Businessman started out sweeping floors at the shop he now owns and has parlayed into Los Angeles' best, according to Zagat.
Christian Navarro, 48, is president, chief wine taster and partner of Wally’s Wine and Spirits and Wally’s, both in the Los Angeles area. The latter store opened last year and holds 2,500 wines, 200 cheeses, meats, caviar, chocolate and truffles.
Wally’s was founded in 1968 as a liquor store by owner Steve Wallace. Since then it has grown into the best wine shop in Los Angeles, according to the Zagat Survey. Famous customers have included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Eli Broad and former President Bill Clinton.
Navarro and his partners expanded into the auction business in 2014. At a recent New York City auction, 962 wine lots sold for nearly $2.7 million. And there’s more in the works. “I’m trying to build this into a global business, which, in the wine business, has never been accomplished,” he said.
Navarro seemed to be headed in a much different direction in his early years, coming to Palm Springs, Calif., from Mexico with his mother when he was just a baby. “I grew up in a single-parent household. I never knew my dad,” he said. By age 16, he had dropped out of school and left home, living with a succession of friends until “they got tired of me staying with them.” Briefly homeless, he decided to seek better opportunities in Los Angeles.
Navarro applied for two jobs. One was at Wally’s. The other was at a yogurt shop. “I didn’t even want the wine shop job,” he said. “The yogurt shop was going to pay me 50 cents an hour more.” The yogurt shop didn’t hire him. “The only job I could get was sweeping floors at a wine store.”
Navarro remembers when one of the wine buyers asked him to smell a particular vintage. What did he taste and smell? His answer was immediate and correct. “I smelled strawberries,” he said. It turns out that Navarro was a natural, which made sense to him because his ability to detect odors had always been more acute than anyone else around him.
From that point on, Navarro said, he began the serious apprenticeship-like study of wines under the tutelage of Steve Wallace and others at the shop. “I memorized everything I smelled. I felt compelled to do it. … Before I was 21, they put me on the sales floor.”
Navarro’s schmoozing ability won him the nickname “sommelier to the stars,” and those people skills eventually brought him a partner’s spot at Wally’s. In 2013, Wallace “was ready to retire and go fishing.” So Navarro teamed up with Maurice and Paul Marciano, brothers and co-founders of the denim brand Guess, to buy the business for an undisclosed sum. “Because of my upbringing, I was extremely driven,” Navarro said. “I want to win.”
Leadership style: Navarro works hard to cultivate, mentor and teach younger employees, in the same way that he was helped along in the business. He tells them “work hard, keep trying, never give up.” Leading by example, Navarro hits the road as many as 100 days a year in the search for the world’s best wines.
“In all honesty, I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded yet. I really need to be able to do a lot better to reach my goals” of expanding the business, he said.
A guiding light was Los Angeles businessman Ralph Shapiro, a philanthropist and UCLA alumnus, who helped Navarro remember his own humble beginnings. “He would say things like, ‘We’ve all been very lucky.’ He helped instill the importance of giving back.” Navarro serves on the board of Food on Foot, a nonprofit dedicated to providing the poor and homeless of Los Angeles with meals, clothing and assistance in gaining their independence and getting off the streets.
Navarro’s work doesn’t leave much time for hobbies, but he does squeeze in some cultural attractions on those many business trips. “I always try to find time to visit a museum,” he said, and he take every opportunity he has to study his favorite artist, Pablo Picasso.