Take Five With Lisa Rhorer of the New Cin-Cin Winebar

Lisa Rhorer enjoying Bethel Heights Estate Pinot Noir 2004 Willamette Valley. Photo by Dave LiporiAs Google’s first marketing manager, Lisa Rhorer learned to think outside the box. That’s why the 40-year-old was undeterred when it came to leaving behind her passion for high tech to pursue another — wine.

On May 13, she will open the doors to her own wine bar and lounge, Cin-Cin, 368 Village Lane in Los Gatos (formerly Cafe Marcella). It’s a venture with longtime South Bay/Peninsula restaurateur Don Durante, the former executive chef of Le Mouton Noir in Saratoga, and Birk’s in Santa Clara, who now also owns Cascal in Mountain View.

With its use of bamboo, cork, recycled glass, and reclaimed black walnut, Cin-Cin emphasizes sustainability. That’s evident in the wines, too. The majority of the ones featured are made by eco-conscious producers.

With a menu of small plates infused with Asian and Spanish flavors, Cin-Cin invites you to linger. Don’t miss the Diner Sliders, cute as a button, and juicy as can be mini burgers made from organic house-ground beef and nestled inside tender Parker House rolls.

The executive chef is Los Gatos-native Chris Schloss, who has cooked at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland; Azul in Miami; and Telepan in New York City. Durante has known Schloss since he was a kid, as Schloss’ father was involved with Birk’s.

Rhorer’s Google stock options came in handy to help finance the wine bar. After working for the search engine giant for three years, Rhorer left in 2005 to enroll in the wine studies program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Later, she traveled extensively in Europe to meet winemakers there, then went on to work at the Vintage Wine Merchants in San Jose’s Santana Row and to be a wine buyer for Whole Foods in Los Altos.

We chatted about how working at Google prepared her to start her own business, her favorite food and wine pairing, and her remembrance of her first sip of wine when she was all of 10 years old.

Q: You were really that young when you had your first taste of wine?

A: Yes. It was a Robert Mondavi Cabernet. My Dad was taking wine appreciation classes when I was growing up. He took us to Napa. We visited the Mondavi winery. He was a huge fan of Mondavi Cabs.

We always had wine at the table. He allowed me to have one finger-full of wine at the table. It was less than an ounce. I did like it. I liked the feel on my palate. The funny thing, though, is that Cabs are not my favorite now.

 Q: What are your faves now?

A: By going to Austria and Germany, I learned to really enjoy Rieslings, drier Burgundys, and Gruner Veltliner. For reds, I like drier, more complex ones like Pinot Noir from Oregon or Burgandy. I don’t drink a lot of Merlots and Cabs, I have a sugar sensitivity. The high alcohol of wine in California don’t agree with me. I get real headachy and bloatedness.  The high sugar and high alcohol also mask food. I really go for wines that go well with food because it creates a harmonious experience. That’s why I go for wines with more complexity and elegance.

Q: What is it about wine that captured you?

A. It’s an intellectual beverage. You learn about the culture of people, geology, and vineyard practices. Wine is one of those things you can never learn enough about it. And there’s a pleasure from drinking good wine. It evokes all the senses — your nose, mouth and brain.

Q: What made you decide to open a wine bar?

A: It’s the new watering hole or new Starbucks. Back in the day, people used to go to saloons to catch up at the end of a busy day. As we get busier and become a more sophisticated culture, we still need that watering hole.  I want to provide an environment for them where they don’t feel intimidated and can learn.

Organic, sustainability, and biodynamic is also very important to me. A grape skin is very permeable. Anytime you’re spraying with pesticides you digest that, and you erode the soil. It’s not good for the land and it’s not good for you. I’ve seen what it takes for growers to change their practices. It’s a lot of work. And I want to support that.

Q: How did working at Google prepare you to open a wine bar?

A: It taught me that it doesn’t matter if a ton of people are out there doing something. With Google, there was also Excite, and Lycos. But there’s always a better way to do things.  Google taught me not to be deterred, that just because there are a lot of people out there already, that doesn’t mean you can’t go for your dream.

Q. What is a favorite, moderately priced wine that you wish more people would discover?

A. Castle Rock Pinot Noirs. The wines are about $11 on up. The higher level line is Castle Rock Russian River, which is about $22.  It’s well made wine for the price. O’Reilly, which has an Irish Shepherd on its labels, also makes good Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s a great value (about $15 a bottle). A to Z in Oregon makes nice Pinot Gris, Rose, and an entry-level Pinot Noir. They aren’t complicated wines, but they are great wines.

Q: What’s your favorite food and wine pairing?

A: In Las Vegas recently, I had a memorable one. Riesling from Austria or Germany has the ability to be very food friendly. It’s sweet, but the acidity makes it go with many foods. We were at Bobby Flay’s restaurant, and I ordered tuna nachos, which was really tuna tartare that had a lot of heat to it. And heat loves sweetness, so the sweetness of the Riesling made this great marriage on my palate. It was magical. I know it sounds weird to get excited about things like that, but the purity of the fish, the spiciness of the jalapenos, the crunch of the chips, and the coolness of crème fraiche, along with the apricot and the acidity of the Riesling, it was like ‘Wow’!

Q:  How do you want to leave your mark on the wine world?

A: I want to be an educator. I want to get people back to basics as to what food and wine is all about — bringing people together. I want to get them to try Austrian wines or something else they never would have, and to remember, ‘She really made me think.’

Q: What varietal is most like your personality?

A: Pinot. It’s elegant, sophisticated, and has some complexity to it. I like to think of myself as someone who goes well with others. And Pinot goes well with a lot of foods. It is always changing in the glass; it’s never the same. I like personal growth where you’re always changing and learning.

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