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Wine wisdom in Los Angeles

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S. Irene Virbila restaurant critic>>> For those of us who love wine, Los Angeles is a wonderful city for all things vinous. We have some of the best wine shops in the country, so competitive with one another that the selection of wines and favorable pricing trump those of most retailers in other parts of the country. ¶ Not only that: L.A. boasts a good number of wine-friendly restaurants where you can nourish a deepening interest in the grape. Not to mention the restaurateurs and wine waiters who offer engaging advice on wine with undisguised passion for pet appellations or finds. ¶ For true wine lovers, it's not about which restaurant has the deepest cellar or the deepest pockets. It's about which has the most beguiling wine list. And it's not even just about the wine, it's also very much about a wine culture where the sommeliers and servers celebrate wine and, without intimidating anybody, however green, make the subject fun to explore. ¶ It's easy to propose that $300 bottle of cult Cabernet or name Burgundy, or the wines that have just topped the charts in the Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator. But coming up with a little-known wine or up-and-coming young producer -- that takes research and ingenuity. It means tasting and tasting to find the good bottles, not just reading up online.

AOC partner and wine director Caroline Styne says that when she suggests a bottle to her guests at the restaurant, she'll tell them, "We have a money-back guarantee. If you don't like the wine, I'll take it back and serve it by the glass." That's enough to get people to be a little more experimental in their wine choices.

I know a few couples between whom either the wife or the husband doesn't drink and the other is crazy about wine. Given that whoever drinks is not likely to spend $80 on a bottle of wine, half of which will be wasted, he or she will spend $20 or $30 on a glass of wine to taste something new and maybe unexpected. And sommeliers are happy to oblige.

AOC. The name stands for appellation d'origine contrôllée -- and the restaurant has that big-city buzz. Walk in most any night to try to get a space at the wine or charcuterie bar and you'll find the place is packed. Small wonder: The rustic Mediterranean food at this 5-year-old place from chef-owner Suzanne Goin (who also owns Lucques) is always wonderful. Small plates mean two can work their way through, say, rustic chicken liver crostini, smoked black cod with endive and persimmon, black rice with squid and saffron aioli, grilled skirt steak and perfect cheeses.

Styne's wine list encompasses close to 300 selections, with a strong emphasis on unusual wines at reasonable prices -- though, of course, she has some high-end bottles as well -- so people can feel free to experiment. Many are served by the glass or carafe. Whatever your level of wine experience, you can always find something you'd like to drink, such as a Saxon Brown Semillon from Sonoma Coast or an Ostertag Muscat from Alsace. In reds, it might be a Cambiata Tannat from Monterey or a Chanteleuserie Bourgueil from the Loire.

Palate Food & Wine. Steve Goldun, wine guru and partner at Palate Food & Wine, brings his experience as a wine retailer to bear on his list for the Glendale restaurant, which also includes a separate wine shop and wine bar. A courtly and easygoing presence in the dining room, Goldun wears his knowledge lightly.

Like all great sommeliers, he's able to respectfully gauge your wine experience -- and budget. Give him a price range and he'll come up with something intriguing, maybe a bargain Burgundy or a Dolcetto just in from Piedmont, every one of them terrific matches with Octavio Becerra's graceful ingredient-driven cooking -- potted Berkshire pork, stone-ground grits with porcini and garlic, or olive oil-poached yellowtail with picholine tapenade.

Campanile. Since early on, when Manfred Krankl (now making wine under the Sine Qua Non label) created one of most innovative wine lists in the country, Campanile has reeled in wine buffs. With its reasonable markups and stellar collection of unusual and hard-to-find wines, the wine list was just as much a star as Mark Peel's (and, back then, Nancy Silverton's) cooking. Like the kitchen, though, in recent years it's gone through some changes.

Jay Perrin is now wine director, and given the economic climate, his strategy is to ratchet back the markups to the level of the early days. He's also added a page that highlights value wines and pours 36 wines by the glass. "There's so much great, reasonably priced wine out there right now if you look for it," he says.

"Friday Night Flights" presents some of his latest discoveries three by three, each flight paired with three tastes from chef de cuisine Erica Lins. One week he might offer a flight of Lambruscos, Chardonnays from different regions, or a trio of Etna Rosso from Sicily. It's a wonderful way to explore food and wine matches at this inviting California-Mediterranean.

Mozza. Campanile co-founder Silverton has moved on to the Mozzas, and while Osteria Mozza boasts an impressive Italian wine list, Pizzeria Mozza's more affordable and eclectic list has won my heart. With 50 wines under $50, here's the chance to discover some little-known Italian wines from not only Tuscany and Piedmont but also Alto Adige, Apulia, Campania and Sicily.

Even more affordable are the dozen or so wines served by the carafe. And, hey, they've been chosen specifically to go with Silverton's beguiling wood-fired pizzas topped with Ipswich clams with oregano and Pecorino, wild spinach and nettles with cacio di Roma cheese and salami, or mixed mushrooms with fontina, mozzarella and thyme. Co-founder Joe Bastianich (who, with Mario Batali, owns Babbo and a slew of other restaurants) is no slouch in the wine department, but this list is a collaborative effort with Mozza general manager David Rosoff. Bravi, gentlemen.

Bar Pintxo. Joe Miller's Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica is the Joe's Restaurant owner's take on a Spanish tapas bar. Relaxed and unstructured, it's the kind of place where Miller himself would like to hang -- and it's a block from the beach. In the name of research, he and wine buyer Chris Keller (who also does the list at Joe's and makes wine under the Paige 23 label) went on a wild and woolly trip to Spain, eating and drinking their way through Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Galicia and the Basque region (among others).

Smitten with Spain, they turned up some wines nobody else was bringing in, and you can find them on Bar Pintxo's wine list, which encompasses about 75 wines, a good two-thirds of which are available by the glass, all of them from Spain. They've got eight cavas, half a dozen Txacoli, and that's just for starters, to enjoy with shrimp with fried pickled garlic, traditional Spanish tortilla, or a bite of roast suckling pig, or superb jamon serrano or iberico. Plus, Bar Pintxo is open till midnight most nights.

Lou on Vine. For first-time restaurateur Lou Amdur, opening his Hollywood wine bar, Lou on Vine, was so stressful he lost 50 pounds. But now, 2 1/2 years later, the place is perking along nicely with a devoted clientele, and he's gained back some of that weight. Tucked into a nondescript strip mall near Melrose and Vine, Lou feels like a particularly hip Paris wine bar with the menu (and a map of where each ingredient hails from) chalked on the wall over the cushy leather banquette.

Amdur, who presides over the bar in back, changes the Eurocentric wine list every couple of days, featuring obscure, little-known wines or producers. Under chef D.J. Olsen the food is better than ever. You can still nibble on "pig candy" (caramelized bacon), but now there's a tasty fish plate to go with those white wines, chorizo with black lentils and a fried egg, or a Niman flat iron steak from a small seasonal menu.

Though Lou hasn't become the wine-geek haven Amdur envisioned, it's thronged with locals who appreciate the reasonably priced food, cozy atmosphere and the chance to learn more about wine from the genial host.

brix@1601. In the South Bay, wine buffs head to the sprawling and slick brix@1601, which also includes a wine shop next door (that closes early enough that most people won't be shopping for a bottle before dinner). Sommelier Caitlin Stansbury is a relaxed presence in the dining room in fashionable torn jeans. She knows her stuff and has a lot of fun with appurtenances of the business -- the decanters, stemware and such.

She likes geeky wines too, but she's got more mainstream selections to nudge her clients along into the wide, wide world of wine. The food is more mainstream too, accessible (and delicious) sliders, oysters with tarragon mignonette, moules frites, and steaks and chops for those chewy reds.

Vin Bar/Valentino. For Italian wines, nobody has a better list than Piero Selvaggio at Valentino. The ever-charming Sicily native has been a tireless advocate for Italian wines at a time when French wines ruled and Italian wines, except for a handful of greats and plonk in straw-wrapped bottles, were hardly known (it's hard to remember, isn't it?).

But Selvaggio was on a mission, and he scoured Italy for regional wines and brought them back here to put on Valentino's commodious list. Through the years, the kitchen has had its ups and downs and chefs have come and gone, but you can always count on a delicious plate of pasta -- and the cellar, which is truly unique for its mapping of Italian wines. Maitre d' Giuseppe Mollica shares Selvaggio's passion: Ask him for a recommendation and he can usually find something you've never tasted before.

Last year, Valentino added the small Vin Bar up front where you can have a more casual meal of crudo, salumi, grilled pizza and more to enjoy with a dozen wines by the glass.

While everybody in L.A. may not be working on their Master of Wine or Master Sommelier, restaurants like these encourage discerning guests to get serious about wine in the best possible way. This is one subject where homework, so to speak, is always a pleasure.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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