Lou Amdur on Chewy Champagnes, Viennese Porch Pumpers and His Brand New Wine Shop
Lou Amdur, with wine
Last year Lou Amdur opened Lou Provision & Wines, a small, smartly curated wine shop next to Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl which had a look so sparely decorated that it required a stroll amongst the few bottle-filled tables to realize that it was a go-to place for great, affordably priced wine from around the world, musky ciders, and an almost whimsical selection of canned sardines.
Now, Lou Provisions & Wine has closed. But roughly a mile and a half away, in the crook of a L-shaped strip mall in Los Feliz, Amdur has established a spanking new 1,600-square-foot incarnation of his brand — Lou Wine & Tastings. Recently, we caught up with Amdur to chat about what we'll find at Lou 3.0.
Squid Ink: How does Lou Wine Shop & Tastings differ from Lou Provisions and Wines?
Lou Amdur: I have both type 20 (off-sale) and type 42 (on-sale) licenses. You need an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) bathroom to do any tastings, impossible to do at Virgil (actually, you need one regular unisex toilet, and one ADA). This is a very glamorous dimension of being a wine merchant.
SI: What else should we expect besides being given a restroom key on, say, a vintage winged corkscrew?
LA: It's a much larger space, so I have a lot more wine. At Virgil, I tried to keep everything under $25 — though occasionally, there'd be a wine that I just had to have that exceeded that threshold.Here, I have plenty of wine between $12 and $25, but I also have wines that are over $25.
SI: You recently posted a photo on Instagram of boxes that made you thirsty just looking at them. What mystery beverage lay inside those boxes?
LA: We received about 250 cases of wine over two days, so there was a lot of unpacking, and cardboard box breaking down. We received, for example, Knoll's 2012 Traminer, a full-bodied, aromatic white that's trippy tasting. I first had an aged bottle of the same wine at an Austrian supper at Spago, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.
SI: What else did you unpack?
LA: We unpacked quite a few Chenin blanc-based wines. Every six weeks or so, we're going to stage a different focus. Our first focus is on Chenin blanc, which is the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes — it gets no respect. [deep sigh] Chenin is capable of such a wide spectrum of expressions, from bone dry and mineral-y to unctuous and luscious sweet wines. I am an obsessive man and chenin is one of my obsessions.
SI: Last Sunday was Lou Wine & Tasting’s official grand opening. What does one pour to commemorate the dawning of a new Lou outpost?
LA: My friend Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market and Song served his delicious fried chicken sandwiches — on his day off, no less — and we had the U.S. importer of Jacquesson Champagne on hand to pour some rare Champagnes which have not yet been available in the US. The Jacquesson rosé is mind-blowing. It's so darn good.
SI: If we were to duplicate the fried chicken sandwiches and Champagne experience at home, what Champagne could we buy at Lou?
LA: Entry level grower Champagne starts at around $45. I'm always amazed that folks plunk down the same money for Veuve, when you can get a real wine for about the same. We also have several methode Champenoise wines for around $22-25 – for example, Jean-Paul Brun's Crémant de Bourgogne.
SI: Time for one of your patented Lou-style quickie explanations: Champenoise – go!
LA: It refers to how Champagne is made, the method. You start with a finished wine, typically a blend of several years, bottle it and add some yeast — and often a little sugar water — and put a temporary cap on it. The yeast eats the sugar, creates bubbles from its metabolic process. Later, the winemaker slowly tips the bottle upside down, and the spent yeast floats to the neck of the bottle.
SI: Then what?
LA: A quick dunk in freezing brine solidifies the gunk, and the winemaker quickly pops the temp cap, and the gunk plug flies out. They top it up with more wine, and then put the familiar cage cork on the bottle. We also have other, more rustic sparkling wines that are made using the old school methode ancestrale technique where the winemaker simply bottles the wine before it is finished fermentation, so no added yeast.
It's the way sparkling wine was made before the methode Champenoise was perfected. These rustic wines are less about the complexity of yeast autolytic flavors and more about capturing the vibrancy of the fruit.
SI: We’d now like to share some advice with you from Entrepreneur magazine about grand openings. And we quote: “There are lots of ways to hold a grand opening. You can roll out the red carpet, or you can throw a simple pizza party, host an open house or hold a small ceremony.” They also suggest wear a T-shirt or cap that advertises your product. On Sunday did you wear a Lou Wine & Tastings T-shirt or cap?
LA: Fuck that advice. I wore fishnet stockings, panties and a push-up bra. Much more of a conversation starter.
SI: You're telling us! Before we leave the subject of Champagne — if the new Lou was a big cruise ship, what bottle of sparkling wine made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced according to the rules of appellation (thank you, Wiki) would you smash across the bow on its maiden voyage?
LA: Agrapart Cuvée Vénus.
LA: All of Agrapart's wines are blanc de blanc (Chardonnay-based), and this one is from a parcel that Agrapart works using a horse (tractors mess with the side roots of the vines). Older vines, over fifty years old. It's super mineral but also chewy — a really exciting wine for me.
SI: Before the now-defunct Lou: A Wine Bar existed, it was first a sketchy Thai restaurant. Lou Provisions & Wine found its home in what was once a sagging mini-market. Now you are in a one-time beauty supply and hair salon on the corner of Franklin and Hillhurst. Sing the praises of buildings with a history.
LA: The strip mall is actually a brilliant innovation for Los Angeles. There’s parking, and a cluster of retail spaces. We drive here so having parking is essential. But it’s not like I set out to find strip mall location, and indeed came close to signing a lease for a space in the Pacific Mutual Building downtown.
Actually, I wanted the new shop to be bike riding distance from my home, so that dictated the radius of where I looked. When you don't have deep pockets, you don't really get to be that choosy about your location. And, there is a lot of competition for street level retail space in Los Angeles: if you see a space that you think might be possible, there are a dozen other people who think the same thing. It took me a year to find this space. And it reeked of accreted Dippity Doo.
SI: And yet now it is a beautiful temple of wine, canned sardines and ciders. Switching subjects: Let’s say we have a cousin Naomi who lives walking distance from Lou Wine &Tastings. What’s an entry level wine that she could buy, carry back to her house on foot, then drink in her back yard with her boyfriend, Pete?
LA: I would have to meet her to answer that question. Depends if the wine is just for drinking, or for drinking and eating. And, if it's the latter, what is she going to cook tonight?
SI: We cannot answer any of those questions.
LA: We always have reasonably priced liter bottles of rosé, white and red wine, between $15-18. We have a liter of Gemischter Satz, a traditional wine of Vienna, for $15. It’s a consummate porch pounder wine, the sort of wine specifically created for the Austrian heuriger, which are super casual restaurants in [eastern Austria] where you eat and drink well for a pittance, often in someone's backyard.
SI: Now that we know a little about the wine, let’s hear about the tastings.
LA: We're going to start with once a week tastings, and then ramp up to two and then three a week. One will be programmatic: me standing and talking about the wines, or it could be a visiting winemaker or importer doing the talking. The other two will be casual, and you'll get to taste three to five wines, maybe with a little snack, for $12 dollars or so, depending on what we're tasting that day. Next week, we're hosting a tasting with Tracey Brandt, co-owner and winemaker from Donkey & Goat Winery in Berkeley.
SI: Is this the point in our conversation where we suggest that you talk more about your Chenin obsession. What’s a couple of your favorites?
LA: One is Jean-Christophe Garnier’s La Roche-Bezigon — I am freaking out about Garnier's wines in general. He's farming in Anjou, so that's schistose soil.
SI: Schistose as in the slate-like metamorphic rock that is rich in nutrients and also has useful water retention properties? (Thank you, Google.)
LA: Yes, and the wines tend to be fuller-bodied with great acidity. Another is Patrick Baudouin's Savennières, also from the general Anjou area, a wine with incredible precision.
SI: Lou, in Los Angeles, September is the warmest month. What do you suggest for wine that takes our mind off of the sweltering heat?
LA: Lord, hasn't that been the story of the whole summer?
Lou Wine & Tastings: 1911 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 305-7004. Mon.-Thu. 11-8 Fri.-Sat. 11-9 Sun. 12-7.
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