Interview with Jason Cooper Velvet 48 Owner + Founder

After 20 years in the industry as a wine buyer, sommelier and winery sales
manager what was the moment that you remember knowing you wanted to open
a wine bar?

I wasn’t working while I was taking care of my mom in her final months. After
she died in September 2017, I was at a crossroads- get a job or go out on my own.
I had been saying for years that Burlingame needed a good wine bar…

What was your first wine job? Can you please share more about your extensive
background in the industry and some of the brands you have worked for prior to
opening Velvet 48?

My evolution into the wine industry came from bartending. I started working at
nicer places, restaurants with extensive wine lists, and I was bitten by the wine
bug. I started reading, taking classes and tasting as much as I could. My first real
“wine” job was managing a small wine shop in Northern Massachusetts.
Eventually I found my way to working for an importer, The Grateful Palate, as a
sales manager for New England. I later moved to California and worked as a sales
manager for Cain Vineyard and Winery for 4 years and Somerston Estate for 4
years.

For those that haven’t visited your gorgeous new location, what inspired the
hybrid wine bar and retail wine store model?

In my travels, I always enjoyed calling on those types of restaurants or wine bars-
the kind that have the wine on display so that you can browse more visually,
beyond just looking at a list. I knew that the alcohol license we were pursuing
allowed for on-premise consumption, but it also allowed for to go sales. I don’t
think of Velvet 48 as a retail establishment- it’s a wine bar… but if folks want
wine to go, I’m happy to oblige!

How would you describe the experience guests will have at Velvet 48? There is
one very distinguishable welcome gesture you share with guests (which I enjoyed
during my visit), can you share more about how you welcome guests? What
inspired this generous and memorable welcome (which isn’t found at every wine
bar or restaurant).

Everyone who walks through the door gets a complimentary splash of our Velvet
48 Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine as soon as they come in. One thing I’ve noticed (at
least about myself) is that you can’t really relax and settle in to a bar or restaurant
until you have your drink. I wanted people to feel immediately comfortable so I
decided everyone should have something in their glass while they browse the
wine carts or peruse the 400+ selection wine list. It’s a sort of amuse bouche,
wine bar style.

With a wine list of over 400 selections, 5,000+ bottles and Dom Perignon AND
Krug available by the glass (which I enjoyed during my visit), how did you create
the wine list? What is the process to build a wine list so large for a brand-new
wine bar/restaurant?

Well, Krug and Dom are my two favorite Champagnes, so I always knew I wanted
to offer those by the glass. Honestly, it was too easy to get to 400 wines- I
originally thought it would be more like 300. I wanted to have the all best wines
in the world, but along the way we found so many wines that seemed to make
sense, that we ended up with over 400. We tasted hundreds of wines in the weeks
leading up to our opening and I am grateful I have an amazing team of wine
people that helped me decide the right wines we should have.
For brands wanting to be considered for your incredible wine list, how often do
you taste with new brands? How can brands be considered as possible brands for
new additions as your list evolves and updates?
I’m always willing to taste. As someone who was on the winery side, I know how
hard it is. But I won’t compromise if I think the wine doesn’t fit here. We’re trying
to provide an amazing experience and that means being selective about the wines.

What are some of the brands you carry that are well known amongst California
wine consumers?

I’ve tried to balance the brands that are more well known with the more esoteric
selections while maintaining the idea that we’re a wine destination. We tend to
avoid anything with a big supermarket presence or doesn’t fit with our model of a
luxury experience. Some of the brands people might recognize include Cade,
Rochioli, Chateau Montelena, Cakebread, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Frog’s Leap
and Shafer Vineyards.

What about some brands that are less known but you’re offering and seeing
success with on your wine list?

Our Albariño from Granbazan is knocking it out of the park and our Tasmanian
Pinot Noir from Tolpuddle is winning over a lot of Pinot fans.

Within the wine industry we taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel
bad about spitting because you love it so much?

If a wine is so good that I feel bad about spitting it out, I just don’t spit.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your career in the wine
industry?

Not listening to those who knew more than I did but conversely, also not
speaking up when I thought the direction we were headed wasn’t right.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?

For better or worse, I haven’t really had a mentor. While challenging, it made me
pretty adept at figuring things out myself.

What is something you’d like to share about Velvet 48 that you want people to
know about from this interview?
We’re a wine bar, not a restaurant, and we’re about cultivating an experience, not
just serving drinks.
What is your favorite after work drink?

High West Bourye Manhattan, easy on the vermouth.

What is your favorite local spot in Burlingame (besides Velvet 48 which is my
new favorite)?

The Park & Howard Bistro (located at, you guessed it, the intersection of Park St.
& Howard Ave.) has the best food in town and a pretty killer wine list. It flies
under the radar because it isn’t on Burlingame Avenue, but it’s worth going out
your way to try.

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