Behind the Scenes at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, the Best Booze Barn in Southern California
Wine from around the world fill Hi-Time's shelves
John Hamilton went to Newport Harbor High School in the late 1950s with members of the Hanson family, the owners/operators of Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, the best vino and booze purveyor in Southern California. Now president of John W. Hamilton Co., a real-estate firm, and Newport Sports Museum—as well as chairman of IMPACT Foundation, which presents the Ronnie Lott Trophy to the best college-football defensive player every year—he first walked into the Hansons' store in 1965. "It was on the corner of Irvine Boulevard and 17th Street, adjoining La Cave restaurant," Hamilton says. "You could walk through the door from La Cave to Hi-Time, get a bottle of wine and take it back to your table."
He credits Hi-Time with making him what he is today: "I'm not an alcoholic; I'm a wino." Hamilton is being modest. He is a fine wine collector and connoisseur.
"I had an interest in wine at a very young age," he says. "I remember telling my parents they should try Inglenook instead of Mateus and Lancers. Throughout my life, much of my wine education came as a result of Hi-Time. I have seen all the great wine shops. Hi-Time has the best inventory and nicest people working there of anybody."
He has attended numerous tastings and dinners sponsored by Hi-Time over the years, including one with representatives of France's Château Margaux. That led to a very special invitation. "They arranged for me and my wife to have a tour of Château Margaux in Bordeaux and a private lunch with the general manager," Hamilton recalls. "It was one of the great wine experiences of my life."
"Chuck was a very good mentor," says Jim Duane of Hanson (right)
Through Hi-Time, Hamilton and his wife had a separate lunch with Château Mouton's Baron Rothschild, who helped the Corona del Mar resident assemble a collection of the estate's wines, starting with a bottle dated 1900. "I am missing only two vintages: 1902 and 1903. They've been a big help," Hamilton says of Hi-Time staff.
He joined a friend and Hi-Time investor at Robert Mondavi's 80th birthday party, where the California wine-country legend signed bottles of Mondavi Reserve and Opus One that Hamilton had in his collection, including the winery's first vintage. "After that, Bob Mondavi sent me a bottle every year of Mondavi Reserve and Opus One up until his death" in 2008, says Hamilton, who notes he now owns a signed bottle of every one of those Mondavi vintages—and in case you're wondering, as I did, no, he has not opened any of them.
Hamilton has returned the favor for his wine education by opening his bluff-top residence to Hi-Time events. "He was one of the people to host big tastings at his home," says Chuck Hanson, Hi-Time's longtime wine buyer who, at 85, is now semiretired.
Hanson recalled staying with Hamilton at a Mondavi salesman's home and working together at the winery for a week in 1968. "I came home, and my shorts were purple," Hanson says with a laugh. "My wife wondered what the heck happened."
"I think it's absolutely world-class," Hamilton says of Hi-Time. "And the Hansons are really, really great, unaffected and have no egos. They are just down-home friends. They are from the breed of old Newport and old Orange County."
The family-owned retail store, which is no longer next to La Cave but nearby in a spot south of 17th Street that always makes Siri curse, is a go-to place for winos. Boozehounds, beer hopheads and cigar chompers in Orange County and beyond have also described it as the best place to find everything from national brands to little-known gems to the really, really expensive. "Adventuresome" would be a good word to describe the selections, which is fitting because adventuresome describes the Hi-Time founders, who grew up in the 1930s fishing and hunting in Alaska; collecting bananas, grapefruit and piranhas in Cuba; and, following what would have been a move to Hawaii that was derailed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wound up first on a peach farm in Beaumont, then near farmland bordering Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
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"They've been a big help," says wine collector John Hamilton of Hi-Time
For decades, Cecil McVay's family leased land from the Irvine Co. for yam and sugar beet farming, with their home across the street on East 17th Street near Irvine Avenue. Neighbor Fritz Hanson fell in love with one of the "yam girls," McVay's daughter Ida, and they married in the mid-1950s. Fritz and Ida's brother Jim had plans to convert the McVay family home into a hardware store, but during construction, they noticed how all the workers helping them would knock off to have beers—an ah-ha moment that led the brothers-in-law to switch their business plan to a liquor store, figuring suds would move off shelves faster than saws. They rented a Greek-owned store in Santa Ana for six months to learn the business and save up the required $10,000 liquor license they'd need to open Hi-Time in 1957.
Fritz's brother Harold returned from the Korean War with photos he'd shot while stationed in Germany of underground wine caves in Burgundy and six bottles of Riesling. In those days, Hi-Time's only competition came from a liquor store at the western end of 17th Street and another on Pacific Coast Highway near what is now Dover Drive in Newport Beach. Neither place was much into wine, so McVay and the Hansons decided to capitalize. Having started only selling jug wines, the construction-minded Fritz used Harold's pictures as the basis for building an underground wine cellar.
Of course, the store also needed to fill the cellar. "Back then, wine tastings were in Los Angeles. No one came here, so we'd go to them," says Chuck Hanson, sitting in Hi-Time's employee break room before making a sweep of the wine aisles. He became the wine buyer around 1959 or '60, when the wines of Charles Krug and Louis Martini made a huge impression on him. Hanson made trips to California's wine country, resulting in lifelong connections and friendships with "gods" such as August Sebastiani, Mondavi and John Inglenook. Chuck found them as down-to-earth as he is, and the vintners invited their guest to exclusive tastings and shared their rarest vintages with him.
Hanson, who'd been a 159-pound tackle on the Newport Harbor High School football team, essentially lunged into a self-taught, university-level course in wine that was required so he could "indoctrinate" Hi-Time customers to these palate-changers, long before Northern and Central California wines gained international renown. When a recent Hi-Time visitor pointed to a bookshelf filled with tomes about wine in the break room and asked Chuck if he'd read them all, he joked, "I wrote them."
Unlike the big booze chains, Hi-Time ships
But wine was not all that filled Fritz's cave. Part of it became an extension of La Cave restaurant, which William Boyer and his wife—the other McVay yam girl, Carol—opened on Valentine's Day, 1962.
Jim McVay, who died in a car accident years later, had already sold his interest in Hi-Time when the expansion-minded Hanson brothers scouted out a new location on Ogle Street.
Chuck Hanson remembers how much enjoyment he and his brothers had as kids when that same plot would turn into ponds after heavy rains. His brother Doc once shot a stray goose flying over it that became the family dinner one night.
Fritz wasn't so keen on the ponds during construction of the current store, which had been an old phone-company building. "There were 20 rooms," says Chuck, waving a hand across what is now a storeroom floor without walls. "I remember, after we built the new wine cellar, I thought, 'How are we going to fill it?'"
That was mostly solved thanks to the relationships he had fostered with winemakers over the years, including the Mondavi family, who attended the new Hi-Time's 1984 red-carpet opening.
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Park in the lot off Ogle, stand in front of the store, and you'll see two sections: The original building with the lower roof is on the south side and attached to it moving north in the direction of 17th Street is a much taller addition that houses the beer department, storage warehouse and shipping desk.
Enter Hi-Time at the front double-door entrance, and before you will be 24,000 square feet of retail space. A mini-mall of sections is arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. First, there is the cigar department and its pipes, tobaccos and walk-in humidor that holds more than 400 different cigar brands, including Davidoff, A. Fuentes, Cohiba, Ashton, Avo and Macanudo. "Fritz and Doc built it," says Tobin Sharp, Hi-Time's creative director, who worked in tobacco when he started at the store 20 years ago. He recalls being sent to cigar dinners Hi-Time hosted at places such as Scott's Seafood.
Some people thought cigar smoking was a fad coming to an end in 2008 to 2009, when Fritz and Doc expanded the humidor because a strong core following was growing while many other cigar shops were flaming out.
When Frank Mickadeit, the longtime Orange County Register metro columnist, graduated from law school a couple of years ago, Hi-Time sent him a box of premium Davidoff cigars. It was a display of gratitude for the longtime customer having spread the gospel about how great Hi-Time is to everyone from friends to Register readers to strangers offering lights on the patios outside GOP mixers. "He said this is the finest cigar shop this side of Cuba," Chuck Hanson says.
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"Their cigar selection is unparalleled," confirms Mickadeit, nowadays a litigation associate at Greenberg Gross LLP of Costa Mesa. "Nobody else has as many good brands as they do. Some have very good brands, but they [at Hi-Time] have the widest selection."
The next section as you move through the store is the chocolatier area, overseen by Tracy Hanson, the wife of Keith Hanson, who is the Hi-Time liquor manager and son of Fritz. Hot items these days are Hi-Time's cheeses, Sharp says, and the store also does a strong business in corporate gifts and gift baskets that have wines and spirits paired with gourmet food items.
This area gives way to shelves, chilled and otherwise, for brandy, port, sake, chilled wines and rosés, including dry French rosés that have been all the rage over the past few years. You could hang a left and enter the cold storage for Champagne and sparkling wines that is connected to the massive wine cellar that takes up the entire back of the store, but we're going the other way to remain on the storeroom floor.
Much, if not most, of the floor holds wines from national brands—and they're priced to move. Generally how it works is wine that turns over quickly and costs less than $15 per bottle is on the floor, and the rest is in the chilly, rock-lined cellar at the back of the room. "There are a lot of wines out here that could be in there; they are quite good," Chuck Hanson says. "We also put them out here for people who do not want to walk to the cellar."
Fighting for much of the same floor space in recent years has been liquors and spirits, whose popularity has taken off thanks to craft makers. Two walls of locked displays behind glass hold the rarities, everything from Pappy Van Winkles to boutique mezcals to cognacs that run to $7,000 yet nevertheless sell. Hi-Time's reputation for a ripping stock of hard booze actually goes back to the La Cave days, when none other than John Wayne got fine cigars, Cuervo Gold and his favorite brands of bourbon or whiskey that he couldn't get anyplace else at the store. The legend is confirmed by the Duke's son, Ethan Wayne, who has said the "old" Hi-Time helped the Hollywood star (and longtime Newport Beach resident) build his personal whiskey collection, which has been preserved for more than 50 years. That collection and tasting notes that were left behind by Ethan's father—who wanted to build his own distillery—inspired the line of Duke spirits the Wayne family introduced in 2014. (And yes, you can get it at Hi-Time, pilgrim.)
Mickadeit has a story about today's Hi-Time spirits section. "I was in Ireland a couple of months ago. I was traveling on the west coast and went out to a tiny little town on a peninsula called Dingle. It's known for its music colony out there. It's one of those parts of Ireland where Irish is the first language. So I was in a pub out there, and somebody turns me on to a gin: Dingle Gin made there in Dingle. I had it and was blown away how good it was. I liked it better than any of the regular gins I'd had.
"I said, 'Man, I've got to get a bunch of this to take home.' But then I began debating with myself because I had another week and a half left on the trip, and I didn't want to cart around eight bottles. So I got on my iPhone, went to the Hi-Time website and found out, 8,000 miles away, that they carry Dingle Gin. I also found they had four bottles in their inventory. So I resumed my trip knowing that when I got back, I could get a supply of Dingle Gin. That's the kind of place they are. There is nothing they can't get."
2015 was the year of beer
Dave Danni, account executive and spirits specialist for the distributor Young's Market Co., says Hi-Time's broad selection of brands helps it stay in the fight with big guys such as BevMo, Costco, and Total Wine and Spirits, but the single store also stands out by being innately in tune with its affluent clientele. "Local residents have money," Danni told Market Watch beverage magazine last year. "They want different, they want a broad mix, and they want to make great drinks for their neighbors and friends."
There are shelves behind the liquors and spirits section that hold mixers, ginger beer, gourmet sodas and pop—including Mexican Coke and Heritage Dr. Pepper made with real sugar as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup. Before you head into the Ogle building addition, there are (expanding) clearance racks that Sharp mentions he likes showing off to visitors. This is the place where beverages go from makers or distributors who are changing labels, discontinuing the brand or otherwise trying to "blow it out," says Sharp, who happily reports, "You can find good deals."
The area of the addition that is accessible to the public is the beer section, where you'll find a comprehensive selection of North American micro-brews along with winning beers the rest of the world creates. A walk-in refrigerator holds more than 1,000 different suds from 25 different countries. "The beer room was the biggest the contractor had ever built," Chuck Hanson says. "Now we have a separate place just for kegs."
In 2015, "beer had a huge year," Sharp notes. "And [hard] ciders is a slightly burgeoning market."
Behind beer is the storage area—where boxes of wine, spirits and soda appear to rise to the sky—and the shipping desk. Hi-Time ships product to 33 states, although some only allow certain types of alcohol, and some foreign countries. "Total Wine and BevMo don't ship," Sharp says proudly. "We got into shipping early on. We work daily with customers to ship to where it is legal."
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Sunken in the floor to the left of the wine cave is a bar where tastings and classes are held. The cost depends on the price tag of the bottles poured, but for the budget conscious, there are $10 wine tastings on Tuesday nights. The popularity of sake led to weekly tastings. There is also a row of vending machines that dispense wine for a price per pour.
The wine cellar, which had to be dug out of the old phone store—and, at 3,000 square feet, is one of the largest underground temperature-controlled wine cellars in the country—has two floors. The bottom has the wines of Europe and the rest of the world, broken up by region. The top floor is for domestics, broken up by type of grape. Next to the pinots—the most popular shelves these days—is the white wine room, filled with Chardonnays on one wall and sparkling wines and Champagnes on the other. The 60-degree Fahrenheit temperatures maintain these as year-round beverages. There are more than 10,000 bottles in the cave from such areas as California, Oregon, Washington, France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia and Portugal.
The Champagne buyer is Jim Duane, who first worked at Hi-Time during the 1970s while he was on summer breaks from UC San Diego. He was not even 21 when he became a self-described "wine hobbyist." A palate that had previously been influenced by Annie Green Springs totally changed after then-Hi-Time deli manager Al Cherry gave him a bottle of Zeller Schwarze Katz "Black Cat" wine. "I started buying wine; I started reading about wine. I became a wine pest," confides Duane as he sits next to his mentor, Chuck Hanson, in the break room.
"It's amazing how many people who come to work here latch onto wine," Hanson says. "Maybe one out of 20. It takes a certain kind of person."
"If you are here, you are going to be pulling some corks," Duane says of a Hi-Time workforce that numbers around 60. "As a buyer, I tell people I don't buy bottles; I buy stories. If I don't get excited about the story, my customer won't be excited."
Being curious, a lifelong learner and a big reader about wine helped make him the expert he is today. Duane pins his first Hi-Time stint from 1976 through 1984, when he left to spend the next 12 years at Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga. As is true for many employees who have left, including some with Hanson as their last name, Duane came back. The time away allowed him to become even more of an expert on California's sparkling wines and French Champagne (he's visited the region twice). "Before 2007, real-estate people were always buying Champagne," Duane says. "That was the base. It was how they would celebrate closing and cutting deals. In the early 2000s, this place was rolling, and the real-estate industry was key to that."
The Laguna Niguel resident thinks about some of the shops that came to overtake Hi-Time—and promptly went. "We are smart enough to listen and learn," Duane says of how the staff interacts with customers. "Our competition did not do that. It's not like I'm a guy who went to school to learn this. I am self-taught."
He looks over at Hanson. "You and your brothers had the acumen to run a place like this," Duane tells him. "They were getting $50 bottles of wine in the 1950s," which was considered a lot back then.
"Chuck was a very good mentor, although I think I worked here two years before he knew my name," Duane says with a laugh. "He has a really good palate. He really taught me how to taste wine."
* * * * *
Back on the floor, waving his arm at all the goodness before him, Hanson says with a glint in his eye, "People come from all over because this store has all this stupid stuff."
Adds Sharp, "If we had firearms, we'd have all the legal sins—at least in California."
To make sure it stays relevant, Hi-Time has embraced the digital age. Sales by mail were actually a source of contention years ago because some states forbid such transactions. As with recessions and mass layoffs in the past, Hi-Time overcame it. Nowadays, online sales, with deliveries by snail mail or shippers, represent a growing segment of the store's more than $28 million in annual revenues. Besides the website that allows Mickadeit to learn from Ireland how much Dingle Gin it stocks, the store makes its presence known on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (the latter two under the sobriquet @mrhitime). In the old La Cave days, Hi-Time workers used a van to deliver to fishermen in Newport Harbor. Now the store has teamed up with the Orange County alcohol delivery service Drizly. Charlie Hirst, the grown son of Hi-Time CEO Diana Hirst—Fritz Hanson's daughter—is in charge of Internet sales. Bumping into him in an aisle during the store's busiest season (the Christmas and New Year's holidays), he responded to a "How ya doing?" by shaking his head and muttering, "I'm so tired."
For a shoulder to cry on, besides the relatives mentioned above, Charlie can go to his brother Kyle, an opening and closing manager, or uncles Don Hanson, who works on the floor, and Mike Hirst in maintenance, or cousins Jordan over at sodas and mixers and Blayne in shipping, or Aunt Vicki in the office. (Another aunt, Lynda Hanson, is an associate winemaker at Sonoma's Hanzell Vineyards, the first winery in the U.S. to use stainless-steel fermenting tanks, which are still in use today; Chuck and Harold Hanson first saw them in 1959.) But Charlie probably wouldn't get any sympathy from Grandpa Fritz and Great-Uncle Chuck, who despite being retired (or mostly retired) spent the same holiday season stocking shelves. Small wonder that in 2005, the Hanson Family was rewarded with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Patterson's Beverage Journal, the Bible of the spirits industry (nowadays known as the Tasting Panel).
Sharp, who has been known to set aside his marketing duties to help out in shipping, enjoys the fringe benefits. "You don't get rich working in retail," he says, "but we do get great days off, and we get to drink some really good stuff." He has no plans to leave any time soon. "This is a family of hunters and fishermen coming down from Alaska, finding good land, mixing the genes and living long," he says of the Hansons. "They are honest and friendly, and a lot of people have been here a long time because of this."
"I love the fact it is a family-owned thing," Mickadeit says. "It is an Orange County treasure, an absolute, truly great, ongoing commerce treasure we have. It's like Ganahl Lumber: family-owned, and it has been the same kind of business in Orange County for decades. The fact that it is hard to find adds to the whole thing."
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