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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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The Inimitable Oliver McCrum

Oliver McCrum
Oliver McCrum

The first time I heard the name Oliver McCrum mentioned it was, oddly enough, not by someone associated with K&L or the wine industry in any way. My girlfriend Cecilia, who attended the 30th Anniversary Tent Tasting here in Redwood City last May, asked me about the polite, unpretentious, British man who poured some outstanding Italian wines and had taken the time to share his enthusiasm for them with her. “His name was Oliver McCrum,” she said to me. I shrugged. I am still quite new to the wine biz and was not familiar with him, nor had I ever heard his name around the store.

“I remember your girlfriend,” Oliver said to me last Friday when he came to pour his wines at our store. “She came back three or four times to re-taste.” Cecilia, whose interest in wine usually begins and ends with the drinking of it, was quite impressed with McCrum’s knowledge, presentation and overall demeanor. She seemed genuinely interested in more than just the fact that his wines tasted delicious; specifically where in Italy did they come from and how did he get them. Knowing how Cecilia can get easily bored by wine specs, this was an outstanding accomplishment. I knew I needed to ask my fellow employees more about this man. Mentioning Oliver McCrum’s name at the K&L front counter is enough to make eyes light up. I first asked Jeff Garneau if he knew who this mysterious person was. “Yes, of course. He imports Italian wines,” he replied. He was curious as to why I was asking, and I told him that apparently this guy had been here pouring wine at the big tasting. “Oliver was here?” he shot back seemingly surprised and simultaneously disappointed. “I can’t believe I missed him! There isn’t anybody I would rather taste with.” Others had the same obvious enthusiasm towards McCrum and his wines.

The more I learned about him, the more these responses made sense. Oliver McCrum has a job that many of us dream about doing. His goal is simple: to find interesting Italian wines that are traditionally made and to import them to the United States. They are usually made from indigenous grapes, have little to no oak and taste delicious. As a retail employee, I get to taste a lot of wine, but too often, even in a tasting of 30 wines, many of them are indistinguishable from each other. It seems funny to tell people that tasting wine is a lot of work, and that when the wines are boring, it can be exhausting. However, when Oliver McCrum brings his selections to our store, our employees get excited; they get antsy to taste his wines. “All major critics today are rewarding the same types of wines,” McCrum told me in a recent phone conversation, “and it’s the same in Italy as it is here in the United States.” Some refer to this phenomenon as the “Parkerization of wine,” where winemakers slowly begin to alter their wines to a style that more easily sells and thus create wines that all taste alike. McCrum doesn't feel any negativity towards this phenomenon; rather he proposes an alternative way of looking at things, "a way that prizes distinctive flavors and freshness over ripeness and oak flavors," he said to me. I asked him if he felt that it was a natural progression for wine enthusiasts to therefore gravitate towards more individualistic tastes. “It’s kind of like eating nothing but chicken breast,” he answered. “Let’s say chicken breast is chardonnay and merlot is hamburger. Eventually you might decide that you want lamb chops.”

Luckily for McCrum, people are deciding more often these days that they do want something else to drink, and they are looking to Italy for that something new. “The sales of Italian wines in the United States have increased over last year, even with the struggling economy,” he said, “and of course this is good news for us.” However, it isn’t just that McCrum has a broad selection of Italian bottles; his wines also seem to be among the most interesting available.

Oliver McCrum has worked in various positions throughout the wine industry over more than 30 years. He became interested in Italy after taking over a company that imported French and Italian wines. While he knew much more about French wines and regions, he found the breadth of Italian wines fascinating. “I find that Italy has such a variety of historically traditional wines; wines that are predominately made from indigenous grapes,” he answered when I asked him what it was he found so compelling. “I, of course, had to learn Italian, which was difficult,” he added. “Learning a new language as a grown-up is never easy to do.” Not only did McCrum have to learn a new language, he had to learn the geographical make-up of entirely new wine region. There are countless grapes that grow in Italy that I have never heard of. When I told him that at this point in my career I’m happy to just know the varietal, he responded, “I’ve been in the business for ages, and I’m still learning about new grapes.”

McCrum has a certain way of making someone who has less wine knowledge that him (which is just about everyone) feel at ease. Being around someone who knows far more about wine than you can be intimidating for many people. Many times our customers begin their questions to us with, “I know this is a stupid question,” in order to help ease the tension they feel. In an industry that can be renowned for its snobbery, McCrum seems to have developed the reputation as a genuine, nice guy and I can certainly vouch for him. He seems to simply love what he he’s doing and is thankful that he can do it in the manner that he does. Only recently was Oliver McCrum able to cease his side-project of distributing California wines, which he did to help pay the bills. He can finally afford to concentrate entirely on Italian wine, which is his true passion. He has also cut back his Italian selections to only include wines he is truly excited about. “At first I thought I had to include certain wines like Chianti or Pinot Grigio because those are the Italian staples, but I then realized it was more interesting to import what I actually drink myself and find interesting.”

The fact that McCrum has such a great palate for Italian wine is what allows this concept to be such a successful business endeavor. From the first sip of the 2006 Ettore Germano Riesling ($28.99) that he poured on Friday, I knew I was drinking something very special. That revelation continued throughout the tasting; the wines he offered tasted pure in a way that most wine today does not. I know now I can simply look at the back of an Italian bottle of wine and if its import label says Oliver McCrum, I can be certain I’ll be getting something of quality. When I mentioned Cecilia to Oliver, it helped to spark his memory that another taster at the event had said that she looked like the cartoon girl drawn on the label of the La Caudrine La Selvatica “Asti” ($18.99) a sparkling wine that he had been pouring that day. “Oh yes, I do remember that someone said that about her,” he answered. When we parted ways and agreed to speak later, he said in leaving, “Give Cecilia my best and tell her she will always be the little Selvatica girl.”

Oliver McCrum embodies the same honesty and genuine character you find in his wines. It is easy to see why he has been so successful doing what he loves to do. McCrum manages to convey his passion for his wines to someone who usually rolls her eyes or changes the subject when I try to do the same, so it was obvious that I needed to learn to take some cues from him. Today Oliver McCrum is one of the most well-liked and well-respected names I have encountered so far in the wine industry and it couldn’t be more obvious why.

Other K&L wines imported by Oliver McCrum:

2007 Collestefano Verdicchio di Matelica ($15.99)

2006 Niedrist Terlaner Sauvignon ($33.99)

2000 Anna maria Abbona Cadò Langhe Rosso ($24.99)

2004 Contrade di Taurasi, Aglianico IGT “Irpinia” ($19.99)

2006 La Caudrina Moscato d’Asti ($19.99)

—David Driscoll

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