people have wondered if he owns a crystal ball. When the Marcianos heard Wally's was for sale, they jumped, calling in lawyers and starting up paperwork in under a week. With one caveat: "We would not have bought Wally's," says Armand Marciano, now CEO of the company, "if Christian would not have stayed."

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Says Ziffren, "Christian always had a vision; that was obvious, and the new owners are more willing and anxious to fulfill it." Sparing no expense in recruiting the industry's top auction executives, Wally's launched its own auction business (it previously had partnered with a more established house) shortly after Navarro and the Marcianos took ownership.

Increasing the number of employees by 20 percent, Navarro also hired a second personal assistant, which has freed up time for a growing part of his job: guiding customers who want to make their own wine. A vineyard has become the Lear jet of this decade; among the many showbiz vintners are Lasseter, Kyle MacLachlan and Sting.

"I immediately turned to Christian for advice," says Casale, who has taught winemaking and recently launched his own label, 50 by 50. Casale was nervous driving barrel samples from Napa to Navarro's office: "I knew he wouldn't waste his time bullshitting me." But Navarro liked the wine and offered to carry it in Wally's. Even better: Wally's hosted a tasting party at which upside-down Devo hats served as spit buckets. Navarro's approval gave the not-easily-fazed Casale a Wayne's World moment. "I felt like, 'Oh, wow,' " he recalls, "I'm not worthy!"