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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

Dream Cellars: Clyde Beffa, co-founder of K&L Wine Merchants

In 1976, childhood friends Clyde Beffa Jr. and Todd Zucker founded K&L in Millbrae, CA on New Years day. Todd did the liquor buying and Clyde did the wine buying. What started as an inventory of 95% liquor in a small bottle shop on the San Francisco peninsula flipped to 95% wine (with an incredible spirits selection) and is now known as one of the most respected wine and spirits retailers in the world with three retail locations in California and the best online retail store in the country. Prior to wine, Clyde was a dairy farmer in Tracy, CA, a town about an hour east of Silicon Valley.

"Had K&L co-owner and main wine buyer Clyde Beffa Jr. not read an article about the gentlemanly hobby of wine collecting in the February 1971 issue of Playboy, he might still be weighing the merits of Holsteins versus Jerseys instead of Château Margaux or Haut-Bailly. Beffa owned a dairy in Tracy, California, from 1967-1973, leaving the the business to co-found K&L Liquors, as it was known back then, in 1976. Clyde started traveling to Europe in 1982 and over the years, he has worked hard to build K&L into one of the nation's go-to sources for the world's diverse wines, developing relationships with winemakers and châteaux owners the world over. Clyde's passion is surely Bordeaux, especially the fabulous wines from Pauillac and St-Julien (like Pichon-Lalande and Léoville-Barton). When he's not drinking France's legendary reds, you'll likely find Clyde indulging in Sauvignon Blanc. A fan of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and white Bordeaux, he'll also tuck into a bottle of Kiwi Sauv Blanc if there's no corkscrew around. These days you'll likely find Clyde extolling the virtues of underrated Bordeaux vintages like 1991, 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2006, or playing with his German Shepherd. Or you may see him in his vegetable garden and, once in a great while, on the golf course."

For those of us who have worked with Clyde in any capacity in the wine industry, the man is on the highest pedestal. Having worked for K&L at the beginning of my full time wine career after transitioning from my career as a chef, he took me under his wing, and gave me the responsibility of reviewing many of the Right Bank Bordeaux that we were importing, because in 2009, I declared that I had a "Parker palate" (face palm emoji in 2022 to that declaration). But it turns out, those are now his go to's for enjoyable drinking.

Clyde allowed me to attend and serve at every Bordeaux event that we held or were a part of, starting with the 2009 release at the annual UGC event in January, to the Wine Spectator events (from which I still have a selection of 2010 Smith Haut Lafitte tucked away), to the consumer tastings, and dinners with the famed sommelier Tonya Pitts at One Market in San Francisco. There were lavish dinners at RN74 with the winemakers, holiday parties at Left Bank, and humble barbecues in the parking lot of K&L in Redwood City, all accompanied with unimaginable wines.

In 2014, he gave me his blessing to go on a buying trip with Eric Story to Alsace and the Loire Valley if I paid for my flights. He brought me on the domestic buying trips to Napa Valley, where once I was almost locked in the caves of Araujo (which was in the process of being acquired by Latour), and almost didn't mind. He reminded me that during that same trip I was able to turn some leftover lamb in his fridge and figs from his tree in Calistoga into dinner for our small group.

To say that this man has had perhaps the biggest impact on my career, is an understatement. Through him I was exposed to my first tastes of First Growths, to bottles that had been sourced directly from the Chateaux, to countless bottles of wine from the 1960's and 1970's that helped me understand what properly aged wines should look and taste like. It's because of him that I have the confidence to stand behind every wine cellar that I catalog, every value I declare, every bottle I authenticate, and every tasting I attend. Working for K&L was the equivalent to spending time in the kitchen of the French Laundry twenty years ago. You are surrounded by, and exposed to, the best of the best. You hold yourself to a higher standard. You take that knowledge and the connections with you wherever you go.

It was an honor and a pleasure to spend an afternoon with the legend, drinking Champagne and eating caviar at his friend Jean Charles tasting room in downtown Yountville while we caught up, and I gained valuable and amusing insight into his collecting.I got to hear about all you can drink Burgundy dinners for $170/person, a lavish 7-course dinner at Narsai David's Berkeley restaurant Potluck in the 70s for $7.50/person where they could purchase bottles of Lafitte off of the list, and meals with attendees that any wine enthusiast would want at their last meal, much less an annual occurrence.

Collector: Clyde Beffa

Location: Half Moon Bay

Number of Bottles: 1500 bottles

Number of Cellars: 1 plus an off site locker

When did you get into wine collecting?

I decided to get into wine collecting after reading an article in Playboy on our honeymoon. I built my first cellar on my dairy farm in 1971, underneath my home in Tracy, CA using 1x12s for racking and installing air conditioning. I started buying at Wente and Concannon because the Livermore Valley was the closest wine region to me. I owned 500 head of cattle. When I wasn't milking cows at the diary, I was reading all the books that I could find on wine tasting, including Diary of a Wine Taster. I got into a tasting group with 28 other guys known as Grape Expectations that was started by Mike Temple. We brought in wine from Christie's in England. I bought wine from a wine shop in San Francisco, and stores in Stockton where I would look for old bottles.

In February of 1973, I was shoveling shit and someone asked me if I wanted to be doing that for the rest of my life or retire at 28. So I sold the dairy in 1973. It was worth a lot of money. I was born in San Mateo, so we moved back there, but I always wanted to live at a ranch in Half Moon Bay.

What was your first purchase?

In 1971, I bought 1959 and 1961 Chateau Lanessan (who I've always loved). They should have been a classified growth, but they were too lazy to submit in 1855.

In 1975, my first large purchase was from Todd, who I had met at two years old. He was in the wine business and had a store called Parkside Liquors in San Francisco. I bought 25 cases of 1973 BV Burgundy for $1.99. It was Trey's birth year. I still have 1 bottle left. It's still fantastic.

Have your tastes changed?

Completely. Always tended to Bordeaux, always Pauillac, St Estephe. Now it's more Right Bank Merlot based. I probably drink 80 percent Right Bank now. It's a little bit sweeter, a little bit easier to drink. We didn't used to have any Right Bank, only Left Bank. Now we have a ton. (I interject that I remember that no one else would review them so he would give them all to me to review.)

What is in your collection?

90% Bordeaux from the 1960s on to 2010 (mostly red), some Sauternes, little bit of Burgundy, a little bit from California, twelve bottles of Italian and three or four bottles of Spanish. The greatest vintages from Bordeaux are from the 80s. I'll source some older oddball wines from the 1940s from negociants.

I was just at a dinner with Alfred Tesseron (who owns Pontet Contet) at his new winery Pym Rae (the old Robin Williams estate). He was born in 1947, so I just got some 47 Pavie, which was also for Daphne Araujo who was also born in 1947, and brought Trey, Sanford, and Gary Heitz. But the best bottle was the 1966 Inglenook G28.

What are your most prized bottles?

The 45s (my birth year). 1945 Pichon Lalande. My oldest bottle is 1906 Pape Clement.

What are your favorite vintages?

1928, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1953, 1959, 1961, 1982, 1983, 1988, 1989, 1990. Pichon Lalande made the best wines in the 1980s. The best 10 years in their history. Off the charts.

What is the purpose of you collecting wine (investment vs personal enjoyment)?

I told my wife, "Kay, this is all for investment. We're going to live on easy street!" But in those days I'd collect one or two bottles of everything I could find.

How, and how often do you enjoy wines from your collection?

One bottle a week, if Trey comes over, or at the French Club we'll drink four or five great bottles. My favorite thing is, I like to go to parties and bring birth year wines. We live in Purisma Canyon, and every couple of years we'll have a neighborhood party. We normally host. This year it was during the atmospheric river. We were planning on hosting 50 people outside. I opened Sancerre, a Double Magnum of 2006 Cantemerle, a bottle of 1967 Gloria (unbelievable) for someone born in 1967, then a 1964 La Gaffeliere (it was good, it wasn't perfect), a 1955 La Gaffeliere (a perfect, perfect, perfect wine) for the neighbor across the street. I love to do that.

How do you organize your collection?

Vintage and then location within Bordeaux.

How do you track your inventory?

Printed list, from excel spreadsheet. Every year I bring it up and do a plus or minus around Thanksgiving. I probably miss a few. Sometimes my son goes down there once and a while and doesn't tell me.

Is your collection insured?


What type of stemware do you use at home?

Zaltos. Kay puts them in the dishwasher no problem. We have two dishwashers, one for only glasses. But for a regular night, Riedel Zin/AP glasses.

Do you have any wine collecting horror stories?

In the early 70s, we used to love to go down to Big Sur with a wine group. It was the year after Ventana opened, which in those days was only $50 a night, now they're $2000. I drove the pick up, and when I opened the door a bottle of 1970 d'Yquem, rolled down and broke. That was the end of the 1970 d'Yquem.

Do you belong to any tasting groups?

Commanderie du Bordeaux, The French Club, and Zodiac (a high end one).

Do you bring wines to restaurants or do you order off of their list?

Both, but occasionally I've come across bad bottles. Once when wine steward refused to believe me when a bottle that I ordered of 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet was bad, it was golden and oxidized. The owner tried to say, "That's how they make the wine now." I didn't say anything, but my friend Sanford told the guy, "Hey, he's been going to Europe since before you were born!". I hate to do it, but you know. So we ordered another bottle of the same wine, and it was perfect, so I sent the owner a glass and he came out and apologized, and we've been friends ever since.

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