Carl Kanowsky | Playboy, cattle and wine

Carl Kanowsky

This is the story of how a rancher became one of the preeminent wine merchants in California. 

Clyde Beffa (pronounced Bef faw) owes his wine celebrity to Playboy magazine. While on his honeymoon in 1971, Clyde’s wife, Kay, was reading “Love Story” on the plane, so, naturally, Clyde turned to Playboy. (Now, keep your comments to yourself about someone perusing Playboy while on their honeymoon!) 

Clyde Beffa’s interest in wine was piqued when he read a Playboy article about stocking an urban wine cellar. He was on a honeymoon flight with his bride, Kay. Now, he’s the co-owner of K & L Wines. Photo courtesy of Carl Kanowsky

And guess what he found? Articles, particularly “Stocking the Urban Wine Cellar,” by William Massee. (Now, keep your skeptical comments to yourself about someone perusing Playboy and actually reading one of the articles!) 

So, when he got home (in Northern California), Clyde started a wine cellar. Conveniently, he knew a local wine retailer, Todd Zucker. Todd worked with him to buy wine wholesale. While he enjoyed this hobby, he kept his day job, milking cows. 

In 1973, he sold the cattle operation and tried active retirement (at a pretty young age). He kept buying wine and then more wine, and then even more. And then Todd said to him, “Clyde, you’re not doing anything, so let’s open a wine shop.” Which they did in 1976. And they eventually called it K & L Wines (K for Clyde’s wife and L, Linda, for Todd’s wife). 

Things started slowly — they sold more cigarettes and jug wines than any fine California or French wines.   

But Clyde joined some sophisticated buying groups, such as Grape Expectations, and got schooled on fine wine, both in terms of appreciation and value/price. For instance, he bought 1970 La Fleur for $8/bottle. Price now? $900! 

Relatively quickly, the folks in the Bay Area learned that K & L had the best inventory of international wine at fair prices, as well as a knowledgeable staff. 

Now, Clyde and Todd have three stores, Redwood City, San Francisco and Hollywood. Before the pandemic, each store held tastings every Saturday, and generally on Thursday as well. Terry and I went to many of them, experiencing Bordeaux, Sonoma standouts, sake and fine Champagne. We hope they will continue soon. 

Robert Parker and his scaling ratings caused wine prices to skyrocket. Everyone wanted to own a Parker 100, so, naturally, competition resulted in price inflation. Also, Clyde believes that scores have driven tastes rather than the reverse. “If you’re tasting a wine that was rated 98 and you don’t like it, you may begin to believe, ‘I’m not a really good taster.’” But Clyde wants you to taste and believe your own palate. 

Clyde loves Bordeaux, even in so-called weak years. “We’re the king of off vintages,” he likes to say. For instance, for the 2019 Christmas party for the Hollywood store, Clyde opened several large bottles from 1997, a year panned by many. But, according to Clyde, they’re tasting great right now. Despite having buyers for almost everything else (California, whiskey, Italian, Burgundy, etc.), Clyde remains the stores’ Bordeaux buyer.  

While K & L keeps stock of current vintages, Clyde loves buying up cellars of wine. He told me about an $800,000 cellar of wine that he just bought in Texas. He also buys collections from folks in Europe. As a result, he can offer older vintages to his customers that are usually almost impossible to find. 

K & L offers one of the simplest and most complete auction websites. This opens the chance for restaurants and other retailers to obtain wine that otherwise is unavailable. And, uniquely, sellers can either get cash for their sold wine or store credit, which is a popular option.  

Thank God Clyde decided to check out that Playboy magazine 50 years ago.  

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker. 

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