Carpe Vino uncorks a new strategy

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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When Old Town’s Carpe Vino showcases its new look today, it is also a reflection of owner Gary Moffat’s sense of direction as he steers his business through tough times. He has created a more casual atmosphere, replaced the upscale restaurant menu with small-plate dining and is partnering with local wineries in his new Placer & Beyond Tasting Room. Moffat opened his business in August 2002 to have something fun and interesting to do in retirement as well as to create a special spot for wine lovers in the heart of Old Town. “When we started, it was purely a wine shop, then it became a wine bar, then a restaurant,” he said Tuesday. “We went from one building to four storefronts.” Moffat and his son Drew — who is the manager — take a personal approach to purchasing and selling wine. “One of the things we’re most successful in doing is going out and visiting wineries ourselves,” Gary Moffat said. “We’ve always had great relations with local wineries and know all the local winemakers personally. … Our favorite thing to do is go exploring and find stuff ourselves.” Initially, the focus was on Sierra foothills wines, but gradually that emphasis diminished as Moffat listened to customers’ requests and brought in what they wanted — frequently vintages from the Napa Valley and other areas of the state. In April 2006, with the economy still flourishing, he hired two Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs and added the fine-dining restaurant. “That year brought us a three-and-a-half star (rating),” Moffat said. “The next time in a review of the same restaurants, ours was the only one to move up to four stars.” That was last November. But just a month later, with an eye on the deepening recession, Moffat decided to change course. “We found our business to be very vulnerable as the economy has nosedived,” he wrote in an e-mail. “So we have acted decisively to make significant changes to position Carpe Vino in new ways.” The Placer & Beyond Tasting Room promotes local brands and partnerships with 11 local wineries “to create an economic situation that truly wins.” In part, the rise in popularity of locally grown products was his inspiration. “It makes sense for us to recognize the change in consumer preferences and seize on this opportunity,” he said. “The point I want to stress is that these tough economic times force business people to review what they’re doing and look for smarter ways to do business. In this case, it is partnering with like businesses in our own region.” The new small-plate menu reflects previous offerings and has new items, too. “It’s a blend of the appetizers, soups and salads we’re already producing, plus smaller plates of comfort food — macaroni and cheese, braised lamb shoulder, shepherd’s pie,” he said. “There’s nothing on the menu that’s more than $15. Previously, we had entrees in excess of $30.” Moffat introduced the new phase in early February with gratifying results. “That’s when we changed the model, and business for same-store sales is up 9 percent,” he said. “We’re focusing on affordable wines. We’re going out and finding the best deals we can.” As an example, he cited two 28-case shipments of wine he received and sold out in one day last week “because we promoted them ahead of time.” “With a solid wine trail in place, we’re taking the initiative to seek to be the first stop and a center for local wine,” Moffat said in the e-mail. As a member of the Chamber of Commerce board and the Auburn First organization, Moffat plans to pass on some insights into his business model at the next chamber Power Breakfast on April 3. “It’s titled ‘Not business as usual — case studies and survival,’” he said. “It’s going to be on changes at Carpe Vino that have been totally responsive to the downturn in the economy — what we’ve done to position our business for change and successes we’ve had so far.” As he showcases his revamped vision today, attendees will have an opportunity to try a couple of popular wines and an array of appetizers from the small-plate menu. There will also be a three-hour remote broadcast on KAHI featuring winemakers and discussion on the wine industry. One of the participants will be Kevin Stevenson of Casque Winery in Loomis, the newest vintner in the area. Stevenson released his first wine, a Rhone-style blend, in October. And it won best-in-class for its category at the San Francisco Chronicle competition. Stevenson is looking forward to being part of the program. “It’s obviously a great opportunity for us,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of wines in there. …We’ll have four wines in the Placer & Beyond Tasting Room. To be able to have people come in and be able to taste our wine, it’s very exciting for us.” The Journal’s Gloria Young can be reached at or comment at ---------- Carpe Vino’s Placer & Beyond Tasting Room open house Where: 1568 Lincoln Way, Old Town Auburn When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 5 What: Special wine tasting from Silver Oak and Orin Swift, with Carpe Vino appetizers Cost: $30 per person; $20 for chamber members and wine club members