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‘Disneyland for your mouth’

Posted: December 11th, 2015 | Features, Food & Drink, Top Story | No Comments

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Unique Hillcrest retail store also doubles as a bar, liquor store and tasting room

If you haven’t yet stepped into vom FASS, a fairly new retail store located next to Ralph’s in the HUB shopping center, your taste buds are truly missing out.

Seven months ago, proprietors Jay and Colleen Cavalieri opened up the Hillcrest store — which features exotic oils and vinegars, quality wines, and dozens of small batch and barrel-aged spirits — because they wanted to be smack dab in the middle of a hip neighborhood.

jay & colleenwebtop

(l to r) Jay and Colleen Cavalieri, owners of Hillcrest’s vom FASS tasting room (Photo by Kel Casey)

The German-based franchise — vom FASS means “from the barrel” — has been around for two decades. It has stores throughout Europe, Hong Kong, Dubai and the Philippines, but the Hillcrest location is only the fourth store of its kind in California.

“It’s a European way of shopping,” Colleen said, referring to the multitude of bottle shapes and sizes a selected purchase may come in. “It is also a Hillcrest way of shopping. You buy what you need for the short term and you shop often.”

She said it especially works well for people coming and going to Ralphs or Trader Joe’s in an area she calls “the errand mall.”

“Our only struggle has been trying to get people to slow down. Slow down and come in, because they barely look up,” she said, referring to the constant flow of foot traffic they see passing by the store.

That foot traffic, however, has brought them a lot of business and they have already established a solid base of repeat clientele.

“The people who want Two Buck Chuck, we can’t compete with that,” Jay said of their wine selection. “We’ve had some people get sticker shock on our craft spirits; it’s crazy good, but it is not cheap.”

The store is split into two sides with oils and vinegars to the left and spirits and wines to the right.

Holiday gift sets are easy to personalize - just taste, choose and fill. (Photo by Kel Casey)

Holiday gift sets are easy to personalize – just taste, choose and fill. (Photo by Kel Casey)

These are not your mom’s oils and vinegars, though they have those, too. There are amazing tastes you would never associate with the word vinegar and the dozens of exotic oils here that can either be paired with a vinegar or used alone.

It was a complete surprise to hear that many of the oils and vinegars can also be mixed with the spirits for various throwback cocktails called “Shrubs.”

The best part? You get to try everything before you buy. Taste testing is not only allowed at Vom Fass, it is highly encouraged and expected.

Each of the oils and vinegars are shipped in blister-style containers that never see light or touch the inside of their ceramic dispensers, meaning the quality of the products keep their integrity, no matter what. Small white ceramic spoons offer dozens of unique tastes you won’t find elsewhere.

Some of their many oil varieties include options within the nut, extra virgin olive, seed, wellness and infused styles with hints of avocado, almond, pistachio, walnut, pumpkin seed, grape seed, sesame and more. Vinegar varieties go from classic balsamics to exclusive fruit balsamics, with offerings such as fig, date, apple, mango, cranberry and other flavors.

Colleen said she attended 12 days of training at vom FASS’ U. S. headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, and she continues to learn about their vast inventory every day.

The combinations found here can be used for bread-dips, marinades, salad dressings, smoothies … you name it. The possibilities are literally endless, especially if you enjoy your time in the kitchen. The Vom Fass website offers lots of recipe ideas and you’ll find more ideas in the store.

Spirits can come in various sizes, too (Photo by Kel Casey)

Spirits can come in various sizes, too (Photo by Kel Casey)

If you are looking for a holiday present for a hard-to-buy for friend or loved one, or don’t know what to bring your Secret Santa at the office, Vom Fass may have you singing a holiday tune the minute you walk in that door.

After tasting, you can purchase a glass container and fill it with your oil or vinegar of choice, or put together a gift set or even a gift basket filled with items.

They have custom bread-dipping plates and glass bowls and just about anything you can think of to make your basket unique and personalized. Bottle sizes are 100 ml, 200 ml, 250 ml, 350 ml, 500 ml, 750 ml and 1 Liter, with gift pack sizes available in 40 ml, 50 ml and 100 ml.

On the other side of the store, things get even more interesting and complicated.

Colleen explained that the right side of the store holds two different types of liquor licenses, which gave ABC a headache as they struggled to wade through the permit process. Since Colleen and Jay’s store does tastings, they are considered a bar; but since they dispense spirits and have retail, they are also considered a liquor store.

A wall of oak barrels greets customers as Jay takes the reins. It’s not that Colleen lacks skills on this side of the store — after all she steps in frequently when Jay, a retired Navy Commander, works his day job as a military contractor — it’s just that the spirits are what appealed to Jay from the start.

Inside those oak barrels are the world’s finest whiskeys, brandys, aged rums, 40-year old cognacs, and both single malt and Scotch blends.

Kegs filled with whiskeys and brandys (Photo by Kel Casey)

Kegs filled with rare and small batch whiskeys and brandys from around the world (Photo by Kel Casey)

“You’d be hard pressed to find many of these Scotches somewhere where you’d actually be able to have a glass, let alone take a bottle home,” Jay said, adding that many of the distilleries they carry are small batch only and very rare, but actually owned by big houses like MacCallan, Chivas, and Johnny Walker.

They even carry several styles of Absinthe, an anise-flavored, highly alcoholic spirit that was outlawed in the U.S. until 2007.

Again, you can mix and match various bottle sizes when youfind one you like, but these are prefilled and sealed for obvious reasons.

Beyond the barrels are more spirits; dozens of liqueurs, in flavors you’ve never seen, like latte macchiato, pina colada, rose petal, elderberry and violette — the latter three which are great for mixing with sparkling wines and champagnes. Jay will walk you through them all, just ask.

They even offer a “cocktail of the week,” and may soon offer three options, since technically, they are a bar.

“Anyone can always come in and get a glass of wine or a glass of Scotch,” Jay said.

While walk-in tastings are free — by law the limit is six samples –– glasses range in price but are more than comparable considering the quality and uniqueness of the spirit you receive.

For the holidays, they are planning to serve a “Naughty and Nice” cocktail; a mixture of pink grapefruit liqueur, clear absinthe and a splash of cranberry vinegar.

It was actually one of the gins that sealed the deal for Jay. He and Colleen were visiting a relative’s store in Claremont, California, when a taster glass of clear, piney gin was mixed with a couple drops of plum vinegar. Jay was sold.

“For me as a taste explorer, this place is like Disneyland for your mouth,” he said.

In the wine section, Jay and Colleen get to call the shots when it comes to inventory, and they often let their customers do so, too. You’ll again find wine labels you can’t pick up elsewhere, but all the grape varietals that matter: pinots, cabs, chardonnays, merlot, zinfandels, a very bold sauvignon blanc, syrahs, barberas, and even moscatos and ports.

A wall of colorful and flavorful spirits and liqueurs just waiting to be tasted.

A wall of colorful and flavorful spirits and liqueurs just waiting to be tasted.

They always have a bottle or two open or a special tasting going on. This month they are selling mass amounts of “Vin Glogg,” a spicy winter wine that is served warm.

In addition to the walk-in sip tastings, vom FASS has weekly wine tastings, which generally run for $5, regular sparkling wine tastings, Scotch and Absinthe classes, blind tastings, and with a little notice, you can even create your own event. For groups of 20 they will shut down the store for you, but Jay said more than 30 can hamper the experience.

This couple loves what they do and it shows. They make contact with every person that enters the store, even the ones who linger outside, because they want you to breech that doorway before passing judgment on what’s inside.

“I want you to feel like, ‘you know what, I enjoy those people, and I learned something,’” Jay said. “We really try to engage our regular customers, and we’ll make sure we’re carrying the wine you want”.

“Slow down and taste awhile,” Colleen added.

vom FASS is located at 1050 University Ave., E103, in Uptown’s HUB Shopping Center in Hillcrest. For more information, visit hillcrest.vomfassusa.com, join their newsletter or stop in and check out their events.

—Reach Morgan M. Hurley at morgan@sdcnn.com.

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