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Jim Tobin
Jim Tobin owns and operates North County Wine Company with his brother Bill, offering over 600 wines at discount prices. Courtesy photo
Columns Food & Wine Taste of Wine

Taste of Wine: Q & A with Jim Tobin of North County Wine Co.

Indoor dining and drinking have been halted at nearly 90,000 restaurants and wine bars across the country according to a trade association.

After a tough struggle since March to comply with pandemic rules to control the spread of COVID-19, state governments allowed eating and drinking indoors with well-known protocol rules in place.

However, the relaxed standards produced big spikes in the disease, while permanent closures in eating and drinking places in California soared to reportedly over 2,250 by mid-July. Rules suddenly again got tougher with outdoor eating only, subject to occasional government review.

America’s small wine/food companies are in survival mode, with hard disciplines like strategy, inventory, management, financing and leadership,

dependent on these building blocks being in place before this crisis hit.

My hope is that wine bars and restaurants in the area be stable, following health rules and keeping their customers coming in with dynamic product presentations from high owner supervision.  North County Wine Company fits this profile with a brother team of Jim and Bill Tobin in charge since their purchase of the San Marcos wine bar in 2010.

Taste of Wine & Food (TOW&F) visited with Jim Tobin to learn what makes his wine shop so successful despite the pandemic.

TOW&F:  Did you and Bill have an early interest in wines before you bought the business back in 2010?

Jim: It was Bill that really got into wine a number of years before, discovering the old Blue Nun ceramic sweet wine.  After a few laughs, he then found Napa Valley and got hooked on Cabernet, which when I came of age, shared some of his treasures and soaked up all the information I could about wine.

Fast forward to the ’90s and the two of us parlayed our knowledge and passion for wine to become the wine buyers and managers of the wine department of Long’s Drug store chain for groups of their stores in Southern California.  When Long’s was bought out by CVS Stores, we took it as a sign that we should make our move and purchase North County Wine Company, in July of 2010.

TOW&F: What changes did you see and implement right away to boost business?

Jim: Bill and I agreed right away to do three things:  expand the selection of wines from a tiny 150 to over 600 wines as soon as we could, lower all the prices to eliminate the perception that our wine shop was snooty and priced higher than the COSTCO’s of the world and completely renovate the wine bar, lowering prices for wine by the glass and bringing in a system that would expand the selections and keep the bottles fresh longer.

TOW&F: What creative idea have you employed at the shop that really took off for you over the years?

Jim:  The thing that had an amazing impact and continues to this day is the sign in front of the property facing traffic on San Marcos Boulevard.  We changed the identification colors to a much brighter combination and installed a message board to communicate our wine news. Customers come in based on the sign just to thank us for it.

TOW&F:  It seems NCWC carries high-quality brands that can’t be found elsewhere in this market.  What’s the thinking behind that?

Jim:  We know that customers can buy the household wine names anywhere so we make an effort to set ourselves apart by featuring hard to find quality wines, be it a romantic story or a cool characteristic that’s under the radar of the other shops and big-box discounters.  Many wine drinkers love to try new things and we try to keep up with that trendy wine buyer who enjoys change.

TOW&F:  What seems to be the latest trend in wine sales and what varietals are your customers increasingly asking for?

Jim:  Rosé has taken off as the most popular wine on the list.  We also sell tons of Sauvignon Blanc, but this is San Diego and the warmer weather helps these varietals to be more than just a Summer wine. With the reds, our Italian wines, especially from Tuscany, just fly off the shelves.

TOW&F:  Your email blasts have a Wine of the Week with a specially reduced price for a limited time.  Do they actually move your customers to increase their sales?

Jim:  The announcement goes out to our customers, Facebook and Instagram, and it definitely increases sales, gets more customers in the shop and helps purchases of other wines.

TOW&F:  Finally, what’s it like navigating your business through the Pandemic that’s affected us all these past months and continues with no relief in sight?

Jim:  Our bar has been closed with the loss of revenue, as part of the state’s latest protocol so we now concentrate on bottle sales. We take the Pandemic threat very seriously and follow the rules.  I wear a mask and all customers are required to wear a mask.  I wash my hands constantly and wipe down the check-out counter after a sale.  Our goal is to keep NCWC open and keep it safe.

TOW&F:  Our thanks to you and Bill for your strength and your emphasis on quality, in bringing us wine we can rely on now and in the future.

For more info on North County Wine Company, visit northcountywinecompany.com.

Wine Bytes

Il Fornaio Del Mar has a $10. discount on a $40. + online to-go order placed on ilfornaio.com.  Offer valid now to 8/9/20.  Use code 247-821-166 at checkout to receive the $10. credit.

Vigilucci’s Trattoria Italiana in Leucadia is featuring Date Night on Mondays for $60. per couple. It includes 2 glasses of wine and 2 entrees from a choice of five.

The special menu is available 4 to 9 p.m.  Call 760-634-2365.

Pacifica Del Mar in the Del Mar Plaza is presenting live music, bites and sips on the Plaza Deck every Thursday 6 to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday night 5:30 to 7 p.m. through August.  Their walk-up bar opens at 1 p.m. and bites are available starting at 4pm.  Details at pacificadelmar.com.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator. He is one of the leading commentators on the web.  View his columns at tasteofwineandfood.com. Go to recent columns.  Reach him at [email protected]