A few blocks east of the Helms Complex in the heart of Culver City's gallery district is an unusual wine and spirits store called Bar & Garden. Partners Marissa Mandel and Lauren Johnson took over an old liquor store, kept the sign out front, and opened in January 2013.
Why Bar & Garden?
"Because," says Mandel, a landscape designer, "the beverages we stock all come from plants. They're farm products." And to emphasize that connection, the shop displays wines on crates the way farm stands display produce. Staghorn ferns mounted on wood are for sale, too, along with wispy air plants.
The idea for the shop came one day when the two of them were sharing a glass of wine and realized they didn't really know everything that was in that glass of wine. They started doing some research and soon found out how little producers are required to disclose about what's in the bottle. The same goes for spirits.
"What if there was a shop where we knew all the wines came from a vineyard free from chemicals, and where spirits don't have any artificial flavors or colors?" Johnson said. "We’d shop there. Our friends would shop there."
What would you consider the focus of the shop?
Wines that at a minimum have no herbicide, pesticide or fungicide used in the vineyards. And no chemical fertilizer. "Certainly, we tend to favor wines that have spontaneous fermentation and native yeast, although our criteria does not exclude wines that don't use native yeasts," says Mandel.
Johnson adds, "Our spirits have no artificial colors, flavors or additives. We would like to carry only small producers, but that isn't really possible, particularly with bourbon and rye, and there are classic spirits like Chartreuse that are must-haves for a shop like ours."
Which wine region is your real passion?
Southern Italy, especially Puglia and Basilicata. The two like to visit the producers of wines they carry and search out new wines to bring in.
What's the bottle you'd like to grab off the shelf right now and take home for dinner?
For Johnson, that last bottle of Sean Thackrey's Orion calls out to be taken home. She's been drinking the eccentric Marin County vintner's wines since 1991 when, fresh out of college, she tasted one of his wines at the restaurant where she worked.
Mandel is eyeing the 2011 Philippe Pacalet Gevrey-Chambertin. "This is a Burgundy made with minimal intervention, which is not the norm from this region,” she says. “It's ethereal, elegant and earthy. I would only drink it tonight if I had the full evening -- this is a wine you should spend time with."
What's the one bottle you're saving for a special occasion?
Mandel’s pick is the 1995 Quinto do Poço do Lobo Arinto from Portugal. "This savory white is amazingly complex from aging, but its acidity has endured, so it's not flabby, stale or raisin-y, like older whites can sometimes be."
In terms of price/quality, what would you recommend?
Both cite Ouled Thaleb rosé from Morocco that’s 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Cinsault from a dry-farmed parcel just outside Casablanca at $14. Johnson is also big fans of a $16 Negroamaro Rosato from Schola Sarmenti in Puglia in southern Italy. "I love this big, round, full-bodied rosé; I call it a Beyoncé wine--it's got it all going on, and it's not shy about its assets. A great food wine."
Another recommendation is Domaine Belluard Vin de Savoie “Ayse” Brut NV made from an indigenous grape known as Gringet. “This is a wine with super-fine bubbles you can drink all day long with apple and something salty, like good cheese,” says Mandel. “I can't think of anything this wine doesn't go with."
What about tastings?
Last week wine producer David deLaski from Solminer was pouring the Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and the Syrah he and his wife, Anna, produce from their tiny 3-acre vineyard outside Los Olivos. He also showed a Syrah blend rosé called Rubellite with a big dose of minerality.
What's the one wine region you'd like to explore next?
Slovenia, says Mandel. "We recently met the charming Aleks Klinec, from Klinec Medana, and he told us to come and visit, so we thought we’d do 'spring break Slovenia' next year, crossing over the border into Friuli, too."
Bar & Garden, 6142 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 876-0759, www.barandgarden.com. Closed Mondays. Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 12 to 6 p.m.