Los Angeles wasn’t always a wine town—but when Steve Wallace opened the original Wally’s Wine & Spirits in 1968, he helped usher in a new era of wine appreciation in the Southland.
Wally’s, now a group of retail and dining destinations with locations in California and Nevada, “played an essential role not only in the cultivation of L.A.’s collector culture, but in the shaping of the tastes of Hollywood’s elite,” Patrick Comiskey wrote in a lengthy history of the store.
While Wallace himself has moved on, selling the brand to new owners in 2013, the taste-making continues. The Beverly Hills flagship, a combination of bar, cafe, wine store, and gourmet grocer, stocks 3,500 wine labels and pours from a list of 120 wines by the glass. Guiding customers through it all is Phillip Dunn, Wally’s Director of Spirits, its Buyer for Burgundy, North America and Champagne, and a longtime wine pro. The International Academy of Gastronomy’s 2020 Sommelier of the Year, Dunn joined Wally’s in 2021 after spending nearly eight years as Wine & Spirits Director at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.
Here Dunn tells The New Wine Review about how Wally’s balances tradition and trends, why expensive doesn’t necessarily mean good, and what it’s like filling $30,000 orders from extremely particular clients.
- At Wally’s we’re The Establishment in a lot of ways. We have a lot of the really established brands. And in some cases, our audience wants wines that some of the small wine shops might go ‘oh, I’d never carry that.’ There are wines we sell here that, when I was wine director of Spago, I would never have put on my list. There’s a retail component to this, and we’ve got to have those famous, old-school brands and makers for all the people who want that. But the beauty of Wally’s is we have the resources to have a little bit of something for everybody.
- As far as what we sell here, just look at the ZIP code. Beverly Hills, Bel-Air. We sell some crazy stuff sometimes. I won’t drop names, but we have clients who are very big names in entertainment, in sports, business moguls. They call or they text, like, ‘I need a three-liter of Latour tonight,’ or ‘I need a case of first-growth Bordeaux.’ It might be a $30,000 sale. One day I had someone call and order 20 bags of truffle potato chips. Whatever it is, we get it wrapped up and delivered.
- We do get some celebrity clientele because they know this is a place where they can come, hang out, and not be harassed. We have big, community tables here and you can just be a random person. Anyone who comes in is going to get the best service and the best sort of hospitality we can provide.
- Glasses of wine are going to be expensive here. It’s Beverly Hills! You’re probably going to spend around $18 to $25, but hopefully you’re going to get quality and an experience that matches the price. And we try to have something at every price point that we really believe in—though that’s getting harder to do with rising prices.
- Burgundy is out of control, but I buy whatever I can. Right now, I’m trying to buy as much ‘20 as I can get my hands on—and ‘21 for white Burgundy. We sell a lot of white Burgundy and a lot of Chablis. We sell just as much white Burgundy and Chablis and we do California Chardonnay.
- Sancerre is also out of control. It’s the new Pinot Grigio. I really don’t even know if people know Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc, but they sure love saying ‘Sancerre.’ And I’m not knocking Pinot Grigio really, but there used to be this stereotype of the type of customer who would always order it, and that type of person is now ordering Sancerre. Hey, I’m glad they’re ordering it! I’m glad they’re enjoying wine! But when I get a chance I try to suggest they switch it up, maybe try something fun like a German or Austrian Pinot Gris, something that’s still crisp but a little less insipid.
- We’ll typically be pouring something like three or four Sauvignon Blancs. Obviously, you have to pour Sancerre. And we have a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on there because, well, when we tried to take it off, everybody flipped out, like ‘bring it back!’
- I do feel like Italy, in general, is really trending. I love Sicilian reds, I like Nerello Mascalese. They’re super adaptable to almost any food. But the whole Italian thing has gotten stronger, I think. We’re selling a lot of Amarone. I’ve always loved these wines and they’re getting so popular now. [Veneto producer] Quintarelli has become so popular.
- What people should drink more of are Sicilian white wines. Etna Biancos are delicious and the value is just incredible. Have them with some oysters, with branzino, have them as a patio pounder, they go everywhere.
- As a wine becomes harder to get, people want it even more—and they’ll pay even more. It really is a status thing to drink first growth Bordeaux, to drink DRC. And people are drinking it way too young—just to do it! Current-vintage DRC, just for the ‘gram.
- We recently put some Armenian wine on by the glass. Those wines do really well. Yes, there’s a lot of Armenians in Beverly Hills, but it’s more than that. We actually have two by the glass right now.
- One thing I would see a lot when I was working the floor every night would be these younger people—late 20s to early 30s—coming in and drinking older Bordeaux. They come in and they say ‘I wanna try this ‘81 Chateau Talbot’ or, like, a ‘70 or ‘74 Mouton. Those are not extraordinary vintages. Honestly, we’re talking mediocre to average vintages. But the wines still show pretty well and there’s a lot of people who don’t study vintages. They just see that old number. They like the whole ‘this wine is older than I am’ kind of thing.
- Our pricing is more aggressive, retail-wise, than some other retailers in the area. But the thing is, you can come and pick any bottle off the shelf and enjoy it here for just $50 more. So you can find yourself a $200 bottle of Bordeaux, and pay the $50, and have a great night with a bottle of wine that would probably cost $400 in a restaurant.
- We get some requests for ‘natural’ wine and I don’t ever like to say ‘I don’t have that,’ so I think we’re going to do a bit more. I’ll try some and think ‘wow, that’s refreshing and good and fun to drink,’ but I’m not 100% sold and I don’t think it’s something we’re going to do a whole lot more of here. Those wines are a lot bigger with the crowds in Silver Lake or Venice.
- There’s really great Syrah all over the world right now and I wish people would understand that. Cool-climate Syrah is so good and it drives me insane how hard it is to sell. Don’t get me wrong, we sell some Côte-Rôtie, we sell some Guigal, but there are others! There’s even some really incredible stuff in Australia that we don’t even see a lot of here. But Syrah is just such a great variety and I’m a fan of it.
- Luxury can be in the eye of the beholder. I may think that Armand Rousseau is really luxurious and special, and others might say ‘what is this?’ and not understand it. Some people want Screaming Eagle. And if a person wants Screaming Eagle then, absolutely, I’ll serve them that wine. I’m not here to tell anybody what I think they should drink. I don’t want to sell someone a wine they aren’t going to enjoy.