Spotlight: Los Angeles

When I lived in Los Angeles in the late ‘90s its downtown, filled with beautiful Art Deco and Beaux Arts architecture, was a wasteland. There was very little nightlife, and the streets were ominously empty after dark. Going for drinks in the area’s dive bars was slightly risky and seldom attempted alone. By 2006, when I returned from a few years in NYC, not much had changed. The ensuing ten years, however, have ushered in an epic downtown LA renaissance - just a piece of the intellectual and cultural revival happening across the city’s 503 square miles. If you haven’t been here to see it, you’ve probably read about it. Moby’s love letter to LA came out a year ago. Articles in magazines and on the web take a fawning tone.

The food and wine scene has been similarly reinvigorated. A solid foundation laid by Chefs like Joachim Splichal and Wolfgang Puck has been built upon by those who worked with them, like Nancy Silverton and Walter Manzke, and by others who took different paths. Some of LA’s top restaurants are helmed by Chefs who started in catering trucks, pop-ups, and taco trucks. In truth, many of LA’s top restaurants are taco trucks. Jonathan Gold, LA Times’s Pulitzer Prize winning food critic, does not discriminate. His annual 101 Best Restaurants List is just as likely to include kebab parlors as it is white tablecloths.

How does all of this excitement affect the Sommelier community? I asked some of the best in town. Here’s what they said.  -

Featured below are  (Beverage Director, CUT Beverly Hills),   (Wine Director, Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants), (Wine and Spirits Director, Spago Beverly Hills), Helen Johannesen (Director of Operations/ Wine Director - ‎Animal/ Son of a Gun/ Trois Mec/ Petit Trois), Matthew Kaner (Wine Director and Co-owner of Bar Covell and Augustine Wine Bar), and  (GM and Beverage Director of République)

How is LA different from other markets?

Matthew: Los Angeles is an interesting cross section of people who have moved from all over the country and the world to chase whatever dreams they have. In comparison to other big cities, LA's wine culture does not hold allegiance to particular wine regions. Maybe it's because we are so damn far from Europe, whereas New York is a short flight a wine scene there are no rules or obligations. 

Phillip: LA is a big market like NYC, Chicago, and SF. I find the wine preferences in the different neighborhoods to be vastly different. Beverly Hills tends to purchase what I like to call comfort wine with name recognition no matter the price point. In Venice or Silver Lake, the Biancu Gentile or no dosage Champagne from the Aube may be right in the guest’s wheelhouse. The sommelier community here is also spread out due to the size of LA, which makes it difficult to attend study groups, tastings, etc. 

Helen: I think the difference with LA is the diversity in all of the programs. They range from traditional to avant garde to heavily focused on domestic wine. 

Kathryn: Other than LA, I've only lived in NY, but from what I've experienced, this is a very open wine community. Sommeliers and wine directors are willing to share ideas with each other and there's a real community feel. It's a small community - everyone knows each other for the most part. And it's not competitive, or doesn't feel so to me.

How is LA different than it was 5 or 10 years ago?

Matthew: As in many other cities, a big difference you see in LA’s wine scene from 5-10 years ago is a growing buzz around "natural wine". Another important shift is that people who were once assistants or sommeliers at restaurants have now opened their own restaurants or wine stores. There's a lot of growth from within the wine world.

Helen: I think that everything was much more redundant a few years ago. People were more afraid to take risks and expose the market to a diversity of wine. It was way more boring!!!

Kathryn: I arrived in LA ten years ago and there was still a huge focus on Robert Parker style California wines, cult Cabs and vintage Bordeaux. The restaurant scene wasn't much different. Apart from Suzanne Goin and a few others, LA was run by restaurant institutions. But now the scene has completely exploded with tons of young new chefs opening their own places, and I think LA is responding to trends in the wine world more now. There's more of a link between what's going on in NY, SF, and LA. There are tons of amazing places to eat and work, and with that comes a lot of fresh faces. The wine community is younger and more diverse than ever before.

Taylor: LA has a really exciting restaurant scene at the moment...more so than any other time in my adult life. The produce is outstanding, the weather can't really be beat, there are still enough not-quite-gentrified real estate pockets around, and the sheer variety of cuisines available here is pretty fantastic. We're also starting to attract some top-tier talent, which is a huge development. People seem interested in LA in a way that didn't seem quite as intense in years past.

Add to that the fact that there is a massive market of younger people here, folks whose interest in food is still nascent but growing very quickly. They approach restaurants with interest and curiosity and loyalty, and are pretty ideal guests. From a wine perspective, it's better still: many of these younger folks lived through the recent cocktail renaissance, and are looking to see what else might be out there. They aren't surrendering their pre-dinner Negroni (nor should they), but they're markedly less prone to ordering Manhattans with their steak, and much more likely to ask about Brunello di Montalcino. 

LA is known for wacky food trends. Do you find that to be true? Does it influence guest’s wine selection or your pairing choices?

Helen: I think that Los Angeles attracts people who love taking risks and have the bounty of the farmers market to help their creative development. In our restaurants people are very open to trying new things and I think this is indicative of the risk taking on the menu. 

Kathryn: I don't find that to be particularly true. However, dietary trends are big here: no gluten, vegan, paleo, etc. Luckily, this doesn't really affect wine drinking - that seems okay across the board.

Jaimee: I wouldn’t call this wacky, but I would definitely call it “LA”. We have a lot of health-conscious guests who ask for grass-fed meat, wild fish, and organically farmed fish and produce. This translates into requests for wines that are organic and/or biodynamic, which are easy to find these days and can be affordable and food-friendly. I keep a strong arsenal on my list to satisfy such requests.

What is your corkage policy, and what measures do you take to enforce it?

Matthew: because I own wine bars and not restaurants, we have a no outside wine policy. We are very polite about it. The best analogy I can make is, "You wouldn't bring an uncooked steak to a steakhouse and ask the chef to cook it for you..."

Helen: At Trois Mec & Petit Trois we do not allow outside wine. It’s been that way from the beginning. Animal, SOAG and J&V all allow outside wine. Typically if you buy a bottle, I will waive corkage...I am not a monster!!!

Kathryn: For the entire Rustic Canyon group, the corkage policy is $25/ bottle, maximum 2 bottles.

Taylor: $30 per 750ml for each of the first three, $50 per 750ml thereafter. No limit. We just enforce it consistently and without exception. 

Phillip: We charge $50 per 750ml with a maximum of 3 bottles allowed, and ask that the wine not be on our list. I enforce only after I’ve spoken with the guest, then put notes in Open Table stating that I went over the corkage policy with them and that they understand it so as not to forget. That being said, typically if someone brings in a rare iconic wine that we happen to have, I will open it and charge the corkage fee.

Jaimee: We charge $50 for 750ml and $100 for magnums with a two bottle maximum. They cannot bring in a wine that we already have on our list. I’ll waive the corkage if they buy a wine off the list of the same value. Solid communication between our host staff and the front of house on our policy is crucial. It’s important that the guest hears the same verbiage from every staff member so as to avoid confusion and inconsistency.

What do you find unique about the people working in wine in LA?

Matthew: Wine professionals in LA are movers and shakers. A lot came here with aspirations of being musicians or actors or fashion icons. There's a great sense of style and showmanship that goes along with wine service and education in LA.

Helen: I think that people are inclusive, but also much more involved in their own worlds.  

What specific restaurant or dining experience, other than your own, would you recommend to a food and drink lover as being quintessentially LA?

Matthew: I want everyone who passes thru LA to dine at either Night+Market or Night+Market Song to truly understand how Riesling or Chenin Blanc works with spicy Thai food. They put on a clinic nightly at both locations.

Helen: Sitting at the bar at Lucques is ALWAYS a very Los Angeles vibe to me, as is AOC - Top notch. I also love mainstays like Spago, and there is some real freshness going on at Night+Market Song.

Kathryn: This is hard to say, because the best thing about the LA scene is the variety. At the moment, I'd probably suggest Broken Spanish. LA has such a rich array of international cuisines, Mexican being #1. Ray Garcia is a fantastic LA chef, and his food is innovative and authentic. The cocktails are amazing: unique but not too frou-frou. And the wine list is varied and thoughtful - full of smaller, boutique producers.

Jaimee: Spago and République. Both provide strong beverage programs with a great somm team working the floor. They also have a creative voice behind the bar. The chefs are thoughtful and consistently execute their menu offerings. I think they’re both great examples of how a restaurant can stay alive in LA.

Taylor: Park's BBQ for Prime beef in the heart of K-Town, open late and with great service. We have an incredible array of Korean food here, from top-tier BBQ places like Park's to holes-in-the-wall cooking regional Korean home food. But for quality and a perfect setting for a large group of tired somms post-shift, Park's is my go-to. 

The Thai food scene is similarly deep. You want strictly Isaan? There are at least four restaurants that specialize in it. Prefer to burn your tongue off with some Southern curries? That's around, too. Life-changing boat noodles? There are several options there, along with tons of more conventional (but still pretty solid) restaurants. For late-night, post-shift eating, I'd recommend Ruen Pair. There's better food to be had during normal hours, but not a better bowl of congee and crispy pork belly with Chinese broccoli at 2am. 

Taco trucks are another quintessential LA experience. And the variety is endless. It ain't the DF, but we do OK. I work down the street from fantastic trompo (vertical rotisserie): Tacos Leo. A bottle of Beaujolais poured into paper cups and a plate of pastor tacos makes me a happy man. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Friday lunch on the patio at Spago. This is an LA institution, and I remember the experience of working them as almost surreal. It's so quintessential, in fact, that you get the sense sometimes that you've walked on to the set of a power lunch scene of a film. Some of the guests come literally every week, and have for years. Even after the remodel, it's still a place to see and be seen, and to finalize production deals over Lobster Cobb Salads and bottles of White Burg. 

Phillip: I don’t have a quintessential one really but I do love El Chato Taco truck at Pico and La Brea. LA was the pioneer of the whole food truck movement and with a large Mexican culture, this place does not disappoint. The Roger Room for classic cocktails, ask for Ty. Also, there is a bartender there we call baby Bjornholm because he looks just like Shayn but shorter.

What would you say to a sommelier thinking about moving to LA?

Matthew: my best advice to a sommelier considering a move to Los Angeles is for them to focus strongly on the business of a wine program. Solely knowing about wine isn't enough anymore...a restaurant cannot stay open if the program isn't profitable. Most sommeliers and wine directors, sadly, were never trained how to be business people. The other big piece of advice I'd share is that being part of the community is really important. If you care about making everyone as happy as possible with your wine influence, good things will happen.

Helen: Drop the pretension and be a real person. 

Kathryn: It's not the easiest place to find a floor somm job. There are very few restaurants that support that. However, it's a great place to be a wine director or manager.

Taylor: Most major dining markets in the country developed wine communities organically, filled with people who came up through major retailers or fine dining restaurants, and who pursued professional certifications, travel and/or serious study; people who spent many a long shift providing traditional wine service and working off relatively traditional wine lists. This has given those communities a lot of really well-rounded professionals: somms who are unafraid to pour something a bit more conventional btg, who can discuss Bordeaux vintages or answer specific questions about sweet wine. These are people who, in the more modern, casual environments that are in fashion these days, choose which switches to turn on and which to turn off, and that gives them and their programs a sense of maturity and organic evolution. 

LA never had that density of quality fine-dining. Of course, there are a handful of fancy restaurants, including a couple of very good ones -- but if asked where to send someone for a Michelin-style celebratory meal here, the options are pretty limited, and that hasn't changed much from the place this was ten or twenty years ago. As a result, many in the LA wine community never passed through the kind of rigorous upbringing and experience that has shaped so many of our counterparts elsewhere. And so we have some gaps in our collective foundation: knowledge of blue-chip wines can be hard to come by, as is a nuanced understanding of back-vintages or of key producers in out-of-fashion regions. And wine service can often be sloppy or forehead-smackingly hip to the point of distraction.

Thankfully, things are improving dramatically. There are more sommeliers -- and more good ones -- here every day. Lists are becoming more well-rounded and accessible. Service is hugely improved and there are some truly world-class wine professionals working in this city. The next step is figuring out how to get them all to talk to each other and taste together more regularly. 

Phillip: There is a lot of opportunity here and the sheer exposure to the amount of importers and producers in the market allows one to develop their skills and experience, tasting etc. much faster. 

What's the most popular category of wines on your list?

Matthew: Wines that are delicious. :)

Helen: It depends on the wine list but Paolo Bea is sought after as SO popular everywhere!

Kathryn: California Pinot Noir

Jaimee: We sell predominately Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Sonoma and Napa Valley respectively. But Red Burgundy and Bordeaux are quickly closing the gap.

Taylor: Gamay (Just kidding). It depends on the season as we stack the list accordingly and get the staff into the spirit. Right now -- our 'winter' such as it is -- we are selling a lot of Rhône and Languedoc. And a ton of Nebbiolo as the white truffle season seems to have extended a bit, lots of Muscadet and Chablis because oysters are ROCKING right now. In the spring it's a lot of GV and Sancerre and the like. Rosé and lighter reds in the summer. It’s pretty straightforward stuff. I’m just trying to get people to drink like they're already eating.

Phillip: Well certainly California-based wines but the taste here is surprisingly more old-world than I expected when I moved from Seattle two years ago. White Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape do very well. With people from LA, I think there is an unfounded stigma that they’re flashy, slightly high maintenance, a little too much about themselves. I honestly rarely see that here at Spago.

Does the proximity to California vineyards affect your wine program?

Helen: I think it enriches it because people love something tangible and the feeling of closeness. Plus then the winemakers head down to visit!

Jaimee: Absolutely, I find a lot of guests are visiting from out of town and would like to experience local wines. This provides me with the perfect opportunity to give list placement to a lot of the smaller producers from California, particularly those from Santa Barbara County.

Taylor: It should! It's so easy to write off California as a land plagued by over-ripeness and point chasing. It's true to a point, but that broad-brushing critique can be levied at a good chunk of the wine world. And it's so old hat. 

California is, at present, in a period of huge diversity and even greater abundance. There are more great wines, and more great winemakers, than ever before. If you like the esoteric, try any of Matthew Rorick's Forlorn Hope stuff, or Scott Schultz at Jolie Laide, or Hank Beckmeyer's La Clarine Farm, or Michael Cruse's incredible sparkling wines. If, on the other hand, you prefer more familiar varieties, take your pick -- from Ted Lemon to Justin Willett, Cathy Corison to Sashi Moorman, Graham Tatomer to Tegan Passalacqua. And, if you still prefer your Cabernet with a generous dose of new oak and the palate texture of chilled vodka, that's all still out there too.  

It's invigorating! And anyone who lives and works with wine here needs to make it at least a part of the program.  

Kathryn: Absolutely. I have the opportunity to meet so many winemakers, when they're visiting LA or on a weekend up in wine country.

Phillip: It certainly does. We have many tourists who come in to Spago wanting something “local”. 

What's the best thing about working in wine in LA?

Matthew: My favorite thing about working in wine in LA is the diversity of our clientele from all reaches of Los Angeles, young to old, struggling to make it to, “I have many zeroes in my bank account”. At the end of the day everyone wants to be carried away on a magical wine journey, somewhere just outside of the mundane day to day we all struggle with. From an aspiring musician to the most critically acclaimed movie director, everyone just wants to enjoy the wine you help them learn about. It's very rewarding.

Helen: Its fun, there are no rules and I can do whatever I want. 

Jaimee: The growing somm community! (To the detriment of my early morning runs and studious efforts).

Phillip: LA is fun, more fun than I expected. I work a lot and don’t get out as often as I’d like to tastings, etc., but I really enjoy the diversity of wine options, along with lots of great craft spirits and beers to explore. The weather is nice, too.