For Good Measure

A conversation with Hozy’s resident wine manager, Neil Conway.

By Chris O'Neal

Photo by T Christian Gapen

WORLD OF WINE: Neil Conway helped establish Hozy’s wine cellar, featuring nearly 400 bottles of wines from around the world. Wine Spectator bestowed an Award for Excellence on the restaurant and its impressive collection in 2016.

Neil Conway wants you to love wine as much as he does. As a salesman for Southern Wine & Spirits and the resident wine guru at Santa Paula’s Hozy’s Grill, Conway and Hozy’s owners Gary Holzapfel and his son Michael have meticulously crafted a wine list to pair with the restaurant’s eclectic menu. In 2016, Hozy’s won the Wine Spectator’s Best of Award for Excellence for its cellar of nearly 400 bottles. Every Wednesday night, Conway and the Holzapfels sit down to taste and reflect on new wines for the restaurant. 

“People love to share their stories about wine,” said Conway. “Once a bottle opens, the fun begins.”

Ventana Monthly: Tell me about how you got into the wine business.
Neil Conway: I worked from the ground floor up. I started as a driver for Wine & Spirits Wholesaler in Colorado. I delivered wine and spirits to the western slope of Colorado, most of the ski areas. I’d be four days on the road, delivering 400-600 cases. Winter was especially challenging. I wanted to break into sales so I started learning about what I was delivering. I bought books, I asked customers, I attended wine tastings until I was hired as a salesman with a company that was our competitor. I spent a year in a territory (Aspen) until the company I had worked for as a driver hired me back as a salesman! I had to prove myself in sales before they would consider that a driver could be a salesman.

How have tastes changed since you began?
Wine consumers have gone from in-the-box wines that were inexpensive to spending as much money as they did on bag-in-the-box wines on four-liter bottles to the same money on a 750ml of white zinfandel back in the day! Varietal wines (chardonnay, cabernet, etc.) became more popular and once people tasted better quality wines they couldn’t go back to lesser quality. I’ve seen people go from Blue Nun, Lancers, Riunite to visiting local wineries tasting wines, drinking chardonnay, merlot, cabernet, white zinfandel. Today, the concept of bag-in-the-box wine is back with better quality, fresher and more cost effective, as it keeps longer on the shelf. But people’s pallets have progressed. We know more about what we are consuming, telling stories about wineries and winemakers. I’ve seen the wine industry explode since I arrived in California in 1984, in the Central Coast. People love to share their stories about wine; once a bottle opens the fun begins. The beer industry (craft beer) is going through the same renaissance, to an extent.

What drew you to Hozy’s?
Hozy’s was a new customer in Ventura, they had a location on Telegraph and Victoria. I called on them to try and develop business. I remember Gary, the owner, and I talking about his plan to have one of the best wine lists in Ventura County. He and his son Mike were very passionate about wine in general and it was a great opportunity for me and the brands I represented to put an award-winning Wine Spectator Wine List together!

You called Hozy’s cellar a “living thing” in our 2009 interview — how has it evolved?
The list is older and more mature now. Yes, the list is getting older, there are lots of older vintage wines that are ready to drink that still have pricing back to 2009. You can get a tremendous deal on 10-year-old Napa cabs, blends and French wines. We always try and drink older vintages but the problem with that is that you can’t replace them. I’d rather sell them or drink them than to let them go bad. We love Napa cabs. Oregon, Russian River and French pinot noir – we love Italian Super Tuscans like Antinori Tignanello, we love Barbaresco! Our tastes have evolved from lighter, stylistic wines to big, bold Napa wines back to more balanced, classic characteristic wines. The wine list being a “living thing” means it consistently needs attention. Krissy Flores is the curator; she works hard to make sure she has inventory, pricing and the correct placements on the list.

What’s a classic dinner pairing you’d recommend to a first time visitor?
Jakolof Bay oysters and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc; potato chips and chardonnay; abalone and Chamisal unoaked chardonnay or Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet; flat iron steak and a robust Mondavi Napa cabernet sauvignon. 

How do you determine what should be on the wine list?
We look at the menu in categories and develop each category by flavor profiles, from light and dry to medium-bodied to more full-bodied. We look at appellation and if a specific appellation is represented, and we look at price. How and why it would fit, does it fill a void or is the wine the same flavor profile as what we already have.

What’s your go-to bottle?
I am very fortunate that the owners of Hozy’s love to taste wine. We open some of the world’s best wines and experience their flavors and stories. I have a lot of favorites, for many reasons. I always read labels and I look for things like “Estate Bottled,” appellations like Russian River, Napa Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyards. I look for French wines and Italian wines with great pedigree. We would like to expand those categories but we don’t see great movement, especially French. Italian wines move fairly well and are very food-friendly. By the way, I’m a huge Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley fan. Robert Mondavi has done more for the California wine industry than most, especially Opus One. 

Is Santa Paula a wine town?
It is now! 

Hozy’s Grill 1760 East Lemonwood Drive, Santa Paula 805.525.1068

SPIN THE BOTTLE: Conway with a sampling of the many fine wines in Hozy’s award-winning collection.


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