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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.

"She was responsible for the rise in popularity of all the southern Italian wines," said Wardell, who also worked for a year as sommelier at Flour + Water restaurant in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, at A16 he had met winemaker Mick Unti of Healdsburg's Unti Vineyards, and a friendship ensued over bottles of Italian wine. Wardell served as a cellar hand during each crush season at Unti Vineyards from 2007 to 2010.

Three years ago, he moved to Healdsburg and worked at Scopa restaurant before opening the bar with his girlfriend, Sarah Johnson, who joined him from Portland, Ore.

"We met 15 years ago on a mountaintop in Switzerland," Wardell said. "We've chased each other ever since."

When it opened, Bergamot Alley raised a few eyebrows because it doesn't carry local wine, but Unti believes it fills a key niche.

"Winemakers are excited to find out more about wines around the world," Unti said. "More and more have had their interest piqued about cultivating those from here."

With the help of Johnson's artistic eye, the look of Bergamot Alley continues to evolve, with a painted map of Europe planned above the wine shop shelves.

"Maps are always fun when you're talking about wine," Wardell said. "It's an unending learning experience."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane. peterson@pressdemocrat.com.