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The LA Wine Scene According to Its Sommeliers

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Welcome to Vintage America, a column in which Eater Wine Editor Talia Baiocchi takes a hyperfresh look at all things wine-related.

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LA Skyline [Photo: flickr/jondoeforty1]

The food and wine scene in Los Angeles is growing faster than any other major city in the US. Though the city is often shoved behind New York, San Francisco, and even Chicago in conversations about wine culture, LA is quietly building a community full of great talent. What's emerging is a wine scene full of new points of view and, as Ashley Ragovin of Animal eloquently points out, "a whimsy and open-mindedness that comes with youth."

But that youth also presents limitations, not least among them, a smaller "contingency of big spenders" than NYC or SF has, according to Eduardo Porto Carreiro, the former sommelier at Lukshon and a current sommelier at NYC's Boulud Sud. So what's going on in LA and where is its wine scene going?

Ashley Ragovin of Animal, Eduardo Porto Carreiro (formerly) of Lukshon, Max Stefanelli of Terroni, Matthew Kaner of Bar Covell, and Drew Langley of Providence have answers.


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Ashley Ragovin | GM & Sommelier, Animal


How is your wine list unique in the context of other LA restaurants?
Our list is dynamic. You will see many things come and go, but all of them represent a producer and a specific place. One thing that is unique—especially in California—is the absence of California wine. It's an interesting dichotomy because our menu is so driven by local, sustainable products. But not every single thing can grow to its fullest potential just any old place.

In comparison to other wine cities like New York and San Francisco, what does LA have that they don't?
Los Angeles doesn't have the decades of historical grit that San Francisco and New York have; we are still carving out an identity. In a food and wine context, LA is young. But there's a whimsy and open-mindedness that comes with youth. I think there's a new guard, so to speak, and many talented sommeliers and incredible servers are participating in creating a wine community without pretense. There's a sense of adventure and that gives people freedom to play around a little and be creative.

In your estimation, what's hot in LA right now?
Trends come and go but I think low-alcohol wines are starting to catch on. People are beginning to see the value in drinking something like Lambrusco with barbecued pork instead of a crushingly alcoholic, big red. People are drinking more white wine and rosé, and finding it enjoyable because it's in harmony with their meal.

What's not?
Over-analyzing wine and not enjoying what's in your glass.

What region are you most excited about right now and why?
I am enthralled with a tiny region in the southwest corner of Switzerland called Valais, particularly for white wine. The Swiss have been producing wine from ancient varietals for centuries but only recently have those wines made it to other parts of the world. The alpine climate gives these obscure varietals like Heida, Amigne, and Petite Arvine so much depth; there's this rich, abundant fruit and a bracing, electric acidity. I love varietals that can be vinified dry, partially sweet, or totally sticky and still maintain that zing. And I love varietals that grow best in one tiny place and have a history.

What would you like to see happen within the LA wine scene over the next 5 years?
I have a lot of faith in the LA dining culture. I'd like to see the word "scene" swapped for the word "community." Hopefully people keep exploring and sharing, and stay honest about what they like and what they don't. It's OK to have different tastes, as long as we keep the conversation evolving. I hope to see people embrace the idea of food and wine in tandem as one singular experience. I don't mean fancying things up, just a common pursuit of eating and drinking for pleasure, and with a sense of awareness. As utopian as it sounds, I believe it's actually super basic and human.

How would you describe the LA wine scene in one word?
Awake.


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Eduardo Porto Carreiro | Former Wine Director, Lukshon


In comparison to other wine cities like New York and San Francisco, what does LA have that they don't?
Los Angeles has the unique advantage of a consumer base that's not really tied to any one wine region. I've found that a lot of New York drinkers are focused on Old World wines and a lot of consumers in the Bay Area tend to prefer wines from their own backyard in Napa and Sonoma. LA has a great group of adventurous wine drinkers that are open-minded and curious to tackle bottles from all the corners of the wine world.

What does it lack?
The presence of a large contingency of big-spenders. The Bay Area has a lot of Silicon Valley folks spending money and New York has the bankers, etc. I'd say the frequency at which bottles over $200 are consumed in LA is much lower than in other cities. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, because you now have a city that is filled with wine lists providing value and wine programs that are only seeking out the very best wines in the $50 to $150 range.

What is the most striking development in LA's wine scene over the past few years?
The evolution of the "short list" seems to be the most striking development over the past several years in LA. Most of the new hot restaurants, and even some of the old-guard, are shifting focus to one-page lists. There are few restaurants with extensive wine menus left and even fewer with deep selections of verticals, etc. I think that over the past few years, the group of passionate wine folk and restaurateurs have found that LA diners are more responsive to tightly-curated lists.

In your estimation, what's hot in LA right now?
LA is such an expansive city with so many different pockets, it's difficult to make a blanket statement. Something that's hot in Santa Monica might not be the same thing that's hot in Silverlake, etc. That said, I've definitely observed a big upswing on lesser-known varieties such as grolleau and pinot d'aunis from the Loire or certain regional Italian wines such as frappato from Sicily, etc. I'd also say that mineral-driven whites have absolutely eclipsed the fruit-forward whites; trocken riesling and Muscadet have become very popular as a result.

What's not?
I'd say the big ticket wines from a few years ago; not a lot of people are looking for oaky chardonnays or big name "status" Napa cabs.

What would you like to see happen within the LA wine scene over the next five years?
Ideally, I'd like the LA wine scene to stay on the same track its on right now. It's come so far in the past ten years and I feel that the excitement and adventurous nature of the younger wine drinkers will allow the LA wine community to continue its exploration of newer and less "battle-tested" wine regions. It'd be great to pony up to a restaurant bar in LA in five years and see more than half the folks sipping on a glass of wine rather than a vodka soda.

How would you describe the LA wine scene in one word?
Galvanized.


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Max Stefanelli | Wine Director/Partner, Terroni


What does LA have that other wine cities don't?
I think the big difference is the potential to really grow. I don't think San Francisco has the same potential; it's packed. I don't know New York as well, but we don't have the density and to open a restaurant here is way cheaper. Right now we are opening a 9,000 sq ft restaurant with a wine shop and a big cellar downtown. If it were in NYC, it would be impossible for us to do that. What we are doing is probably the cost of opening a small restaurant in NYC. To do something there like we are doing you have to be someone with big shoulders.

What does it lack?
It's not necessarily just LA, but you see a lot of restaurants you can go and have good food, but often times you do not have a good list. I don't mean a big wine list, just a list chosen with passion and knowledge. If you have both you have a chance to put the restaurant on the national map. If you go and you have good food, but the wine list is disappointing it's just a good local restaurant. It's a big problem. I try and convince many of my friends to spend the money on the list and have someone on the floor. But unfortunately many of them don't want to. You find so many good restaurants where you can eat, but many of the lists are weak and don't match the food. We have so talented buyers that understand wine working with wine in LA now, but we are still a bit behind New York and San Francisco.

What's changed in LA since you arrived in 2007?
I think we have more and more people who really understand how to buy wine. Part of it is the increasing knowledge of buyers; I look around at my colleagues and everyone is buying from smaller importers and the lists have better wines as a result. I remember when I arrived I used to buy wines from big importers and now I barely buy from big importers. This is an interesting change. I also think because of the economy a lot of people moved to LA and opened restaurants in LA because, again, it's much easier and cheaper to open a restaurant here than SF and NYC. So the chefs are coming and the level of professionalism is increasing and you are seeing, slowly, the need to have a good wine program in place.

What would you like to see happen within the LA wine scene over the next five years?
I think we need to really invest in the younger people who can't really spend more than $10 on a glass of wine. If we invest in these people in ten years and five years we will find ourselves with customers that will be more sophisticated than the ones we are dealing with now. And, to be honest, we already have a great bunch of clients that come in, but it's a work in progress and you always need someone on the floor who makes sure people feel comfortable with the list.

The LA wine scene in one word?
Exciting. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here right now. I think in the next ten years we can really grow and as a restaurateur working with wine I am excited because I really want to make it better. So, it's exciting ... and challenging.
[Photo: Ben Andersen]


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Matthew Kaner | Wine Director, Bar Covell


How is your wine list unique in the context of other LA restaurants?
We don't have a wine list at Covell. Humans are creatures of habit and will only order something they can pronounce it, have heard about on NPR, or their best friend told them about it. Those constraints are seriously limiting. So, instead we start a conversation with each guest, get a sense of what they're looking for, then present a few wine options with a small taste of each to help them navigate their way from 120 wines by the glass to the right choice for the moment.

What does LA have that other wine cities do not?
I have dined out A LOT in New York and San Francisco, and what I believe to be the elemental difference is, in Los Angeles, the diner has an open mindedness to trying something unfamiliar.

What does it lack?
LA lacks the polish that New York and San Francisco have on the restaurateur side, which trickles down to the staff of restaurants and wine bars. Here, restaurant staffers are all waiting to get discovered, whereas in SF and NYC they are in it for the industry. It's getting better, though, and I am proud to be working along side Dustin Lancaster (Covell, L&E Oyster Bar, The Hermosillo, Storefront), who continues to believe in LA and elevating the game with each step in his journey.

What is the most striking development in LA's wine scene over the past few years?
The most noticeable shift I've seen is the open arms policy toward the "natural wine" concept. It's hilarious that a buzzword can expose something that's been happening historically for over a century in Old World winegrowing regions.

In your estimation, what's hot in LA right now?
Things that catch fire at Covell include: cru Beaujolais, Sancerre, Mosel riesling, Loire Valley cabernet franc, anything from Vallée de Aosta, Muscadet, and Hunter Valley semillon. The long and short of it is, anything we are passionate about will become hot within our walls.

What's not?
Wines that are NOT descriptive of their origin or are NOT made honestly.

What region and its wines are you most excited about right now and why?
I am not a fan of limitation in a wine program, but I swear I am thinking about opening a wine bar that only carries wines from the Loire Valley. It is BY FAR the most bio-diverse wine region on the planet, and covers the production of every style of wine you can possibly make.

LA's wine scene in one word?
Thirsty.


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Drew Langley | Wine Director, Providence


How is LA's wine scene unique?
There seems to be a more laid back approach from sommeliers, buyers and suppliers. There is more camaraderie and less competition than in San Francisco or New York.

What is the most striking development in LA's wine scene over the past few years?
I think the opening of K&L Wine Merchant has changed Hollywood considerably. It's a great shop with an amazing team. Also, the California foie gras ban has really affected my dessert wine sales. Not too often do my clients ask for a Sauternes by the glass anymore.

In your estimation, what's hot in LA right now?
Adriatic wines are everywhere right now. Slovenia, Croatia and Greece, these wines have become almost the norm. Seven years ago these wines were a struggle to sell, but now guests ask for them without blinking. Grower Champagne and Jura wines are also really taking off. Nuance and finesse are in.

What's not?
Power and structure are taking a back seat.

How would you like to see LA evolve over the next five years?
I would like to see smaller, more focused wine bars pop up.

The LA wine scene in one word?
Advancing.


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Talia Baiocchi is Eater's Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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