Edible Monterey Bay

Vino Locale Brings It to Santa Cruz

Sometimes things can get twice as nice. Vino Locale, a wine bar long beloved in Palo Alto, just opened a second location on the Santa Cruz Wharf, former location of Vino Prima. This gorgeous spot was originally built in 2004 as the tasting room for Beauregard wines.

When Ryan took over the old Bonny Doon “Lost Weekend” tasting room in the hamlet of Bonny Doon in 2009, Larry Jackson took over and established Vino Prima, which became a locals’ wine bar, featuring wide views of West Cliff and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Last year, Jackson decided it was time to retire, so he put the place up for sale, and Vino Locale owners JC Andrade and Debra Szecsei jumped at the chance to establish a second outpost, literally in Debra’s back yard.

Asked what made JC and Debra decide to open another spot, Debra says, “It seemed the right time to have that second child!”

Their official grand opening will be this Friday from 6-9pm, with live music by guitarist Paul Renslow, a lineup of local winemakers from R&W Vineyards, Wood Family Vineyards and Muns Vineyard (plus wine expert Adam Davidow), pouring four very special wines from Henry Wine Group. Vino Locale tapas by resident chef Kyle Kaszubinski will be available, along with a taco and nacho bar by their neighbors at Olitas.

But there’s lots more to the story of how Vino Locale came to be. Here’s how it went down.

When the loveable and endearing Randy Robinson opened Vino Locale on Kipling Street in Palo Alto back in 2005, he had a vision to bring his favorite wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the “other side of the hill.” He’d long been a fan of the Pinots and Chardonnays, not to mention the spicy Cabernet Francs that emanated from the region.

He and his life partner Harry Johnson created the European-style wine bar and bistro that focused on local wines in an old Victorian that felt like home when you walked in the door. There would always be music playing in the kitchen, accompanying the rattle of pots and pans as amazingly complex dishes came forth from what was essentially a large broom closet.

Randy was a foodie, a disarming jokester and a fiercely loyal friend. He loved nothing more than to turn a conversation upside down if someone overstepped the bounds. He created an outdoor space that was magical and became a focal point for gatherings, including many a fundraiser for a worthy cause.

In 2011, Randy (who passed away in September 2015) and Harry sold Vino Locale to three women who had come to love the place. Debra was one of them. She bought out her partners in 2015 and partnered with JC, who lives in Hayward and has the best attitude towards everything.

When asked how things were going with the new place in Santa Cruz, JC said, without missing a beat, “Best day ever!”

JC, who started his hospitality career working for his uncle at Trader Vic’s in Palo Alto, later served as GM at Scott’s Seafood at the Town and Country Mall near Stanford. When it went bust, he had to lay people off, and after a down period at home, started working as a dishwasher at Vino Locale.

“I liked the casual approach to a serious industry,” he says. “Debra had my back. With my energy and her willingness to let me do whatever I wanted, we made some changes.”

They brought in some of JC’s former staff from Scott’s and engaged chef Kyle Kaszubinski, who updated the menu. The new team, including an events coordinator, upgraded the grounds, expanding the front and back patio to host more events.

Says JC, “We went to black linen service to add a fine dining touch to a casual establishment.”

He and Debra realized they had something pretty amazing going, and that it might translate well to a place like Santa Cruz. When Debra, who was born in Oxnard, moved to Santa Cruz last year, the wheels really started to turn.

She had moved to Palo Alto to raise her two children, both of whom are now grown and busy with their own lives, but found herself longing for the ocean. Her sister, Amanda, was already living in Santa Cruz, and had experience working as a server at Vino Locale in Palo Alto, so things just naturally fell into place.

Says Debra, “Amanda knows exactly what customers want. She worked and lived on Maui and helped us to start out in Palo Alto. Because she lives in Westside Santa Cruz, she can receive all the deliveries and get set up for the day.”

JC lives in Hayward, so his new day is waking up there, driving to Palo Alto, making sure all is going well, then driving over the hill to Santa Cruz, where he meets up with Amanda and their new seaside staff, including Stacy and Ricardo, who serves as GM at the Santa Cruz location when JC is not present.

Now everyone is busily preparing for the grand opening on Friday, and tickets are available though Eventbrite, at $35 in advance and $40 at the door. You’ll get 2-ounce pours from each vendor, with 14 wines available, in addition to tapas prepared by Chef Kyle, the taco/nacho bar by Olitas, and a raffle ticket (additional raffle tickets awarded with bottle purchases).

Regular hours for Vino Locale on the Wharf are Monday-Thursday, 2-9pm, and
Friday-Sunday, 12-9pm. Information: (831) 426-0750.