A therapist and a retired federal agent walk into a wine bar… and decide to open up a wine and cheese shop free of snobby sommeliers.
What sounds like a joke became a reality for husband and wife Tom and Janet Dugan after Tom was forced into retirement at age 57, as is the case with all federal agents, and Janet continued as director of therapy services at Methodist Hospital.
“We started looking around for something we could do together,” said Tom. “Neither of us had ever done retail. We went through a bunch of ideas and Janet suggested wine and cheese.”
After going to wine shops with tasting bars and speaking with a winery owner in Paso Robles, the couple felt more comfortable about their venture and opened their Monrovia shop in November 2006.
“We like the idea that people are centered around the downtown and people walk to a lot of things,” said Tom. “We have a small group from City Hall that comes here about once a week and they’ll usually send one person with a set amount of money to buy three different cheeses for them to share.”
The Dugans are wine lovers and Janet knows cheeses well, but Tom admits he does not have the best palate memory, so he compensates by learning more about each winemaker and vineyard.
Since California Wine and Cheese is a shop and not a wine bar, it keeps earlier hours and cannot really serve anything besides wine, cheese and bread, with few exceptions. If a customer wants to buy olives or salami in the shop, they can ask for it to be served on a plate, but Tom stressed that he and Janet want the shop to be a place people gather before going out, not necessarily their destination. A party lucky enough to snag the comfortable couch or chairs on a crowded night in the spacious, well-lit shop could easily stay for a while though and enough rich cheese and wine could leave some not desiring a meal afterward.
“We didn’t really want to start a bar, but we wanted to add some ambiance and find that middle ground between being a bar and being a retail shop,” said Tom. “Also, if you own a bar your responsibilities are so much different.”
Reasonably-priced weekly wine flights—red and white, usually grouped by varietal—are featured along with a few selections by the glass, but an alcohol lightweight could simply get a 1.5 ounce pour of one of the flight wines, usually for $3 to $5. The shop will also open almost any bottle they carry if a customer buys two glasses.
A weekly cheese plate and the regular bleu plate special—a plate of four blue cheeses with nuts and honey—are about $8 but all cheeses can be cut to order to-go or served in the shop.
Though the wines all hail from vineyard-rich California, the cheeses come from various regions. Classics like Humboldt fog sit among even more decadent selections like truffle tremor, a creamy goat cheese accentuated with truffles.
Originally carrying about 20 cheeses and 115 wines, California Wine and Cheese has evolved to carry 40 to 50 cheeses at a time and about 200 wines.
Every week, Tom sends out an e-mail to customers, detailing the week’s wine flights, what wines sold best the previous week, what cheeses were recently delivered and wine and cheese events in the shop and elsewhere.
Winemakers frequent California Wine and Cheese about every month to showcase their wines and a weekly Wednesday night wine club has formed to educate the novice and the wino on wine basics and specific varietals for $30 a class, including wine.
“We joke that it’s almost like ‘Cheers’ with wine in the sense that one of the things we really like is people come in and they’re very comfortable starting up a conversation with somebody else,” said Tom.
California Wine and Cheese. 115 W. Foothill Blvd, Monrovia. 626-358-6500. Tuesday through Thursday: 11 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; Sunday: Noon to 6:00 p.m. Alcohol service ends half hour before closing. Closed Mondays.