Like so many trends in Los Angeles, the wine bar scene here seemingly took forever to develop. But in the last decade, it has burst into bloom with energy and creativity. Wine bars have become part of the city's vinous fabric, places to try new wines (or beers), to learn about wine, to nosh and, as often as not, eat a full meal, too. There are wine bar restaurants, wine bar jazz clubs, wine bars that resemble Automats, wine bars that bring to mind Paris and wine bars that could only exist here.
The kickstart in L.A. may have come from A.O.C., the Fairfax-area eatery opened in 2002 by Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin, which dared to put wine on equal footing with the food. Of course, wine sold briskly in plenty of other restaurants, but at A.O.C. the selections reflected, more than most places, the acumen and deeply personal tastes of Styne, who with her charm and steady calm became adept at convincing you to eschew that trophy cabernet in favor of a one-night shack-up with a Crozes-Hermitage. It was the sort of place that made you feel comfortable despite your ignorance — and therefore willing to discover something new.
LOU Wine Bar took the concept further. Inspired by his discovery of small Paris wine bars like Juveniles and Willi's, Lou Amdur debuted his Hollywood version in 2007, a small, softly lit, intimate daydream of a place where the surroundings encouraged routine acts of discovery. Amdur's taste in wine tended toward inexpensive, characterful wines that at the time bore an almost defiant obscurity. "All of the wines I loved," he says, "were responsibly farmed, fermented with native yeast and minimally handled; I realized these things made them wines I wanted to drink" — he and his hundreds of loyal patrons. LOU closed its doors last year, but its influence — a highly curated, highly personal wine selection — remained, as did anticipation of his next project, Lou 2.0 (no word on the timeline).
By now all bets are off; wine bars routinely outdo each other in innovation. Surely Bottle Rock's "buy-what-you drink" maxim ("We'll sell off the rest") counts as an innovation, just as Bottega's bag-in-a-box deals (three liters, $130 or so) take boxed wines to a new, premium level, even as they encourage crowds to gather. At the now-closed Pourtal in Santa Monica, guests used slot cards to purchase pours from banks of argon-preserved bottles, a system still employed at Mid-City's 3Twenty Wine Lounge — small, measured portions and sippy allotments allowing for more to try.
These days you can choose from bars with huge lists, bars with tiny lists, even bars with no lists at all, like Hollywood's Bar Covell, where the inventory is revealed to you, roughly, through conversation with your bartender.
Here is a lineup — a fraction, hardly exhaustive — of seven wine bars currently defining (and redefining) the genre in L.A.
No local wine bar is more at the top of its game right now than Bar Covell, which draws hundreds each night with little more than a wall of bottles, a rail of beer taps and a number of well-groomed barkeeps with the patience and know-how to guide you to exactly what you want to be drinking.
"We don't hand you a piece of paper and ask you to go off and make your own decision," says wine director Matthew Kaner.
Instead, servers ascertain your mood, whittling down what you want to a set of parameters, then choosing one of the 150 wines they have at the ready, like tailors fashioning the evening's perfect frock.
4628 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 660-4400, barcovell.com. Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-mid.; Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Glass pours $9-$15.
Superba Snack Bar
Superba serves as a kind of Westside stand-in for what LOU was in Hollywood: a small, reliable neighborhood place with busy wallpaper, busy chalkboards and communal seating, with an emphasis on wine but also a surreptitiously killer food menu. The wine list is small, focused and driven by a lusty, grip-you-by-the-lapels aesthetic. Amazingly, bottles are chosen by committee, with group tastings that include the chef and waitstaff (and, presumably, a representative from Accounts Payable).
Of course Superba is the sort of wine bar that, like LOU, may go by another name: restaurant. But who's quibbling when you can sit at the bar watching a prep chef make endless pockets of short rib ravioli — and then pair them with a glass of earthy Xinomavro from Macedonia? If that's what they call bar snacking, we're all for it.
533 Rose Ave., Venice. (310) 399-6440, superbasnackbar.com. Mon.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Glass pours $10-$17.
One of the most striking things about Silver Lake's Barbrix is the phalanx of wine boxes that anchors the north wall just to the right of the bar. It's there, undoubtedly, because the place is challenged for storage, but the boxes also could be seen as a kind of emergency bunker, in case the place sees a run on Priorat and needs to break into its reserve ammunition.
This homey little hangout, always murmury and dark, is anchored by a bustling patio and a 360-degree bar. Claudio Blotta keeps a small, shifting set of wines in constant rotation, driven largely by the Mediterranean theme and reflecting perhaps the restless explorations of Blotta's former boss at Campanile, Manfred Krankl. It doesn't hurt that the list is supported by the farm-to-table cuisine of Don Dickman, whose duck liver pâté inspires craving for Glatzer Blaufrankisch.
2442 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. (323) 662-2442, barbrix.com. Mon.-Wed., 6 p.m.-mid.; Thurs., 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.- 2 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.-mid. Glass pours $9-$15.
There are two Bottle Rocks, their vibes dramatically different. The flagship holds sway on Main Street in Culver City, still cavernous and noisy and lined with wine bottles that may as well have a sign on them that says "Please touch": With a two-glass minimum, you can purchase any wine you like and sell the rest back to the bar, whereupon the remainder becomes the latest by-the-glass special. The space downtown near Staples Center is sleeker, more modern, with low, wood-slatted ceilings and an even larger selection — some 800 bottles. Both places boast cheese- and charcuterie-heavy menus that seem well suited for post-game noshing.
3847 Main St., Culver City. (310) 936-9463, bottlerockculvercity.com. Mon.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Also 1050 S. Flower St., #167, dwntwn. (213) 747-1100, bottlerockla.com. Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 4:30-11:30 p.m. Glass pours $8-$22.
This East Sixth Street storefront is mignon indeed. Simple, charming and a little twee, Mignon feels almost liturgical in its layout and ambience, an oval 360-degree, candlelit bar facing a small knot of attending bartenders busily polishing glasses, pouring wine and assembling boards of cheese. Mignon offers a tiny selection of salads, pâtés, cheeses and stewy things, and its wine list is comparably tiny but well selected and extremely well priced. Best of all, it's usually quiet and dark, an oasis of calm against downtown's mayhem: Sip a sherry, an Oloroso Seco from Alfonso, and watch the world go by or, at the very least, spill in and out of Cole's next door.
128 E. Sixth St., dwntwn. (213) 489-0131, mignonla.com. Daily, 6 p.m.-mid. Glass pours $7-$14.
It was surely a relief for the loft dwellers in and around Industrial Street that Lorena Porras opened Pour Haus late in 2011. The only convenient wine shop for blocks, if not miles, it is a place to pick up a bottle or uncork it and stay. Pour Haus is collegial in most senses of that word — easygoing and informal, hosting the occasional DJ or trivia night, with wine trivia nights selling out weekly.
All bottles on the premises can be purchased and drunk on-site. Most other offerings come in the form of flights, like the "Juice-Ball" flight from a few weeks back, which paired Carménère, petite sirah and Telmo Rodriguez's slutty yet refined Ribera del Duero, Gazur.
1820 Industrial St., dwntwn. (213) 327-0204, pourhauswinebar.com. Mon.-Thurs., noon-10 p.m.; Fri., noon-mid.; Sat., 3 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Flights $10-$13; glass pours $7.50-$10.
3Twenty Wine Lounge
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The bustle of La Brea in Mid-City streams by this clean-lined storefront oasis. Edgar Poureshagh runs a small, family operation whose centerpiece is a set of Enomatic wine-serving system stations, with round, gleaming pour devices dispensing 1.75 ounces (50 ml) of wine at a very reasonable price — allowing you to try many, many wines for the price of a couple glasses. The Enomatic system allows Poureshagh to create juxtapositions — placing Argentine malbecs alongside Cahors malbecs, Bordeaux cabs against Napa cabs, Central Coast syrahs against those of the northern Rhône. "I like to put a little bit of comfortable, a little bit of uncomfortable, side by side," he explains.
320 S. La Brea Ave., Mid-City. (323) 932-9500, 320southwine.com. Mon.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 6-11 p.m. Enomatic pours $2.50-$17.