Breaking Free: L.A. Wine Culture 

Shattering the stereotypes

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008

The magic of wine is this: Even at a restaurant you don't particularly care for, say a Venice wine bar populated with trust-fund dudes and winking navel rings, rubbery scallops and cured-meat platters that wouldn't be out of place at the Olive Garden, even after six duff courses, it is possible to chase a simple plate of gnocchi with a glass of South African Syrah, and the combination of food and wine is so stunningly right that the floor drops away and the ceiling turns to clouds, and you are left with an animal sense of well-being that lasts all afternoon.

Wine people know all about these moments — that's why the wines capable of providing them can cost several hundred dollars a bottle. But they, along with many chefs, know wine's dirty little secret: You don't have to spend a fortune. If the wine is good enough, transcendence is only a lamb chop away.

The best wine program in Los Angeles at the moment may be at Bastide, which is a tiny, staggeringly chic restaurant tucked away in the Melrose Place decorator district, on a block where almost every shop bears notices from Elle Decor or Vogue. You know what you've heard about the writers' strike driving all of Hollywood back to takeout Chinese food and microwaved burritos? Somebody here didn't get the memo, because reservations are as hard to snag as Lakers floor seats, and Bastide — run at the whim of Joe Pytka, a television-commercial auteur who has directed talents as diverse as John Lennon and Bugs Bunny — is just lousy with Hollywood guys, who wear the kinds of thrown-together designer outfits that H&M knocks off at about 5 percent of the price. Pytka displays a lot of art here, but the most stunning visual in the restaurant may be the array of bottles in the dining room holding the chef's table, including some vintages that were on the vine when Abigail Adams was living in the White House.

Not long before Pytka lured Walter Manzke to become the third chef of the restaurant, he managed to hire Pieter Verheyde as his sommelier, a young Belgian who had become well-known in the wine world for his work as wine director for Alain Ducasse's restaurants in Paris and New York, a spry cat with the impish, otherworldly presence of a medieval alchemist and a mind for wines that may rival that of Garry Kasparov's for chess. Bastide's 1,400-strong wine list, once famous for its depth and obstinate Frenchness, suddenly ranged all over the wine-growing world.

click to flip through (15) ANNE FISHBEIN - Bastide’s wine auteur, Pieter Verheyde

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At Ducasse in New York, Verheyde's list was classic, but idiosyncratic and expensive, with a strong specialty in wines that were otherwise unavailable, and he discovered a gift for persuading customers to drink wines outside their comfort zone. At Bastide, he's like a teenager with a powerful new motorcycle — he knows he should be responsible, but he can't stop popping wheelies. The first weeks the restaurant was open, the cellar wasn't quite ready, and Verheyde's by-the-glass wine pairings were included in the price of dinner — stunned customers found themselves drinking things like Transylvanian Kiralyleanyka, a six-dollar wine whose bright acidity happened to make a piece of seared sea bass pop in a way that no grand cru Chablis ever could. At the moment, more than 90 percent of Bastide's customers sign on for the wine pairings he designed to go along with the tasting menus, at the not-insignificant price of $60, $90 or $190 per person.

I'm not usually much for wine pairings. With tasting menus, I like to order a bottle or two of food-friendly Alsatian pinot blanc or Piemontese dolcetto and let the dishes sort of lean into the wine: There are only so many flavors one's mind can process over the course of a meal. The surprising thing about Verheyde's pairings is not just that they are appropriate and delicious — anybody could do that. It's that the mind-blowing wines are not only the tastes of $500-a-bottle Echezeaux with the roasted duck or the sweet SGN pinot gris from Zind Humbrecht with the perfectly ripened Epoisses. They include the salty, slightly oxidized Coenobium made by the sisters at a Trappist monastery in north Lazio, the rose champagne from Sacy, Syrah from California's Central Coast and twinned vintages of Gruner Veltliner from Donabaum's Danube-adjacent vineyards, all of which you could find for $30 a bottle or so if you knew where to look (most of us assuredly don't), and all of which not only complement Manzke's cooking but combine into a new thing, a third taste, the kind of harmony that you look for every time you pop a cork. Let the snobs and the proper East Coasters have their Lynch Bages, their Opus and their oaky Chardonnays. Verheyde's list tastes like freedom.

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