It's hard out there for a true devotee of wine. There's a whole generation of us who, in the midst of this current democratization of food and drink, have made it our mission to find interesting, defendable wines for $15 a bottle — and a concurrent generation of winemakers, importers, distributors and retailers who aim to cater to that need. And yet, the truth is hard to ignore: It's difficult to understand good wine without having first tasted great wine. Like anything else that exists on a quality scale, a barometer must be set. Without it, a drinker can certainly tell if something is horrible, given the right research and understanding, but the process of learning what is amazing can be akin to comprehending the intricacies of painting without ever having been to one of the world's great museums.
Most serious wine lovers can recount their "aha!" moment in loving detail — that taste of wine that converted them, that set them on their journey to obsessiveness. For me, it was more of a crystallization; after years of loving wine and learning as much as I could with barely any money to spend on the endeavor, one sip of a truly great white Burgundy brought the world of wine into focus for me, made me understand in my heart (my head already knew) the vast, magical, time-traveling pleasure possible. It feels pretentious — and also a bit cliché — to linger here on the epiphanies contained in that one sip, but I will say that I remember the taste as clearly now as a minute after it was gone; I can still bring to mind the utterly otherworldly feeling it gave me.
Since then I've had a handful of such experiences, and the more recent of them have happened at Augustine Wine Bar, the 3-month-old Sherman Oaks spot that makes those revelatory sips possible for even the casual drinker.
Augustine (presumably named for the patron saint of brewers) is an incredible evolution in the world of wine bars, an oddity and a gamble. Here's the premise: Owners Dustin Lancaster and Matthew Kaner (who are also responsible for Bar Covell, the wine bar in Los Feliz), along with Dave Gibbs (the singer-songwriter best known for his band Gigolo Aunts), opened a neighborhood wine bar with affordable, quirky wines, a short but ambitious food menu and a specials board with around 16 rotating vintage wines from Gibbs' personal collection, available by the glass and bottle each night. These are wines of stunning rarity and age, bottles that you might possibly stumble upon on one of the country's grandest wine lists in a restaurant that's been collecting for decades. Some of them are too rare or weird even for that. These are not wines plebeians such as ourselves would usually have access to, and certainly not by the glass.
For instance, one evening Augustine was pouring a 1958 Château Haut Brion Graves by the glass for $100 a pop. It's not a bottle completely unavailable to the public — you can buy one here in Los Angeles at Wally's Wine & Spirits for $1,900. Given that the regular formula for pricing wine is to charge by the glass roughly what the establishment paid wholesale for the bottle, you begin to see the head-spinning values Augustine regularly offers. The vintage wines generally range from $20 to $100 per glass and $100 to $1,000 per bottle. The high end of that range might get you, for instance, a 1928 Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, a bottle you could maybe pick up retail in London for double that price or in Hong Kong for five times as much.
The regular list, while varied and amusing, with about 55 glass pours, is standard wine-geek stuff, and there's a massive gap between what's offered there and what's on the vintage list. A middle ground simply doesn't exist. And while the food is perfectly adequate for the regular list, there's not much other than cheese and charcuterie to pair with the more extraordinary wines available.
The menu, courtesy of chef Evan Algorri, has a vaguely Spanish vibe and does not lack for ambition. But the more reaching the dish, the more dubious the execution. If you want a plate of tater tots to throw back with your glass of 1953 red Burgundy, you won't find much to complain about — a tater tot is a tater tot is a tater tot. Braised octopus with chickpeas and chorizo is a stewy comfort.
But line-caught Alaskan cod with a puree of kumquat in an almond broth came out overcooked, and the fish and the kumquat both left a bitter aftertaste. The jumble of snap peas, basil and orzo under seared duck breast tasted summery and bright, but the duck itself was cooked to a gamey nub. And a beautiful, silky cup of gazpacho was ruined by the extreme sweetness of the cucumber sorbet garnish. Cucumber sorbet is a fun idea and would be great in the dish if the chef hadn't made it appropriate for dessert.
Better to stick with the snacks, such as spiced nuts or Castelvetrano olives or a bowl of scorched snap peas garnished with mint and Parmesan. The chewy dried cranberries that come under the snap peas are a strange pairing, but they're easy to avoid if you're not in the mood for odd.
But most people are not here for dinner. They're here for the wine, and while there's a steady stream of customers here to meet friends and take advantage of the modestly priced regular list, Augustine has already become a pilgrimage site for serious wine enthusiasts enthralled by its vintage offerings.
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The popularity of the vintage wines has come as a surprise to the owners. Gibbs has been collecting for more than 20 years, but three months in, a lifetime of wine wealth is seriously depleted. "We thought we'd open and maybe sell a glass or so of the vintage stuff a night," Gibbs told me one early evening as I sipped a 1974 Pritchard Hill Chappellet Chenin Blanc (the oldest wines you can find from Napa's Pritchard Hill are generally from the early '90s), which Gibbs was pouring for $20 a glass. "We thought in a week that we'd sell one vintage bottle and a few glasses — that would be a really great week."
With that expectation, Gibbs' collection might have fueled Augustine for years and years. As it is, people realized the insane fun of stopping by and sipping something outrageous and rare. In short, Augustine is running out of vintage wine. What will they do? "Buy more," Gibbs says.
In the meantime, drinking here is a kind of pinch-yourself treat, one in which Gibbs might sidle up and pour you something from a bottle that's lost its label. Unsure of the contents, Gibbs is having fun with it, pouring tastes for those he deems worthy. "I think it's probably a 1950s Burgundy," he'll say, giving it a swirl. "It definitely was re-corked in the '80s or '90s." Whatever it is, it gives you that tingle in your brain and heart, and makes you hope with a passionate fervor that this strange operation manages to find a way to continue doing what it's doing. As unsustainable as it might be, this is God's work.
AUGUSTINE WINE BAR | Two stars | 13456 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | (818) 990-0938 | augustinewinebar.com | Sun.–Thu., 5–11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid. | Plates, $4-$19 | Beer and wine | Valet parking | 21+ only