Chris Olsen’s crazy busy world: wine and family life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When he was a young guy in college, Chris Olsen had a fortuitous friendship. Chris was studying business and finance with the aim of going into the mortgage business, while his friend, whom he had known since high school, was researching a way to go into the wine business. Chris went on to pursue the world of mortgage financing, working for a large company, but a little voice inside his head kept reminding him about his love of wine and that friend’s thesis, and how fun and rewarding it would be to be in business independently.

He dropped what he was doing, contacted that friend, partnered up and launched The Wine Gallery. 

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Chris Olsen

Business on your own? Not always so easy.

“There are times I wish I wasn’t, but this is what I signed up for!” Chris says with a smile, as he checks his phone while answering vendor’s questions, inspects an order of shrimp, and still manages to give me the time to get to know him better. Oh, and he threw his back out, but that doesn’t stop him from loading supplies into the kitchen at their Woods Cove restaurant.

The entrepreneur is born

It was once upon a time, in 1999, that the partners opened that first little business – a boutique wine market in Corona Del Mar. Chris was 26 years old. That small space expanded into neighboring property, and then added a kitchen to the delight of their devoted customer following. But as time went on, Chris hankered for a full kitchen, not simply the electric one that they had been using.

“We were organically growing as we went along,” Chris says. “But I wanted to build on that – add a full kitchen.”

One of his customers happened to own property in Laguna that would be a perfect fit. Chris signed on for that space in 2012, and Wine Gallery Laguna Beach was born. It quickly became a happening place, both for wine and for the food. 

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Chris laughs, “[Corona Del Mar] that’s my day job, this [Laguna Beach] is my night job.”

In Laguna Beach alone, he manages 18 employees, some part-time, some full-time. Between the two locales, Chris says he’s something of a moving target these days.

Enter the wine world

Chris entered the wine world in an unconventional fashion. Growing up in Corona Del Mar, he would bring his high school dates to Laguna. He’d take the girl to a restaurant and order a bottle of wine.

“My date spot was Las Brisas,” he says. “My go-to spot.” 

Having a “baby face,” he knew he would command better attention and respect, and get away with it, ordering by the bottle (“The least expensive bottle”). At any rate, going to Laguna Beach, and going out to its restaurants, most likely launched Chris’ career.

“I love going out to eat, and cooking. I’ve always had an affinity for wine,” he says. “I just had a palate for it. And I always loved Laguna Beach.”

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As far as wine, Chris says he knows what he likes, and especially, “I know what sells.” One wine that is both his favorite and a best seller, is actually his own wine. Yes, he makes wine too! It’s a Pinot Noir varietal, called Mile 216 (named for the distance of the drive to the vineyards).

A family guy

A special girlfriend he brought to Laguna changed his life, one restaurant at a time. Chris and Heather loved to go to Javier’s, Sushi Laguna, and Tabu Grill often. Dating for almost nine years, they married and are now the happy parents of daughter Tyler, seven, and their four-year-old son, Tanner. And not only are they busy parents, they’re re-modeling their Laguna Beach home – another sort of full-time job.

The family is anchored in Laguna.

“I’m going to raise my kids here start to finish,” Chris says with pride. “Good friends, great schools, the beaches… we’re embedded in this community.”

And then he’s off to his son’s T-ball game, where he is the assistant coach.

“They’re learning to catch the ball ‘like a bulldozer’ and throw ‘like a cobra.’”

Just getting started

Before his “day job and his “night job,” Chris’ day goes like this: “I drop my kid at pre-school every day. Go check on the remodel, check emails, and work out… weights and run. If I’m lucky, I’ll get in the water and surf.”

How does he manage to juggle so many things in his life? He’s barely scratched the surface. Ahead are further plans to expand the business, and launch new lunchtime hours at the Laguna Beach locale.

“And I’d like to plant a vineyard.” 

Of course he would!

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If there was one word to describe Chris Olsen, it is energetic. He’s not one to let his back spasm slow him down; he’s a can-do guy, and he’s always ready with a quick smile. You can catch that smile just about every evening at Wine Gallery.

As the man says, “People know where to find me!”