If things had gone differently for Christine Soto, owner of the wine bar Dead or Alive in Palm Springs, she’d still be running a business with the same name, but instead of booze the place would be selling books.
“I was going to open a bookstore with a girlfriend in L.A.,” she says. “She was the reader, and I was the organizational, run-the-business person. That’s what started Dead or Alive, the name, the concept, and the idea that I would bootstrap a business.” Incidentally, Dead or Alive is the name of a game they both loved so much that they had the phrase tattooed on their arms.
In the game, someone names a famous person — one who’s been off the radar awhile — and others guess whether that personality is dead or … well, you get it.
This was in 2012 when Soto, a Palm Springs native, had been living and working in Los Angeles after graduating from UCLA. She had quit a job as director of operations for a tech company to pursue something more satisfying. “The bookstore didn’t happen, but I never forgot Dead or Alive.”
After 11 years in L.A., Soto had mixed feelings about moving back to her hometown, where her great-grandparents had settled in the 1940s to open a catering business. But she returned, working at local hotels and a media distribution company until realizing that the town needed a standalone bar serving good wines by the glass and deciding she’d be the one to open it. “I wanted something outside of a restaurant setting,” says Soto, who had been interested in wine since her early 20s. “Not a party or raucous environment but a place where you could have a conversation.”
She settled on a small space next to El Mirasol, a restaurant in South Palm Springs, and opened the doors in December 2015 with her then-boyfriend and former Palm Springs High School classmate Anthony Cioffi, an industrial designer. He created the beer program and the design, including the signature glowing orbs and groovy, machine-fabricated uplit bar, and Soto curated the wine list and ran the business. (The two have since parted ways, and Soto’s new business partner is longtime friend Kristin Bloomer, who works for the Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
What the location lacked in foot traffic it made up for through grassroots marketing, networking, and word of mouth. The bar recently celebrated its third anniversary.
“There’s something about opening a business that creates drama and stress in your life,” the 34-year-old says. “You doubt yourself, and there are money challenges and personal challenges. You have to put the blinders on for the first couple of years to get through that.”
Those blinders have allowed Soto to realize the bar she had envisioned — a place to showcase small-production wineries with a focus on sustainably farmed, organic, and biodynamic wines. She works with dozens of distributors to add new, often lesser-known, choices weekly (with an average of 20 on the list at a time). The bar also focuses on beer, offering six rotating taps and 10 specialty bottles of obscure craft options.
Owner, Dead or Alive
Dairy Queen in Palm Springs
Preferred alternative to wine or beer:
Gin, especially the Game Changer at Truss & Twine.
Number of glasses of wine poured
so far at Dead or Alive:
Number of beers served
so far at Dead or Alive:
Locals represent more than half of the bar’s business. “I get a mixed crowd,” she says. “It truly runs the gamut, but there is something about the young professional crowd. They gravitate to this place. And I meet a lot of young people who just moved here or are thinking of moving here.”
Though she could have chugged along as the hip neighborhood watering hole, the self-proclaimed social butterfly wanted to offer more. She began introducing events, gatherings, and opportunities for other small business owners to raise their profile in the community.
Soto has started a wine club, hired an East Valley jazz band to play a few nights a month, hosts tastings (often with winemakers and sommeliers she meets during visits to L.A.), hosted a sold-out Modernism Week event, and puts on the 90 Summer Nights program, beginning in June, with happy hours, beer socials, and Thankful Thursdays, when Dead or Alive donates a portion of its proceeds to local nonprofit organizations. “We ramp it up in the summer. You have to remind people that you’re open,” she says.
Last year, Soto launched a membership program called Palm Springs Passport to incentivize visitation to South Palm Springs businesses. She also partners with local restaurants to build a compelling menu, selling the popular vegan Crack Cheese from Chef Tanya’s Kitchen with crostini from Townie Bagels, pints of small-batch ice cream from Kreem, and chips from Frankinbun, in addition to offering delivery from El Mirasol. She also hosts a monthly raw bar with fresh-shucked oysters and lobster rolls.
But it’s Soto’s California wine connections that led to one of her loftiest and most recent ventures: the Palm Springs Wine Festival, a nonprofit organization she launched to offer educational wine events in the valley. “I knew I was having an impact with my customers. People were asking questions, joining the wine club, their palates were changing, but I wanted a bigger wine event to expand my mission.”
The inaugural festival, held last December at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, showcased 40 wineries that poured tasters for 300 attendees.
“People ask what Dead or Alive means,” she says. “It is a game, and I think the game is fun and funny, but it has a lot of personal meaning. It didn’t turn out like I thought — but it feels good.”