Fortune USA 201906

(Chris Devlin) #1





lawn to shoo passersby away from potential
flying cork and glass, but a suave Frenchman
does the job quickly, cleanly, and seemingly
effortlessly as Navarro whoops and shoots a
video on his phone. As the host, isn’t he a bit
“Look, we’re in Hawaii,” he says. I think I see
his eyes roll behind his shades; a diamond-
encrusted cross glints below his neck. “For
me, it’s easy. People showed up; these guys are
professionals. I just have to go around, shake
hands, and remember everybody’s name. If I
can do that, it’s all good.”
Navarro’s swagger and carefree attitude
belie his unlikely ascent to the top of the
high-end wine world. His mother brought
him to the U.S. when he was a toddler, fleeing
violence in their native Mexico City. They
settled in Palm Springs, but Navarro “never
went to school,” he says, and at 18 he hitch-
hiked to Los Angeles with dreams of making
it as an artist and friends who let him crash
with them, to a point. “I was homeless,” he
says. “I lived on the street and needed to get
a job.” He applied for one at a frozen yogurt
chain called Penguin’s and another at Wally’s,
a wine shop in the Westwood neighborhood of
L.A. “Penguin’s didn’t hire me because I didn’t
have a high school diploma,” he says, “but the
wine store needed a floor sweeper.”
He struck up a friendship with the founder
of Wally’s, Steve Wallace, who got curious
about his floor sweeper’s palate after he wafted
a Pinot Noir under Navarro’s nose and Navarro
correctly identified its aroma as strawberry.
“I sat down and started tasting wine, and I
found, even though I couldn’t read very well,
I can’t do math very well, I’m probably a little
dyslexic, that I could remember everything
I smelled and tasted, and then was able to
articulate it back,” he says. During the 1980s
he was Wallace’s right-hand man, nurturing
relationships with famous clients who came
in to build their cellars, like Tom Cruise, Jack
Nicholson, financier Michael Milken, and
Michael Ovitz, cofounder of Creative Artists
Agency. “Those two guys [Milken and Ovitz]
took me under their wing and introduced me
to everybody,” Navarro recalls. “They kept
saying I’m the best. Even if I’m not the best, if
they say I’m the best, now I’m the best.”
Because of his deep virtual Rolodex of wine

buyers and sellers, if Navarro gets, say, an
allocation of a particularly coveted Bordeaux,
he very likely knows collectors who have been
waiting to pounce on it. These days he texts
with clients like Drake, who rap-bragged
about booking a private room at Wally’s in his
2018 song “Diplomatic Immunity”: “Booked
a private room at Wally’s/Waiter twistin’ the
cork.” Drake was referring to the Beverly Hills
location of Wally’s, a hybrid bar, restaurant,
and wine shop; a similar outpost opened in
Santa Monica last year.
In 2013, when Wallace retired, Navarro
bought Wally’s with Paul and Maurice Mar-
ciano, the brothers behind the Guess clothing
line who have long trusted him to steer them
in the right direction when it comes to wine.
“He has a passion for wine, a knowledge for
wine, that I haven’t seen in many people,” says
Maurice. “He also has great, great contacts.
He develops relationships. There is no price
for that. Either you have it or you don’t.”
In 2016, the Maui Four Seasons entrusted
Navarro with the task of elevating its wine
lists. (Guests in “elite suites” can choose from
a rarefied menu that includes a 2012 Château
Pétrus and a 2009 Cristal.) “He also said, ‘It
can’t be me picking the wines, and you leave
it at that,’ ” says Mark Simon, the resort’s
director of marketing. “You need to invest in
your people.”
At Navarro’s suggestion, the resort estab-
lished a program that pays for sommelier
training for any employee who’s interested. It
now has 20 people in the sommelier program
and one master sommelier. “Three years ago,
we only had two somms on property, total,”
Simon notes.
Somms greet Navarro with bear hugs.
Throughout the weekend, well-wishers buzz
around him. But he continues to insist he’s
nothing special. When asked if there was a
moment when he realized that he’s pretty
good at this wine thing, he says, “I still don’t
think that. Because of my youth and my past,
I’ve never really looked in the rearview mirror.
If I stop to think about it, it kind of scares
me.” Plus, he says, gesturing at the bubbling
Billecart-Salmon, there are more pressing
matters at hand. “You can come here and
have a world-class gastronomic experience. In
the Pacific, there’s nothing like this.”

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