Kevin Wardell doesn't look or sound like a wine geek. But once he starts talking Italian wine varietals, his inner nerd spills out.
That's because the energetic East Coaster has a deep, abiding passion for the subject, and the knowledge to back it up.
"I try not to take it so seriously," said Wardell, who opened Bergamot Alley Bar & Wine Merchants in Healdsburg 19 months ago. "Then I laugh at myself. I am a geek. I do get geeky about it."
If you hang around Wardell long enough, sooner or later you'll find yourself tasting his favorite red wine: a Lacrima di Morro d'Alba from the Marche region of Italy, where the ancient Lacrima grape is grown.
"It's from the central east coast of Italy, on the calf of the boot," said the 40-year-old sommelier. "It's super aromatic, and it reminds me of Earl Grey tea."
The fragrance of the Lacrima grape, which is reminiscent of the Bergamot orange, was the inspiration for the name of his wine bar, located in a narrow, historic storefront at 328 Healdsburg Ave.
Along with the wine he serves (all of it from obscure wine regions outside the U.S.), Wardell is passionate about what kind of music he plays. And truth be told, he's a music geek as well.
That's obvious when you listen to the vinyl spinning on the record player, or realize he keeps lists organized by tucking them inside an old 78-RPM record cover. Wardell's taste tends toward the eclectic while remaining approachable.
"A lot of my music is Latin jazz," he said. "But I'm really drawn to bluegrass ... and at the end of the day, it's New Orleans funk — anything with a horn section."
Bergamot Alley also boasts all kinds of quirky, recycled decor, including wooden shelves from a local machine shop, elementary-school chairs and high-top tables lined with 1950s hot-dog-bun-baking trays.
Initially a magnet for the young and the hip, the bar has evolved into a cool community center for folks of all ages who enjoy the late-night vibe, free Sunday afternoon concerts and Monday night movies and pingpong tournaments.
"We wanted to create a space for people who wanted to have a glass of wine but not be in a bar," he said. "We designed it like you're going into somebody's basement to hang out."
While growing up in Yorktown, N.Y., and Old Greenwich, Conn., Wardell played lots of pingpong with his three siblings in the family's basement.
"My dad owns an electrical contracting business," he said. "He told me, 'Don't become an electrician.' I was the only one that ran away."
After studying anthropology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., he worked in advertising as a music producer in New York City.
"I came up with the music for commercials," he said. "It was great running around Manhattan, but the city was not for me."
From 1999 to 2003, Wardell worked at a nightclub in Aspen, Colo., then helped a friend open a restaurant.
"That started my thirst for learning about wine," he said. "So I moved to San Francisco."
From 2004 to 2009, Wardell honed his knowledge of Italian wine alongside owner/sommelier Shelley Lindgren of A16, the mothership of hip Italian restaurants in San Francisco.