Al Jabarin sums up his success in wine retailing with a single sentence.
“I started from click-to-order and moved to brick and mortar,” he said, gesturing to the neat shelves of expensive vintages lining the walls of his new wine shop in downtown Napa.
Jabarin, who 20 years ago saw retail opportunity in a computer screen and a newfangled concept called “the Internet,” is describing his Napa-based business CalWine, one of the world’s first online wine retailers. Launched in 1995, CalWine.com became an instant hit among tech-savvy wine lovers and its sales grew exponentially as the Internet and e-commerce took hold in mainstream retail culture.
Recently, Jabarin gave his web-based, click-to-order wine business a stylish brick and mortar presence in downtown Napa, first opening 1313 Main wine baron Main Street, then Lulu’s Kitchen and finally the CalWine wine shop around the corner on Clinton Street.
“Usually it’s the other way around,” Jabarin admitted. “Everybody — 99 percent as far as I know — started with an established brick and mortar (store) and then said ‘Oh, let’s have a website.’ We started as a dot-com company, and I think that’s a little bit unique about CalWine.”
Jabarin’s success in the online wine retailing business is even more impressive considering Jabarin came to it with no background in either wine or computer technology.
Born in Jordan, Jabarin still carries the accent of his native country where he earned college degrees in economics and theater. Working on a master’s degree in social anthropology, Jabarin came to the U.S. in 1986 to study for the summer at Penn State University. He decided to stay in America and settled in New York City where he worked with an “offshoot office” of the United Nations. In 1990, he took a break for a short vacation in California’s wine country.
“I came to Napa for a week in November 1990,” Jabarin said, “and, really, I fell in love with the city, seriously speaking. It was a very, very quiet town.”
He said at the time, Napa reminded him of the small town in northern Jordan where he went to college. Jabarin said downtown Napa in the 1990s was far different than the vibrant, tourist-laden area it has become in recent years.
“I remember it was 5 o’clock,” he said. “I was on the corner of Main and First having a cup of coffee at the coffee place and I remember like for three or four minutes I didn’t see any person walking. I used to live in Manhattan at 65th and Lexington and, you know, you’re in New York and it’s normal to see thousands of people. To come to a town and, for two or three minutes, maybe one car and it was like, ‘This is great. This is so quiet. I like it’ … I literally never went back to New York.”
Jabarin learned from locals that the wine industry had plenty of opportunities. While a winery job seemed the obvious choice, Jabarin stumbled on another option.
“A wise man said no, no, if you work in the restaurant business, food and wine go hand in hand,” Jabarin recalled. “If you find a place in the restaurant business you will learn about wine, and that’s really the best way.”
Jabarin took a few odd restaurant jobs and then met Jan Birnbaum, who hired him as a management trainee at his popular Catahoula restaurant in Calistoga.
“So the relationship with Napa wines started there,” he said. “Whenever vintners came in they would pour their wines to the staff … so I happened to learn about these wines because I was in the restaurant industry. I tasted the first Pride vintage … and Opus when it was just $50 a bottle. I remember the first time I tasted Opus.”
As his knowledge of wine grew, so did Jabarin’s love of the Napa Valley.
“I never had really put roots anywhere,” he said. “I was living out of my suitcase for 18 years. In any place I was like always ready to move on, there’s no need to unpack. In Napa, I did unpack. It took me a couple of years, but I did.”
Jabarin worked at Catahoula for about 18 months. and he grew more interested in wine.
“I wanted to be in the wine industry, and I thought why not do a mail-order thing,” he a said. “But when I looked at the economics of it, it’s like (mail order) is very expensive and wine is very expensive.”
The high cost of printing a catalog also presented a formidable financial challenge.
“So then…the Internet happened,” he said. “In 1993 I heard about Prodigy and the Internet and CompuServe. I didn’t have very much information about it but thought, OK, this is people communicating with people online.
“That was before the browser was invented. This is before HTML language, before America Online, before Netscape,” he said. “You could see things scrolling on a screen — everything on the left was text and maybe a small image. That’s really the first time that I thought this could be a solution.”
Jabarin said that in that era, the Internet was regarded as a free platform for communication devoid of commercial pitches.
“You couldn’t talk to people about the commercial use of the web,” he said. “You would be outcast. The community at that time online — it was like the original Craigslist — it was a communal thing. If you made a post and said anything commercial they would take it down.”
Jabarin joined a local network, posting a page called Wine County Online.
“We started posting things about Napa, like ‘The weather is good today in Napa, ask us if you have a question.’ This is how the whole thing started. No commercialism. And then people started sending emails like ‘I’m coming to Napa next week; where should we go?’”
Soon, a respondent asked if Jabarin knew where he could find a few bottles of Heitz Cellar 1978 Martha’s Vineyard cabernet. Jabarin called Heitz Cellar and found out that the vintage was still available. He quoted the caller a price that included a 30 percent profit and sealed the deal on a case.
“That was the beginning,” he said.
In 1994, Jabarin registered his first domain name, Winezone.com, and launched the website as an information hub for the wine country. Jabarin hired programmers to keep his website ahead of the curve and offered to help other local businesses go online. This was a tough sell, he said, since most business owners were skeptical or unaware of the emerging Web environment. Frustrated, Jabarin returned to his original idea of using the web to sell wine on a global scale.
“In 1995, I thought that maybe there was an opportunity to sell wine online officially,” he said. “But at that time I could not officially sell wine unless I was licensed.”
“I went to the ABC (California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) and told them I wanted to get a license and they said ‘Sure, what is your physical address?’ I told them I wanted to sell wine on the Internet and they asked what I meant.”
In 1995, e-commerce was not even on the radar of most businesses, let alone governmental regulatory agencies. The ABC told Jabarin that to obtain a retail license he had to have a physical storefront with products on the shelves. To comply, he leased a building on Silverado Trail, and installed a desk and a shelf containing some wine.
“It was an empty room for about two years because I was working from my home, basically,” he said. “But we got the license and CalWine.com was born.”
CalWine became one of a handful of retailers selling wine online in 1995. As consumers became more comfortable with online commerce, CalWine grew rapidly. “Literally, for like 10 years we doubled (our) size every year,” Jabarin said. “Then a lot of the big boys came online.”
Local wineries were generally conservative about establishing websites and online sales even when CalWine and others were experiencing skyrocketing growth. Wineries were, however, more than glad to let CalWine promote and sell their wine online.
“By them not really adopting the technology,” he said, “it really infused huge energy in my company because they looked at me and said ‘Oh, this guy will take our wine and sell it on our behalf.’ This is really how CalWine got bigger and bigger and became a healthy small business.”
As CalWine’s customer base grew, Jabarin encountered a new challenge.
“A lot of my (Internet) customers would come to Napa and they wanted to come see me,” he said, adding that they were usually surprised and “let down” when they arrived at the token storefront on Silverado Trail. “You know, I’m the wine merchant that’s selling them all of these beautiful wines and they were like ‘This is it?’ At least on a PR level they needed to see something nice to kind of connect the dots.”
In 2004, Jabarin spruced up CalWine, primarily to enhance CalWine’s image.
“There is not a lot of money in brick-and-mortar (retail) wine-wise,” he said. “It’s the Internet. It’s the market of 300 million people. It’s not who comes through the door in downtown Napa. The business is really outside of Napa and outside of California.”
In 2007, when a building on Main Street in north Napa became available Jabarin bought it. “It was time to kind of move to the next level,” he said.
Anticipating the revitalization of Napa, Jabarin decided to create a “wine-centric” destination that would appeal to both visitors and locals.
“There was no place in downtown Napa at that time that really focused on the wine experience,” he said. “It (the building) is 6,200 square feet and I thought let’s do a place with multi environments in it … let’s do an experience, basically, but the core is wine. This is how 1313 Main was born.”
Jabarin opened 1313 Main Wine Bar and Lounge in 2010. The lounge’s food offerings were initially limited to cold cheeses and charcuterie. That changed this year when Jabarin opened Lulu’s Kitchen at 1313 Main, providing patrons with a menu of freshly prepared small plates featuring local, seasonal ingredients.
A year before he opened 1313 Main, Jabarin moved the CalWine online operation to the space now occupied by Lulu’s Kitchen. When a space around the corner became available this year, Jabarin reopened the CalWine retail shop.
The entrepreneur is the first to recognize the irony of his participation in helping to further transform the sleepy town that attracted him 23 years ago.
“Now I go back to that corner (Main and First streets) and, like, look at all of these people,” he laughed. “In New York I didn’t feel like it was my town. Here I do feel like it’s my town. So even if it’s getting a little bit crowded, it’s still a small town. My town.”