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Finally, the wine bar is raised

Goodbye, Chard; forget Cabernet. Angelenos are showing derring-do by the glass.

August 31, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

WHISKED immediately into a private room when he arrives at Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante, Prince never mixes with the walk-in crowd at actor Ashton Kutcher's West Hollywood restaurant. But behind those drawn curtains, the rock icon does what most Angelenos are doing these days. He asks the sommelier to pick out a wine for him, preferably something he's never had before.

Sure, he still drinks wine through a straw, but Prince has branched out beyond his usual Merlot, says Adam Leemon, who until last week was Dolce's sommelier, and that's the sort of adventuresome spirit that's taken over diners in Los Angeles' best restaurants.

Finally, Leemon and other sommeliers say, L.A. diners are breaking away from big-name labels and putting themselves in the hands of sommeliers who have expanded wine-by-the-glass offerings and encouraged serious wine exploration.

As recently as three years ago, L.A. was stuck in a rut of ordering familiar California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Today, people are taking chances on the unknown, and the city's wine scene suddenly has new energy.

It's part of a burgeoning wine culture in L.A. Following last fall's film "Sideways," it seems that everyone wants to talk about wine. Hordes of wine lovers have been flocking to the Santa Barbara wine country intent on reliving the movie. Been to tastings at wine stores lately? They're jammed.

So are wine classes, where students are broadening their knowledge. A lesson about over-oaked wines, say, might lead a student away from California Chardonnays and toward interesting lesser-known varieties.

The proliferation of wine bars makes it easy to discover new wines. One in particular -- A.O.C. -- helped to awaken Los Angeles' dormant wine enthusiasts, say several sommeliers. By pouring a wide variety of high-quality wines by the glass, owners Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin made wine experimentation affordable and fun when it opened in December 2002.

Inspired by A.O.C.'s success and by other wine-savvy restaurants across the country using ultra-premium wines by the glass to spur sales, most of L.A.'s top restaurants have been expanding their lists. The more patrons have experimented with wines, the more new ones they wanted to try. Now, eclectic lists of 10 to 20 and sometimes even 30 wines by the glass are all over L.A. At 3-year-old Primitivo Wine Bistro in Venice, owner Daniel Deny has expanded his wine-by-the-glass list to 85.

The days of featuring Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon and Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay on the wine list are waning, says David Rosoff, general manager and wine director at Campanile. "We have all worked very hard, believing it's a myth that there are certain wines you have to have. You can define your list, believe in what you are doing and sell it in Los Angeles."

Diners have learned to love Furst Spatlese Trocken Pinot Blanc from Germany, New Zealand Gewurztraminers and Tempranillo from Spain's Zamora region. Restaurateurs say they sell out of wines from France's Jura region and the Bekka Valley in Lebanon. Barbarescos from Italy's Piedmont? Suddenly everyone seems to know they're delicious.

Los Angeles has always been California's second city when it comes to wine, with fewer world-class wine collectors and a relatively modest circle of wine connoisseurs when compared with San Francisco. At best, only a couple of dozen serious wine-tasting groups meet regularly.

But that's what's so great about L.A., says Kevin O'Connor, sommelier at Spago in Beverly Hills. "It's the combination of naivete and open-mindedness. There is no inculcated wine culture here.... So, no one is jaded. Everyone is fresh. In L.A., we're curious."

"There are a lot of people who don't know even how to explain what they want," says Eric Espuny, sommelier at Patina in downtown L.A. "But when you recommend something, everyone will follow. I have even sold German Pinot Noir."

Espuny sold that obscure wine by the glass, which is the key to L.A.'s change of attitude about unknown wines, says O'Connor, who at 44 is an elder statesman among L.A.'s youthful corps of sommeliers.

Over the course of a year, Spago offers more than 100 wines by the glass, constantly changing the offerings to keep regular customers engaged and let them experiment, O'Connor says. Like any restaurant with serious wine service, Spago is quick to provide a taste of anything served by the glass to help diners decide. "That's what pushes our culture forward," he says.


Embracing the bizarre

WHEN Styne and Goin opened A.O.C., the 50-wine Cruvinet was stocked with as many old faithful choices as there were wines Styne considered "discoveries." Two years later, "it's all eclectic wines, the more bizarre the better," Styne says. Gone are the simple-tasting California Chardonnays and Merlots. It's now Greco di Tufo from Italy's Campania region, Rose from Puglia, and Bonarda from Argentina. "People are much more open than I would have ever thought. They want you to bring it on!"

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