And yes, to this day, you will often getting the chiding snide of a self-proclaimed sophisticate claiming no one who "truly loves wine" would ever touch the buffoonery that is white zin—much like coffee lovers tend to sneer toward Starbucks, using the learning curve of Americans' cuisine education as a punchline. But make no mistake: The influx of boxed, sweet wines contributed to the growth of wine culture in the U.S., just as Starbucks can be largely be pointed to as the reason that most Americans know what a latte is.
"White zin really ushered in a new generation of wine drinkers," Kemner said. "Following that came the sweet chardonnay trend and then the boom of the 90s, when I opened The Wine Country."
Kemner's knowledge—a wonderfully humanistic mix of curiosity, tenacity, and outright astuteness—is offered with a succinctness that is part of his charm: At one moment, you will be discussing how Germans were making some of the best sweet wine in the world but the international shift to drier wines in the 1990s made them question their own business model, ultimately failing to stick to what they do best. This would lead to a conversation about authenticity, including authenticity within one's self as Kemner opens up about his earlier-but-ultimately-failed attempt at music. At another moment, Kemner would be breaking down the rosé explosion, talking about how his first rosé tasting had a mere 13 people attend to where current tastings could see well over a 100 (at least pre-COVID; they are holding back on tastings until safety is assured). This would lead to a conversation about what makes a Côtes-du-Rhône rosé so beautifully unique.
And the space of The Wine Country fits that knowledge: What was once just a place for wine is now a place for craft beer—Kemner even installed an entire refrigerated section to keep up with the boom in craft beer that overtook the 2010s, particularly here in SoCal—and an entire section of liquor and spirits that have come with the craft cocktail boom that has largely replaced Jack-and-Cokes at restaurants.
It is a space that simultaneously harnesses tradition while adapting to evolution. And with the expansion of his market space due to COVID—where beautifully lined packages of salumi and cheeses sit among rows of jams, crackers, pastas, and more—Kemner is doubling down on the hopes that Americans can begin to understand how wines can be made better with and for food; to tie the wine experience to more than just downing a glass of $150 Napa cab.