When Darren Guillaume served two tours of duty in Iraq, the self-described wine geek found himself in a dry land — not only was he in a desert, but legal alcoholic drinks were nowhere to be found.
He quickly learned how enterprising troops were making do in “the Sandbox”: combining Welch’s grape juice, yeast and sugar in a bottle, then letting it ferment to produce wine.
“It was pretty bad stuff,” he said. “That technically didn’t happen, if you know what I mean. But they sold packets of yeast at the PX (post exchange); what else are you going to use yeast for? And they sold kits for making beer.”
When Guillaume retired from the Army in 2008 after serving 25 years, he also left the rotgut behind. He trained as a sommelier at the International Culinary Institute in Campbell, studying under three master sommeliers, before receiving his certification in 2009.
“They gave me my knowledge about wine. Before, I just had the passion,” Guillaume said.
That knowledge and passion led to Doc’s Wine Shop, which he opened at 22570 Foothill Blvd. in downtown Hayward in December 2012.
“There were no wine shops in San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Hayward and Castro Valley,” he said. “This is an underserved area. It’s not that people here love wine any less than people elsewhere — it’s an area that’s been ignored.”
Raised in what he describes as a European family, Guillaume first started drinking a small cordial of wine with dinner when he was 13. “You weren’t drinking to get drunk, you were drinking to cleanse your palate. Growing up, I didn’t know you had to be 21 to buy wine.”
He joined the Army when he was 17; at that time, if you were a soldier, you could buy alcohol at the military base liquor store, Guillaume said. That changed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the legal age was set at 21. “By then, I was already 21,” Guillaume said.
How did the shop get its name? Guillaume, of Castro Valley, was a medical officer in the medical specialist corps in the Army. Trained as an orthopedic physician’s assistant, he picked up the nickname “Doc,” and it stuck.
Guillaume, 49, continues to work as an orthopedic physician’s assistant at some area hospitals, which has helped as his shop gets established.
“When you start a business, you have a 10-to-1 debt-to-profit ratio. You don’t recover that in a day; it takes a year to 18 months,” he said. “If I didn’t have another job, I wouldn’t have the capital to start a business.”
He acknowledged that it’s not all that common to find a veteran who is a sommelier; in fact, he’s not aware of another. “But I know vets who enjoy fine wine,” he said. “Vets are just like other people.”
Alameda County has 63 certified sommeliers and Contra Costa County has 27, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers in San Francisco. It’s not known how many are affiliated with wine shops; they are more commonly found in restaurants.
“It’s unusual to have a sommelier in a wine shop,” Guillaume said.
His training as a sommelier helps him suggest wines tailored to an individual’s tastes, he said. “If someone wants the Supercuts of wine, they go to Trader Joe’s. If they want service, they come to me,” he said.
At Doc’s Wine Shop, Guillaume specializes in European wines, though he also carries some California wines and even a few from Israel and South Africa.
“European wines are more affordable than California wines,” he said. Sixty percent of his wines are under $20, though some cost hundreds, with one selling for $688. He also has a selection of Belgian ales and imported cheeses.
As he walked through his shop, he stopped and picked up a bottle of wine from one of the racks. “This wine is $12.44. It is also served at Chez Panisse,” he said. “I have wines that are found at Michelin-rated restaurants, and they’re less than $30 in my store.”
Guillaume has made himself part of the city’s downtown culture, said Kim Huggett, president of the Hayward Chamber of Commerce.
“Doc’s Wine Shop is a terrific addition to Hayward,” Huggett said. “I have to confess, I don’t know good wine from bad wine, but when you go to Doc’s, it’s an education. Darren makes you feel you’re smarter by the time you leave. He knows so much about wine.”
Guillaume helped select and purchase the wine for the city’s first wine walk fundraiser this past summer, said Lori Taylor, Hayward’s economic development manager. “He also serves on the downtown Hayward Business Improvement Area Advisory Board, working to improve the downtown,” she said.
When Guillaume decided to open up his shop, he intentionally shopped locally, seeking out Hayward businesses. His display case is from Tecno Display; the floor tile was provided by Uni Tile & Marble. Bell Plastics made the counter, and the wine glasses come from Phoenix Glass Decorating Co Phoenix Glass Decorating.
“This place is all Hayward,” Guillaume said. “Only the wine is imported.”