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Wanted: personal wine wonk

Skip the homework -- a handy shortcut to connoisseurship may be standing right behind the wine shop counter.

March 03, 2004|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Between the job, the kids, the house and the gym, reading up on the latest young vintner making waves in New Zealand can be just one too many things on the to-do list. Sure, it would be nice to wow friends by bringing an insouciant yet deeply complex wine with a perfect balance of acid and ripe fruit to the next dinner party. But how to know what to choose?

Bookstores offer wine primers by the dozens -- but who has time to read them? Wine courses are a fun way to learn. But do you need an education, or do you just want to know what to buy?

Thankfully, there's an easier way: Go shopping for a wine guru.

A knowledgeable wine merchant who specializes in highly personalized service knows just the questions to ask to lead you by the hand to find exactly the right bottle for the dinner you're making. Or the party you're attending. Or the gift you're offering.

The good news is there's no shortage of such merchants.

So how to find them? Think small. Stores where the resident wine guru is always in because he's an owner are the best bets. And think neighborhood. Stores that cater to walk-in business are more likely to spend the time talking through your dinner menu to determine the best wine pairing.

The salespeople at the giant wine outlets -- the Wine House in West Los Angeles and the Wine Exchange in Orange to name two of the best -- can help fill a shopping cart with wonderful discoveries from around the globe. And they can do it at $10 a bottle or $50. But getting the same salesperson more than once is rare. And for the easily intimidated, the stores' massive scale can be overwhelming.

Antithetical to a satisfying wine-buying spree is the snooty little wine store catering to the moneyed classes. (Wally's in Westwood and John & Pete's Liquor Store on La Cienega leap to mind.)

On the other hand, there is Du Vin in West Hollywood, a Francophile's paradise tucked behind an unpretentious little house on San Vicente Boulevard, just below the Pacific Design Center. This is a cozy room where rare old Bordeaux share space with inexpensive Languedoc reds, along with a sampling of bottles from the rest of the world.

Rene Averseng has hardly missed a day behind Du Vin's dark wood counter since he opened the store 25 years ago. Helping him now is Robert MacMillan, a former waiter from Michael's in Santa Monica whose enthusiasm for wine is infectious.

MacMillan introduces himself to customers not long after they walk through the door, asking what they're looking for, as well as why that particular wine is on their shopping list. A Riesling? He makes a mental note that this is an adventurous wine drinker who might like to try a Condrieu, a Viognier from a tiny appellation in the northern Rhone. "These wines aren't cheap, but this is where you want to spend the extra money," he says, describing one with such a fragrant nose that you feel that you are walking past a field of lavender when you drink it.

A Merlot? This person may be risk-averse. Looking for a Burgundy, but not in the mood to pay the $40 it typically costs for a decent bottle? MacMillan reaches for a 2001 Fixin, explaining that this is a great wine from an uncelebrated area for $26. He thinks it's better than some of the big Burgundy names that aren't living up to their hype, suggesting it be served with rabbit, or a pork roast in the case of a less adventurous cook. "It's soft and elegant," MacMillan says, "with the feel and smell of dry, old wood and wild berries." One wine recommendation leads to another, and before long a case is being carried out to the car.

Learning about wine as you buy should always be this much fun. And for those who know about the dozen or so quirky wine stores scattered throughout Los Angeles' neighborhoods, it often is.

At Pasadena's Chronicle Wine Cellar, Gus Martin has allowed his wine hobby to get completely out of hand, he jokes.

Martin's one-room store, hidden behind towering stacks of decaying cardboard wine boxes, has the air of a squatter's flat. A first-floor apartment in a run-down building behind the Pie 'n Burger on East California Boulevard, the Chronicle technically is the burger joint's wine cellar, a remnant of the old Chronicle restaurant's wine cellar that once included Alfred Hitchcock's personal wine collection. Now any wine that isn't snapped up by the French fry and lemon meringue pie set (yes, you can order wine with your cheeseburger) is available for Martin to sell to the public.

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