Kettle Black sticks to Italian wine varietals.EXPAND
Kettle Black sticks to Italian wine varietals.
Jessica Alexander

L.A.'s Neighborhood Wine Bars Are Evolving

There’s never been a better, easier time to drink wine in Los Angeles than right now, thanks to numerous recent wine bar openings all over the city. Bar Bandini in Echo Park, Esters Wine Bar in Santa Monica and Augustine in Sherman Oaks just passed their two-year marks, Tabula Rasa in East Hollywood just had its one-year anniversary and Hayden in Culver City and Good Measure in Atwater Village are a lean 3 months old. All represent vastly different approaches to wine. One has to ask: Can L.A. sustain this many wine bars?

We’ve come a long way since the iconic A.O.C. from Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne landed in 2002. We know the city’s increased interest in wine goes hand-in-hand with the European-style restaurant renaissance of the past decade here, with establishments such as Osteria Mozza and Craft celebrating their 10- and 11-year anniversaries this year; Rustic Canyon has just marked its 11th year.

“With more restaurants that are chef-driven come more wine lists that are sommelier-driven or [driven by] someone with a wine opinion. They want to match the food. So when you have people who are learning more and buying more wine, then you have more customers that are being exposed to wines,” says Kathryn Weil Coker of Esters Wine Bar. She has been involved with Rustic Canyon Group since its inception in 2006.

You could say that it took a few years for wine to shed the old, stodgy stereotypes before reaching the widespread appreciation it has today. Simultaneous with the beginning of the city’s dining revitalization was the classic-cocktail explosion in L.A. nightlife (the Edison and Seven Grand celebrated their 10th anniversaries this year). The wine bar, however, trickled onto the landscape.

Bar Pinxto was a great tapas bar that offered great wine. There was Primitivo on Abbot Kinney (now closed), for instance, and a couple more opened up in 2010, including Mignon, a cozy space downtown devoted to European wines accompanied by French food. Then came that wine bar notorious for operating in lieu of a wine list and in favor of personal interaction, Bar Covell, currently in its eighth year. At the time it opened, however, there was very little going on in that Los Feliz block. Today, it’s one of the hottest stretches on which to eat and drink — whether wine or coffee, Austin breakfast tacos or reimagined Mediterranean.

“I’ll never [open a bar without a wine list] again,” Matthew Kaner, wine director and co-owner of Bar Covell, says. “Not only was it the coolest and most freeing thing I’ve ever done ... it was also the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. The fact that you have been handed a wine list at every other place you’ve been before ... alienates some people sometimes. It’s not our intention, but we want people to realize that reading from the left side to the right side is not the best way to choose wine, and when people don’t know what something is; it’s not helpful to just read through it.”

The more educated wine-drinking public in L.A. is not only a welcome but necessary progression in tandem with the continuous uptick in American wine consumption. Boutique wine shops such as Domaine L.A., Lou Wine Shop, Wally’s and Silverlake Wine have been pivotal in not only being places for learning more about wine but breeding curiosity. Millennials have embraced the grape, consuming twice as much wine as their parents did at that age. They have more information at their fingertips than ever, using wine apps such as Delectable and Vivino to help track wines they come across at the shop or neighborhood wine bar. “We have people who are 21, 22 that are asking for things that I don’t even know about,” Coker says.

Increased wine consumption inevitably breeds trends — and vice versa. Anthony Cailan, wine director at Hayden, says that just five years ago, during his time working at Domaine L.A., selling rosé was like pulling teeth. “And then three to four years later, people would buy rosé by the case. I’m going to blame social media for that one. I think the campaign did a lot of good for the rosé industry but it also did one bad thing. [Some] people only drink rosé in order to be cool. They don’t care what kind of rosé it is as long as it’s pink, and if it’s not the right shade of pink, then people are going to be upset. People are rosé-cist.” Such is the case with social media; after all, #roseallday is a much catchier hashtag than #whitewine or #redwine.

We're seeing neighborhood wine bars showcase many natural wines — if not devoting the entirety of the list to them, as Bar Bandini does. With natural wine, minimal intervention is required in its process but it’s not an officially qualified categorization. Known for having funky notes, natural wines attract those with a more adventurous palate, and its processes offer limitless possibilities to geek over.

Geeking out over wine is easier to do nowadays, thanks to recent trends toward lower ABVs. While Esters Wine Shop & Bar, for instance, makes it a point not to focus on any trend in particular, the prevalence of lower alcohol content now is something Coker can get behind — though as a byproduct of a good wine. “More balanced is more the key, not less alcohol,” she says.

L.A.’s recent wine bar explosion could be a watershed moment for a wine scene in a city that is less bound by tradition and more prone to exploration. “We have a huge port that things can come in and out of. Here is the Wild West of wine importing,” Kaner says. “We have access to anything you can imagine. New York, being close to Europe, [gives them] a very European mindset. They drink a lot of French, Spanish, Italian wines. Here in California, in L.A., yeah, there’s a lot of French, Italian and Spanish, but also Portuguese, German, stuff from Republic of Georgia, Armenia, Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand. People assume L.A. is behind, but I think we’re more boundary-pushing than behind.”

With drinking, however, it always comes back to service. Industry veterans Zach Negin and Daniel Flores, who opened Tabula Rasa just a little over a year ago, first focused on being a go-to spot for East Hollywood — and wine is where it gravitated toward. “Being a natural wine bar is important to us, but ... first we wanted to be a great neighborhood bar. We aren’t trying to draw natural-wine nerds from Venice into Thai Town. It comes down to the hospitality with our offerings,” Negin says. He and Flores ended up with a good number of natural wines by virtue of the relationships they developed with winemakers.

The reality is that everybody deserves a neighborhood wine bar. It seems as though the influx in L.A. over the past couple of years has just begun catching up to the outsized and growing demand for an easily accessible glass — whether you’re in the mood for something reliable or something that pushes the boundaries. After all, who wouldn’t be happy with a cheaper ride-share to and from your local watering hole?

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