Josh Loeb — owner with his wife, Zoe Nathan, of the Santa Monica restaurant Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen — has always had a penchant for wine. As he was coming up in the industry, he had stints buying wine at a small number of places, most notably Capo, Bruce Marder's wine-centric spot in Santa Monica. And so, naturally, he composed Rustic Canyon's opening list in 2006.
But when the restaurant became a "group" in 2010, Loeb was obliged to delegate. The task fell to Kathryn Weil Coker, then a 30-year-old whirlwind who rose out of the server ranks with an aptitude and a skill such that she now heads all of the restaurants' beverage programs. The most active of these, wine-wise, are Rustic Canyon, Cassia — the restaurant Loeb runs with chef Bryant Ng — and Esters, a Loeb partnership with Coker and her husband, Tug, which is, right now, amid great competition, the best wine bar in Southern California.
The menu at Rustic Canyon, the group's flagship, has always been locally sourced, comfortable, unruffled. One of Loeb's more oft-quoted sentiments is that it should be an everything place, where people in ripped jeans and flip-flops dine next to linen-clad Santa Monicans and no one feels out of place.
The wine program felt similar, fueled by California Pinot Noir, Loeb's personal fave and the closest thing we have in this day and age to an omnibus wine for an everything place. (Oddly, the restaurant still calls itself a wine bar, as in Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen, though with the talent that's manned that kitchen — Evan Funke, Samir Mohajer and now Jeremy Fox — no one comes strictly for the wine.)
In Coker's hands, Rustic Canyon's wine list has become both larger and more diverse. She's compiled an enviable selection of grower Champagne and sparkling wines, and a core of French bottlings, not to mention an ever-growing selection of Italian wines (her floor sommelier, Ferdinando Mucerino, a native of Naples — helps out here). But the spiritual center of the wine list is a special page devoted to Williams Selyem, the iconic Russian River Valley Pinot house, more than a dozen of their single vineyard bottlings, many in verticals, going back as far as 2005.
At Cassia the menu skews southeast Asian, suffused through French bistro. In keeping with the bistro setting, Coker has maintained a fairly small list, about 60 selections, though she intends to expand it to more than 200 within a year.
The focus is on white wine, as it should be, with a healthy selection of Riesling, but also other, more playful options like Broc Cellars' "Love White" or the Austrian producer Moric's blend, "Super Natural;" or you can get considerably more serious, like F.X. Pichler's sumptuous Smaragd Gruners, or de Montille's grand Corton, one of the world's most majestic Chardonnays. Of the reds, most are diminutive and light-bodied, like Arnot Roberts' spicy Trousseau and Sebastian David's jangly, peppery Cabernet Franc "l'Hurluburlu" — served chilled, of course.
For Coker, that leaves Esters rather like a candy store as much as a wine program.
Right now, L.A.'s wine bar scene is exploding: Bar Covell, Bar Bandini and Augustine are all thriving in wildly disparate formats, as well as newbies Hayden, Stanley's Wet Goods and Tabula Rasa. (This isn't counting wine-themed restaurants like A.O.C., Wally's Beverly Hills, or Marvin — or Rustic Canyon, for that matter.)
At the moment, none can hold a candle to Esters, a high-ceilinged temple of vinous pleasure that doubles as a retail store by day, and chill, intimate wine bar by sundown. Its collection of trophies, unicorns, bubbles and date-night wines has the place full nearly every evening.
So, some trophies: Current vintages of Chateau de Brézé's Saumur Clos de la Rue is here, as is the Muscadet "Gaia" from Jerome Bretaudeau; both rarities, and we haven't even left the Loire Valley. There are Rieslings from Eva Fricke, rosés from Etna, Bandol, Oregon, even the Nahe if you're feeling daffy. But the bulk of the list is reserved for Burgundy. Of the roughly 350 selections — massive for a wine bar — fully one-third is devoted to Burgundy, from Bourgogne Rouges to Bonnes Mares from Bruno Clair, putting Esters, if not on par with a Spago or a Mélisse, in the ballpark as one of the best, and best priced, sources for Burgundy in the city.
Wine director: Kathryn Coker
Floor sommelier(s): Marisa Brown (Cassia), Ferdinando Mucerino (Rustic Canyon), Tom Wood (Esters).
Least expensive wine: $40 (Esters & Rustic Canyon), $46 (Cassia)
Most expensive wine: $818 (Esters), $325 (Cassia), $2,200 (Rustic Canyon)
Median bottle price: $100 (Rustic Canyon), about $72 (Cassia & Esters)
Particular strength: Rustic Canyon: California Pinot Noir. Esters: Burgundy. Cassia: Riesling and more esoteric varietals that go with spicy cuisine.
Food and wine pairing: Esters' 72-hour short rib steak, scallion, romesco, paired with the 2013 Giuseppe Mascarello Barbera d'Alba 'Scudetto.'
"This is a serious Barbera from a blue-chip producer that absolutely overdelivers," says Coker. "The steak is small but mighty, smoky and incredibly flavorful, not heavy. A Barolo would be too big — but this Barbera is serious enough and has dusty, deep red fruit that complements the smoky flavors in the steak."
Advice for the adventurous drinker: Drink Sekt — the 1992 Peter Lauer, Saar-Mosel Riesling Sekt (at Esters or Cassia).
"This wine is nuts," says Coker. "Twenty-five years old, bone dry, rusty metal pipes, briny sea water and mushrooms. Completely savory, no fruit, and bubbly. So oysters, and other briny things, are just the match."
What wine should people drink more? "Champagne," says Coker. "More people should be drinking quality grower Champagne from small producers. There is such a variety of Champagne, it's not just about style — terroir is real. People need to start thinking of it as an all-the-time wine and not just for special occasions."