Noe Valley Voice April 2001

Newsom and Co. Acquire 24th Street Wine Shop

By Corrie M. Anders

Steve Kerr has had enough. After eight years of dispensing fine wines, doggy treats, and civic boosterism from behind the counter of Caruso Wine & Liquor, Kerr is getting out of the business.

Enter PlumpJack, which wants more. The high-profile San Francisco firm--whose most prominent principals include San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom, billionaire socialite Gordon Getty, and Gordon's son, Bill Getty--has purchased Caruso's in a deal that is expected to close sometime this month.

"I love Noe Valley," said Newsom, PlumpJack's general manager. "That's why we've always been interested in expanding to Noe Valley, and then this opportunity came up."

The change won't be immediately apparent. The new owners plan to take a few months before putting their imprimatur on Caruso's, a neighborhood fixture located at 4011 24th Street (between Noe and Castro) since the dry era of Prohibition more than seven decades ago.

"We don't want to be too dramatic," Newsom said. "I'd like to marry the two. We want to respect [Caruso's] tradition and past, and at the same time update it."

PlumpJack is exactly the kind of quality organization that Kerr hoped would take over Caruso's, the store owner said.

In only a few years, PlumpJack has achieved wide distinction for offering fine wining and dining. In 1992, the organization opened PlumpJack Wines in Cow Hollow, followed by two upscale restaurants, PlumpJack Cafe and the Balboa Cafe. The firm also owns a winery in Napa Valley and the Squaw Valley Inn at Lake Tahoe. This year, PlumpJack is opening a wine store and restaurant at Lake Tahoe, another restaurant on Fillmore Street (in the old Pierce Street Annex), as well as the Noe Valley retail wine venture.

"We have tremendous respect for the type of business they run,'' Kerr said of PlumpJack, which was one of three groups interested in purchasing Caruso's. "We didn't want it to become the kind of business with Lotto machines and half pints of vodka."

Kerr, a wine consultant, and partner Al Carlson, a plumber, bought Caruso's in 1993. They were only the fourth owners of the business, founded by a local Caruso family shortly after the 1920­1933 prohibition against making and selling alcoholic beverages ended. The store still has a number of circa 1930s mementos and has kept its original telephone number--ATwater 2-3841.

Under Kerr and Carlson, Caruso "staked its claim" on quality wines priced under $10 a bottle--even as prices for popular premium wines escalated to the point where $20 price tags became routine. The store also carried a unique selection of wines from around the world. Kerr helped customers make the proper choice to accompany meals, and he frequently got invited to their dinner parties. But, Kerr laments, the long weekday and weekend hours of a small, independent merchant, and San Francisco's insane housing prices, have taken their toll.

"My family and I couldn't buy a house here," said Kerr, who is married with a 4-year-old child. "We could in Boston ... and we'll be on a plane as soon as the deal is done." Kerr said his partner, Carlson, already has returned full-time to his licensed plumbing business.

"I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this business. It's going to be hard for me to say goodbye,'' said Kerr, who was known for handing out treats to customers' dogs and helping to raise money for local causes.

Several years ago, Caruso's held a series of wine tastings to raise money for the Noe Valley Ministry's successful "Save the Roof" campaign. The tastings took in approximately $1,200, raising "more money than any other single merchant on this street,'' Kerr said.

Caruso's was a frequent donor to both private and public school auctions, contributing expensive wines such as 1992 Quivira Zinfandel and 1990 Chateau Tayac. "We donated to 15 or 16 different schools," including Wind in the Willows preschool, Alvarado Elementary School, and James Lick Middle School, he said.

Civic responsibility, good customer service, and competitive prices will continue with the new owners, said Newsom.

"So much of what has driven our success in the Marina is value, and that is precisely what we want to duplicate in Noe Valley," Newsom said. He promises his inventory will be heavy on "wines under $15 and down to $10, if possible."

Newsom said he liked the diversity of Caruso's selection. Still, he said PlumpJack wants "a little bit more depth," and thus plans to add "a lot of the small production wineries from all over the world."

The new owners, however, don't plan to ignore wine collectors. "We will definitely have a great selection of higher-end wines that are difficult to come by. One of [our] advantages is that we're able to get our hands on wines that others cannot."

Newsom said the new owners also would continue Caruso's civic-mindedness. "We do an extraordinary amount of charitable work. We give a tremendous amount of our time and profits to community groups," said Newsom, noting that a recent PlumpJack golf tournament netted in excess of $100,000 for charities.

"That's a big part of what we do," he said.