There is no shortage of fine California wine, and no way to drink or even taste it all before its time. Los Angeles restaurateurs are at a distinct advantage with winemakers as close as Topanga Canyon and Malibu, and first-rate wineries and fruitful vineyards just up the highway in Santa Barbara and San Louis Obispo counties.
But that doesn't mean it's easy to find California wine that's inexpensive. “These days, few in the wine industry would look to California for what now constitutes 'value-priced' wines,” explains Andrew Turner, general manager and sommelier of Michael's in Santa Monica, which since 1979 has been known for highlighting quality California wine producers.
For L.A. wine drinkers in restaurants, a decent California wine by the glass, from a smaller, perhaps boutique winery of a certain vintage, will cost, on average, $8 to $9 a glass. Expect to pay more for single-vineyard, estate-grown wines. Prices per bottle can vary, from $12 for Little Dom's house wine (a partnership with Palmina Winery) on Monday nights to well over $700 per bottle for a cult cabernet from Colgin Cellars at Michael's — both a great value, although whether they are affordable depends on your budget. Here are some restaurants where California-made wine is spotlighted at a fair price.
5. The Lowest Markup: Philippe the Original. Look up over the busy counter at Philippe to see “classic brands that make you say 'wow,' ” points out Ian Blackburn, founder of wine educator Learn About Wine. “They have a serious wine list and prices that make you ask, 'What?' ” While the pour is moderate in size and the stemware is budget basic, the quality of the 15 wines by the glass is undeniable. For instance, there's a Kendall-Jackson reserve chardonnay at $5 per glass or a Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon for $12. There's no sommelier to suggest pairings, but consider a lamb sandwich with the Merry Edwards Pinot Noir ($9) as best bang-for-buck. Sawdust on the floor: no charge.
4. The Classic: The Grill on the Alley. The Grill on the Alley knows its audience. It's a longtime businessperson's meeting spot whose menu is not meant to be a stretch Ñ braised short ribs, double-cut lamb chops, steaks, hearty salads and tried-and-true American fare with a California-centric wine list to match. Of special value here is the wide selection of half-bottles (perfect for lunch) that allows for an honest pour without breaking the budget. Trefethen, Opus One and Etude are on the half-bottle list. Beverage director and sommelier Arthur Meola configured the list at the flagship Beverly Hills branch and at the Grill's outlets in Hollywood (at Hollywood & Highland) and Westlake Village. Those vary slightly, but emphasis remains on California's top tier priced reasonably.
3. The Purist: Corkbar. California-centric to the max, downtown's Corkbar has more than 70 California wines by the glass, from sparkling to dessert. Casual seating at the bar or on the patio outside underscores the laid-back vibe. There's a serious commitment to educating customers and widening their palates, however. Custom flights of three 2-ounce pours are one way to adventure beyond the usual. The helpful menu (heavy on cheese and charcuterie) comes with wine-pairing suggestions. Look for well-known names, Shafer, Au Bon Climat and Bonny Doon, and some less familiar, such as Bokisch for Spanish varietals like Tempranillo and Malbec.
2. The Innovator: Lukshon. After extensively studying the process, chef/owner Sang Yoon developed his own system for delivering wine on tap. With Yoon's promise that absolutely no oxygen hits the wines (the tubing is medical quality), there's no fresher way to taste the 10 wines by the glass Lukshon offers (also available in a 500 ml carafe). A diverse selection of varietals Ñ Albari–o, Friulano, Roussane, Viognier and Riesling, all from California wineries ÑÊ is meant to pair with Lukshon's pan-Asian flavors and often spicy dishes (the kurobuta pork ribs inflame). The staff, among them sommelier Eduardo Porto Carreiro, is willing and able to explain the unusual selection and recommend proper pairings.
1. The Deepest: Michael's. Presented to you at the table via iPad, the wine list at Michael's is extensive, with 800 labels. There's representation from Napa Valley heavy hitters, cult favorites (Sine Qua Non for one) and rising Santa Maria Valley stars, but there are also the superlocal: pinot noir from owner Michael McCarty's own Malibu Vineyard, for instance. The guiding principle behind the wine list, which also features other wine regions, is “value at every price point, meaning that whether a wine costs $40 or $400 on my list, it has to be a value relative to other things that would cost the same,” Turner explains. For those who can afford to buy exceptional vintages of single-vineyard wines, look no further.