Hollywood and vines

Showbiz players tap wine pros for libation information

When Christian Navarro’s cell phone rings, it often signals a wine crisis.

That phrase may seem hyperbolic, but given the emphasis in showbiz on entertaining, a problem with wine is serious indeed.

One couple called recently about a stuck cork in a bottle from the 1940s, the partner at Wally’s of Westwood recalls.

“I walked them through the process,” Navarro says. “They had two different types of wine openers, and they created a brace using both of the openers. The cork came right out. It’s easy once you’ve seen it.”

Navarro is among a handful of noted oenophiles who guide Hollywood players through the international maze of reds and whites. Others are Dennis Overstreet of the Wine Merchant, Piero Selveggio of Valentino restaurant and the Knight family of the Wine House in West L.A.

At 35 years old, Navarro has built up a sizable client list for a high school dropout who never worked a day in showbiz. The roster includes Courtney Cox Arquette, Jack Nicholson, Jackie Chan, Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise, Eli Broad, Garth Ancier and Michael Mann.

His engagement to actress Traylor Howard has not given him any delusions about the Hollywood lifestyle, however.

“First of all, I don’t think I can act,” he says. “My fiancee tells me I’m the worst. And the truth is, I just love what I do.”

The passion began early. As a child, Navarro smelled everything — “my socks, silverware, food,” he remembers. “I couldn’t figure out why I needed to smell everything.”

Born in Mexico City, Navarro grew up in Palm Springs under the tutelage of his hotel and restaurant consultant mother. He initially came to L.A. with plans to become a painter, settling into a downtown loft.

Artists need a day job, however, and Navarro’s was sweeping floors at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills.

Within a couple of years, his knack for wine had asserted itself. A couple of industry clients yielded the coin of the service industry realm: referrals. Before long, Navarro was at Wally’s, an L.A. mainstay founded in 1968.

Sydney Pollack, who has bought wine from Navarro for many years, describes him as “low-key. He doesn’t try to be a salesman. You don’t ever feel like you’re getting sold, or snowed or spun in any way.

“In Hollywood, where everyone generally has too much money and is a target for overpriced things … you never feel Christian takes advantage.”

Knowing his customers is especially key in an ego-driven business like Hollywood.

Navarro’s database of who drinks what is numbers around 4,000. Cruise, for example, enjoys the 1995 burgundy from Domaine de la Romanee Conti. De Niro favors Petron Tequila. And Nicholson would probably be happy with a bottle of Roederer Cristal Champagne.

Customization also breeds loyalty. Navarro also has assisted people in setting up cellars in planes and boats and purchasing vineyards. He once arranged for a $10,000 bottle of Scotch to be hand-carried from Scotland to his client in Tiburon.

Unlike vendors in some luxury segments, Navarro spends plenty of time talking clients out of purchases.

“You gotta slow down,” Navarro chides his friend and client Matthew Velkes, an exec at Pandemonium, as he shops at Wally’s. “First of all you have too much wine,” he continues. “And you don’t have enough good wine.”

Velkes takes this in stride. Clearly it is something he has heard before.

“The problem is,” says Velkes, “he’s introduced me to some really good wines. And you can’t go backwards.”