Because of its location in Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood, Wally’s Wine & Spirits has a long history of serving celebrity clientele. In fact, Wally’s co-owner Christian Navarro has been dubbed the “sommelier to the stars.” But Navarro—who’s been with Wally’s for 25 years—emphasizes that all customers are treated the same in his stores, regardless of profession. A commitment to top-notch service and a focus on high-end products have helped Wally’s flourish in one of the country’s most competitive retail markets.
Wally’s was founded in 1968 by Steve Wallace, a 1987 Market Watch Leader and winner of the Leaders Alumni Award for “Best Advertising” in 2002. He sold the business in 2013 to a group that included Navarro and the brothers Maurice, Paul and Armand Marciano, founders of the global fashion house Guess. Navarro has assumed the role of president and COO, while Armand Marciano is CEO. Although Wallace is no longer involved, he and Navarro remain good friends. The new owners have added a second Wally’s unit in Beverly Hills, California, that now serves as the flagship location and houses a retail space, restaurant and bar. Navarro calls this new chapter “Wally’s 2.0.”
“We went from being a traditional, small wine and spirits store to reaching out all over the world and selling products globally,” Navarro explains. “The market has changed dramatically. Our customers’ needs and desires have also evolved. My goal is to have a vehicle that allows me to expose people to food and wine in a passionate, curated way.” For his efforts to expand Wally’s global reach while maintaining a commitment to in-store service, Christian Navarro has been named a 2016 Market Watch Leader.
Walk Of Fame
Navarro started at Wally’s in 1991 as a salesperson. He rose through the ranks, working as a buyer and eventually becoming a managing partner and co-owner. The Mexico City native grew up in California and planned to pursue a career as an artist before entering the world of beverage alcohol retailing. The hospitality industry was a part of his life from an early age, however, as his mother worked as a hotel and restaurant consultant.
“Wally’s is the place where I really found my foothold,” Navarro says, adding that the move into store ownership has allowed him to push forward with his own ideas about food and wine in a new way. “I’m now able to do what I’ve always dreamed about.”
These days, Navarro drives the overall vision for Wally’s while overseeing the buying and sales force. “I curate a crafted list of products that I feel are the best quality in the world, regardless of price,” Navarro says. “I also make sure the sales team is not selling, but rather helping clients discover what they want. That’s how we earn our customers’ trust for the long term.”
Those efforts are paying off. Although Wally’s executives won’t disclose the company’s total revenue, they say it’s in the mid eight figures. Wine makes up 88 percent of sales, followed by spirits at 10 percent and beer at 2 percent. The company has more than 200 employees. Its newest co-owners, the Marcianos, are heavily involved. Navarro says they’re passionate people and have a similar business background to himself, as they started a small company—Guess Inc.—and grew it into a well-known brand. He speaks with the brothers daily and says they’ve provided valuable advice about taking the business to the next level.
Navarro earned the “sommelier to the stars” moniker due to his history of helping high-profile celebrities with their wine purchases. The store’s notable clients include actors Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Robert De Niro; former president Bill Clinton; and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others. Navarro says he made these contacts because of his relationship with Michael Ovitz, the founder of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. Navarro frequently helped Ovitz get specialized products for events and dinners, which led to product placement opportunities in movies and created a large web of high-profile contacts.
“Our business specializes in aspirational products,” Navarro says. “These offerings tend to be at the higher end of the market, but price has nothing to do with it. It’s all about quality. By definition, a limited group of consumers fit that specific demographic. We deal with a lot of people who have more money than time. But we treat everyone exactly the same. There’s no regular customer at Wally’s. At our Beverly Hills location, you could be next to movie stars, janitors, school teachers and industrialists.”
A New Experience
The original Wally’s location is a classic, well-polished wine store. Located on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, it spans 5,000 square feet and houses roughly 8,500 SKUs. The newer Wally’s in Beverly Hills is a very different experience. Also stocking 8,500 SKUs, this unit has a 7,000-square-foot floor plan that incorporates an on-premise space serving upscale fare, with a large bar offering a broad selection of wines by the glass. Navarro describes it as a more modern concept that appeals to contemporary consumers looking for a gathering spot where they can both shop and eat.
“Our new Beverly Hills venue is visually stunning—it’s an environment you’d want to hang out in,” Navarro says. “You walk in and see massive walls of wine bottles. You can sit at marble tables to enjoy a glass of wine, and everything listed in the restaurant is sold at retail. Beverly Hills is rapidly becoming a true destination for all things food and beverage. We’re having incredible success with this experiential space. It’s the way I feel brick-and-mortar wine retailing will be in the future.”
Wally’s stores showcase wines by region and varietal, which Navarro says aids in customer service. Sales staff are encouraged to guide customers through the stores’ offerings to make sure they’re getting what they like, even if it’s not what they came in seeking. The company’s top-selling wine categories are Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and meritage wines from California. Top-performing labels include the 2013 Terra Gratia Napa Valley red blend ($75 a 750-ml. bottle)—which is produced by Maurice Marciano’s Marciano Estate winery—the 2005 Dom Pérignon Champagne ($170) and the 2012 Château Pontet-Canet ($125). The company also works with several wine properties to purchase barrels exclusively for Wally’s stores.
“Los Angeles has a lot of competition, and people are very aware of pricing,” Navarro explains, adding that he shies away from price battles with other retailers. “We try to provide quality of service and a 100-percent guarantee of product. For a certain segment of Los Angeles society, that attention pays dividends. They’d rather have the highest quality service and our knowledge and assurance that their purchase is totally perfect.”
The bar at the Wally’s in Beverly Hills offers 125 wines by the glass, from the 2015 Saracco Moscato d’Asti ($11 a glass) to the 2000 Château Cheval Blanc ($250 a glass). The store’s on-premise bottled wine list spans some 60 pages, and it’s joined by an extensive selection of sipping spirits and specialty cocktails. The food menu features upscale Provence-inspired fare like black truffle pizzetta, wood oven–baked sea bass, and caviar, cheese and charcuterie (shared plates are $8 to $26; entrées are $26 to $85; caviar starts at $120 for 28 grams of Calvisius Siberian Royal and goes up to $840 for 125 grams of Calvisius Oscietra Imperial). Guests are encouraged to sip their drinks while browsing the store. In the evening, the space transitions from a retail environment to an after-hours scene.
Wine-themed events are also popular at Wally’s. Both stores host weekly tastings, and the company has had success with curated wine dinners and special monthly tastings sponsored by wine producers. This past summer, Wally’s hosted a vertical tasting of Le Clarence de Haut-Brion and Château Bahans Haut-Brion with Emmanuel Mathe of Clarence Dillon Wines for $35 a ticket. Every year, the company puts on a couple of large-scale, off-site events, including the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in January and the Napa/Sonoma All-Stars tasting in April. “We’re extremely active in events,” Navarro says. “We feel that’s the best way to sell. People have to taste and feel the products.”
In addition, Navarro makes giving back to the community paramount. He hosts the Grande Marque Champagne Tasting annually in June to benefit nonprofit groups like Food On Foot, a charity that aids the homeless and includes Navarro on its board of directors. “My partners and I acknowledge that we’ve been very fortunate,” Navarro explains. “We’re actively involved in giving back. It’s one of the most important things in my life. We work very hard to find ways to assist our community and larger charities that need our help.”
Spirits and beer are relatively small contributors to overall sales at Wally’s, but the stores feature varied selections of both, with an emphasis on upscale labels and craft products. Navarro says craft spirits are growing, and he sees particularly strong interest in Tequila and brown spirits, especially Japanese whiskies. The company’s top-selling spirits include Don Julio 1942 Añejo Tequila ($140 a 750-ml. bottle), Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended Scotch whisky ($200) and the 2009 Casa Dragones Joven Tequila ($275). Small-production beers are also moving fast at Wally’s. Craft labels from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Avery Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing Co. (from $1.69 a 12-ounce bottle) are popular. Among larger producers, Heineken, Amstel Light and Corona (from $1.59 a 12-ounce bottle) do well.
Navarro has lofty goals for the future growth of Wally’s Wine & Spirits. The company completed a full overhaul of its website this summer. The newly updated online portal allows customers to shop more easily, which Navarro hopes will expand internet sales. He’s also made a big commitment to the auction business, with the aim of boosting the Wally’s brand internationally. Since the launch of Wally’s Auctions in June 2013, the company has held high-profile events in both New York City and Los Angeles. After a hiatus earlier this year, Wally’s Auctions will resume this fall. The company is planning overseas auctions as well.
“We want to make Wally’s a truly global food and wine brand and having an international auction house will help us reach much deeper than we’ve been able to before,” Navarro says. He notes that Wally’s is working with a large auction company that he can’t yet disclose. “E-commerce is also a large part of our business, representing about 30 percent of sales, and with our new web presence, we should see a significant increase in those revenues,” he adds.
Expansion of Wally’s brick-and-mortar stores is also forthcoming. Navarro has definite plans to move outside of Southern California and ultimately hopes to open locations internationally. Though he has no specific number in mind, Navarro says he’s open to many opportunities. “We’re actively looking to expand now,” he notes. “When we find the right opportunity, our goal is to grow and deliver more to our customers wherever they may be in the world. We want to take care of our clientele.”