Q & A With Lou Amdur: On Selling His Wine Bar, Software Insomnia + Drunks in the Parking Lot
Lou Amdur at LOU
When Squid Ink was born back in 2009, Lou Amdur, owner of the wine bar LOU, was one of the first experts we turned to. No matter the question -- be it of terroir or amphorae or why wine geeks use puzzling descriptors -- he never made us feel dumb for asking it. His answers took us near (Wine Expo on Santa Monica Boulevard and its excellent selection of grower Champagne) and far (the Campania region in the south of Italy) and we will never forget his rule of thumb when it comes to making Sangria: While apples, oranges and lemons belong in the fruity, Spanish-style punch, "Wine plus lime equals vomit."
Recently, it was announced that Amdur had sold his atmospherically lit, clubby 6-year-old establishment and was moving on. Does this mean the end of our rambling conversations with him? No, it does not. But as a way of closing this particular chapter, we decided it was time for an official exit interview. Though we touched on many topics, we began with the basics -- "Lou! You're selling your wine bar? WTF, dude?" Only we phrased it a little more politely. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Recently, you posted on your blog that you have sold your wine bar, LOU. Backstory please.
Lou Amdur: My lease was up in the fall and I had to make a decision if I wanted to stay another six years. I decided that I wanted to continue in the wine business but I want to do something more expansive. I did a lot of thinking. Could I re-engineer my space so I could do more wine stuff? There's really no way to do that without losing precious seats. We're already so small. There's no room to grow in the strip mall. The laundromat is a cash cow -- they're not going anywhere. Neither is the salon next door. That was the motivation. I wrote about this in my farewell letter. I could have very easily decided that wine sucks or that it's just not for me. But it's actually been quite the reverse. So how do you grow your passions? That sounds kind of sexual. [laughs] I mean how are you true to where your heart is? My heart is, "Jeez, I've really fallen for wine much more than I ever did for software. How do I make [wine] even more part of my life?" I just didn't know how I could do that in my space.
LA: In my wine bar, I get to work with 30 wines at a time. I want to work with 300 wines at a time. There's just no way to do that in my space.
SI: What happens next?
LA: What happens next is shepherding [the wine bar's buyer, Troy Stevens] as he makes a graceful transition to the new restaurant and to give him some hand-holding, to making sure it's a good hand-off. I do this not out of goodwill but good faith, so that it will be what I represented it to be. That's my immediate goal.
SI: A bit of Troy Stevens' history please.
LA: He had a prior career as a very successful real estate developer in Utah. He was done with that and, like many of us, was trying to decide what to do with the next 25 years of his life. I can't speak for him, but I know he loves wine and he's excited about the idea of taking over a turnkey wine bar. His intention is to keep the décor, the menu and the staff as is. But I am sure over time there will be some tweaking. He will make it his own place.
SI: One of the first ways that you distinguished yourself was for serving salty-sweet pig candy, or sustainably raised bacon that you baked with lots of brown sugar. What do you have to say to the lovers of this dish?
LA: To be honest, if I had to do it over again, I would not have put pig candy on the menu. We make our own bacon and it is beautiful. [Pig candy] is not really doing honor to the pigs. I'm down with making our own bacon -- I just wish we had a better way of showcasing it. But we are happy to share the recipe.
SI: As Grub Street L.A. put it, "Ground-breaking Hollywood wine bar Lou is being sold by its owner and everyone is having a total cow about it."
LA: Well people have asked me if I'm moving out of L.A. Where did they get that idea from? I'm an Angeleno. I've lived here almost 15 years. I am staying here and will continue in the wine business but will do something that is more, better.
SI: Where will that more, better thing that is yet to be described going to be?
LA: Further east.
SI: And, again, the wine bar will continue?
LA: The restaurant will continue but operate under a new name. I didn't sell my name. I just thought it would be too weird to have a place called LOU that I was not involved with. The sign will remain up for a little while, but then he will change it. I don't know what he is planning on calling it.
SI: Do you have an official day of transition?
LA: Sometime during the week of April 16 but, again, the restaurant is not closing. There will not be one minute of downtime. You know those ugly yellow rectangular posters that people put in the front of their restaurants that show change of ownership or change of license? That's posted so people have the opportunity to protest in case the business is unruly. But I don't think there's going to be any protest.
SI: When did the meter start ticking?
LA: The meter started ticking on the 13th of March. The 13th of April will mark the 30-day period. Then the ABC has to be informed that the 30 days is over. Then a couple of days later they issue a new license. At that point I will actually not be able to sell wine anymore. I can't be behind the bar anymore.
SI: What has been the reaction from regulars?
LA: Some people are surprised. Some people are upset and then, when I explain my plans to them that I am growing my love for wine -- again, that sounds like a sexual metaphor -- I think people are happy for me.
interior of LOU
SI: And why not? They are people who had fun at a place you created from where once stood, if we remember correctly, a completely bedraggled Thai restaurant with downright frightening, dark stains on the acoustic tile ceiling.
LA: It seems like every night since it's been announced, people have been coming in. It's fun. The human brain has only a finite capacity to process things. I start to realize when you're open for six years, a lot of people have walked through the door and there are actually a rather large group of people who are regulars. Some are more regular than others, but they're all coming in. That's been a surprise to me. It's been like, "Oh! These are people who like my place." That's exciting to me. It indicates that in Los Angeles there's a growing audience for traditionally made wines. Maybe I'm delusional thinking that. I feel kind of uncomfortable about being the guy where they go, "If you're going to sell a wacky wine, go to LOU." That's not true. Just because a wine is strange doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. I really really really like traditionally made wines, wines made with wild yeast and indigenous grape varieties and are sometimes grown by only a handful of people. I'm certainly not the only venue to find those in L.A., but I think I might be the only venue that strictly focuses on those wines. And it's gratifying to see people enjoying wines that I find strange and compelling and they actually ask for it by name.
SI: Why are you leaving out the part about you, your charming staff and the always welcoming vibe at LOU?
LA: As someone who is really, really shy and has a thing about accepting affirmation and stroking from other people...
SI: A joke about sexual allusions definitely deserves to go here, but please continue.
LA: ...It's not something that comes easy to me so it feels really good to get the affirmation. When you run a business and you're the sole proprietor, your nose is to the grindstone all the time. You don't really have a sense that you mean something to other people. I guess one of my takeaways from this transition in my life is that my business meant a lot to a lot of people, and that feels good. I'm glad that people dig the same wines that I do and enjoy my company. There has been a little bit of crying, a little bit of "When were you planning on telling me?" I had a couple of other fairly serious people who had looked at the space. I didn't want to say anything becaus,e if the deal fell through, then I'd be left with nothing. That's why I hesitated to say a word. EaterLA outed me in a way that was kind of unpleasant.
SI: Outed? How?
LA: They got information from Alcohol Beverage Control Board. What I think about EaterLA is that they are like anti-choice people: They only care about a restaurant before it's born and after it is dead. It's sad. They have a forum and they're not doing shit with it. They're not raising the level of discourse about our restaurant and food culture. It's ... a sub-gossip rag.
SI: On a very different note, let's take a walk down memory lane. What was the most unanticipated thing you ever saw in the parking lot at LOU?
LA: Someone getting a blow-job.
SI: Really? Were they LOU customers?
SI: How about sharing something you learned while running LOU?
LA: Here's something that happened very early on. A very odd woman came in with her boyfriend. There was something off with her affect. She started to talk to me and was leaning over the bar and she said, "Lou? Are you into girls?" I never thought my sexuality was that ambiguous. So I said, "Yes, I am into girls but my lawyer tells me to stay away from them." She, of course, did not know I was making a really bad pedophilia allusion. So her response was, "Ohhhh. You're into boys." Then her boyfriend said, "You can't ask him that!" And as he said that, she leaned backwards and fell off her bar stool. I panicked. I was thinking that she cracked her head open or something. So I leapt around the bar to help her up. She's sitting on the floor and the bar stool is on one side, her ass is on the floor, her sundress is bunched up. No panties. I thought, "Jeez, this never happened in dot.com land!" Now that was a surprise.
SI: By dot.com land you are referring to your previous career as a senior information developer at Symantec software?
LA: Yes. And there was nothing wrong with her affect. I had worked at restaurants but never behind the bar. She was drunk. She wasn't slurring words, but she was drunk. It was like, "Oh, that's what a drunk person can be like!"
SI: Let's move on to the very earliest days of LOU. If we remember correctly, in a display of howdy neighbor-ness, you subjected yourself to a very bruising Thai massage at an establishment in your tiny, L-shaped mini-mall.
SI: Did you ever eat at the circa-1987 burger joint adjacent to your wine bar, Flaming Patty's?
LA: Too many times. I occasionally had to be at LOU at 5 a.m. because we had to get our hood cleaned. I've had many breakfasts at Flaming Patty's.
exterior of LOU
SI: Have you ever washed clothes at the laundromat next door?
LA: We do use it. We use it to wash the stuff that we use at the restaurant.
SI: Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we have often found ourselves spotting many famous faces at LOU. Frances McDormand. Kirsten Dunst eating with the Rodarte girls... Who were you excited to see?
LA: One night I was making a coffee in the corner near the last banquette and I realized I was staring at this woman. You know me, I'm not a lecherous guy. Nevertheless, I thought, "Good lord. Who is this woman?" Someone had to tell me, "That's Rosario Dawson." She is the kind of person who is radiant and not made more beautiful by being onscreen. In terms of stars for me, though, the people who have meant a lot to me and have actually become friends are people like Brooke Smith. And Barbara Kruger, who I just fucking love! Not only do I love her work but the woman is ... delicious! That's a star for me. When she graces my door, I am always thrilled. It's like [excitedly] "Barbara Kruger is here!"
SI: When LOU first opened in 2006 you could often be found nervously pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, hoping that people would find you. How long did it take before people showed up and you could again sleep at night?
Lou Amdur at LOU
LA: Those are two separate questions. When we first opened, I didn't have -- and still don't have -- a publicity budget. So how the hell do people find out about you? I think the social media scene was very different back then. Now it is possible to promote your own business. In 2006, Twitter was not even a twinkle in anyone's eye and the blogosphere hadn't exploded. There was no way to get the word out. The first few weeks I was just filled with anxiety, like, "What did I do? Did I make a big mistake?" I had saved for five years to open a place and every cent that I'd saved, and more, went into it. Money is just money. But what I was worried about was, was I a delusional fool? [Assistant manager] David Dick, who has been with me since the beginning, was very reassuring and saying, "People will come," and kept repeating it. And he was right. After my fourth or fifth week of being open, I had a double whammy of Daily Candy and [the L.A. Times' S.Irena Virbila] writing something, and we had our initial slam. We were kind of sucking at that point. To go from zero to 60 is really hard. But that was the beginning.
SI: And sleep? How much sawing of logs do you do on a regular basis?
LA: My sleep is still fucked. When I first opened, I started to get less and less sleep. Pretty soon I was getting one to two hours of sleep a night. It was something I was familiar with from my software days: When you're in crunch mode, you get diminishing sleep and your ability to adapt, to be responsive, to be smart, starts to decline. I lost about 40 pounds. I could barely eat because I was so anxious. My wife had to bring me grotesque protein shakes. I think my sleep patterns have been permanently messed with. Even today. I come home and I can't get right to sleep. Suddenly, it's 3 a.m. and I'm watching a rerun of Game of Thrones. That's not healthy. I get about five hours of sleep a night if I'm lucky.
SI: You once poured us a glass of wine that you described as "barnyard-y."
LA: Was that bad?
SI: Please. It had the distinct, nostril-assailing, eye-watering aroma of chicken shit.
LA: [laughs] And you are saying you have a problem with that?
SI: Yes. But drinking it also expanded our idea about the range of wines that we knew existed. What wines are you proud to have introduced to the people of Los Angeles?
LA: I think it's important to acknowledge that my own tastes in wine have changed a lot since I first opened. I look at some of my wine lists when I first opened and wondered, "Why? Why did I like that? Did I just think I had to have a wine like that on there?" I'm not embarrassed, but I think it's important to acknowledge something that happens when you fall for wine. One thing that happens is that you want things forever to be the same, it's like chasing the first time you got high: You always want it to be that way. It's like "I want a Pinot Grigio," and you want it to be the same way each time. Or you start to realize that drinking a traditionally made wine that is new to you will have flavors your tongue is not accustomed to, and that's mind-expanding. That's what began to happen to me: We are graced with fantastic importers in Los Angeles. The wine scene here is made exciting because of the wines we're able to get. So within the first six months [of LOU], I got turned on to the wines that are brought in by Louis Dressner, an importer who is extremely important to me, more important than I'm sure he ever knew. And the scales began to fall away. At the time I didn't think much of Beaujolais and I thought nothing about Madeira. Now I pour Beaujolais all the time and Madeira is my absolute favorite thing to drink.
SI: Now for a famous kerfuffle that could only happen at LOU: A customer went all super-crazy wine entitlement on you because you had no "buttery Chardonnay" on your list. Thoughts?
LA: If you like buttery Chardonnay, it's not like we're running out of it in California. Many colleagues I adore and love have delicious buttery Chardonnay on their lists. But it's my name on there. I only wanted to work with stuff that I dig. Otherwise, I just could have stayed in software and made a lot more money and been a lot more secure. If you're making a decision to try to do something you love, don't be a hypocrite.
It's a balancing act: Just because you have fallen head over heels for oxidated wines from the Jura region of France doesn't necessarily mean they have to be on your wine list. I still sell wines from the Jura but I've tapered off from the oxidated ones. The last thing you want is for someone to make a face and push the glass back from the counter and say, "I don't like that wine" about a wine that is empirically delicious. That just hurts me internally. There's plenty of other wacky wines that I can get into.
SI: Over the past several years, we have discussed biodynamic wines, sparkly red Lambruscos, wines made from Menu Pineau grapes and how if you're at a supermarket looking for a nice bottle of wine, maybe it's better to just buy beer. You have explained why California wines with an absurdly high alcohol content might not be a good thing.
LA: The ship is turning on that last one. There is a winemaker I know who is now picking a full two weeks earlier than he did when I first knew him. I never cared for his wines because they were too overripe. But I think our palate is changing in California, which is exciting. Not only is that great for California wine but it opens people up to traditionally made wines from elsewhere in the world that are also lower in alcohol.
SI: We have asked, "Lou, what's a good Fourth of July wine?" and "Lou, what's a good wine for New Year's Eve?" So now we come to you with a question that somehow feels so much more personal: "Lou, what's a good wine to drink to celebrate the ending of one thing and the beginning of another?"
LA: My gut reaction is to drink a wine that takes you to another place. Sometimes I taste a wine and I don't buy it immediately, but it sits there in my consciousness. Then I taste it again and go, "Gosh, what is that wine?" Then you taste it a third time and you go, "Jesus Christ. I got to get [that wine] in my life." The wine that I think will take you to another place is a wine that I just ordered. It's not a wine for everybody, but it certainly is for some people. It's a wine from a part of Sicily that is the heartland of Marsala but is not one -- even though it is made from the traditional Marsala grapes. The thing to know about good traditional Marsala is that it is a wine that in our lifetime has ended. Literally, no exaggeration, there is one family that cares enough to make it. Every other Marsala is basically industrial. One family, the di Bartoli family, makes traditional Marsala. One of their sons has started to make some exceptionally fine, dry wines from the traditional Marsala grapes. The wine that I am thinking of is the di Bartoli Lucida. It's a dry table wine and made from a grape called Catarratto.
To me, it's a wine that's 3-D. But it speaks to your third eye. It's a wine from another world. It's a wine that's emerging from the ashes of the end of Marsala and indicates the future of where dry white wine in Sicily might go. I hate to say this, but I'm getting kind of shivery just talking about it. And it takes me to a different place entirely.
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