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Finally, the wine bar is raised

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

In general, say sommeliers, wine consumption is up -- a fact supported by a recent national poll by Gallup -- with someone at almost every table ordering wine at dinner. “It’s universally understood among restaurateurs that wine sales have surged in the last six months,” says O’Connor. “The economy is back after stalling in 2003 and 2004. And the film ‘Sideways’ definitely helped. Anytime wine is elevated in culture, people are going to get involved with it.”

Spago’s wine sales are up by 10% so far this year, O’Connor says, and by 20% compared with this time last year ($245,000 this month compared with $205,000 in August last year). That’s far greater than the restaurant’s overall sales, he says. “People are spending more on their wines, they are taking a little bit more time to have a wine experience that’s a little bit more elaborate than what they used to do. We haven’t done anything different. The customer is just more curious these days.”

O’Connor says a restaurant doesn’t have to spend a fortune on a wine cellar to ride this new wave. Neighborhood spots such as Nook and Literati, both in West L.A., have smart one-page wine lists that engage diners without overwhelming them

The classically trained French sommeliers at restaurants such as Patina, Ortolan, Providence and Bastide elevate everyone’s game with their disciplined understanding of wine.

Two sommeliers who are relatively new to L.A. -- Peter Birmingham at Norman’s on Sunset and Mark Mendoza at Sona on La Cienega -- are singled out by other sommeliers for particularly exciting and eclectic approaches to wine. Birmingham this summer fearlessly brought Lambrusco out of wine ignominy with an earthy Andrea Picchioni Sangue di Guida from Oltrepo Pavese-Lombardia that he serves chilled paired with spicy summer barbecue. Mendoza offers four sherries and 10 dessert wines by the glass. “People get excited. People are receptive. They want to be more wine-savvy,” Mendoza says.

But in a town as casual as L.A., the most influential sommeliers are the self-taught enthusiasts with an infectious passion. “L.A. has a less scholastic and more creative approach to wine,” says Rosoff, a former musician whose former restaurant Opaline was renowned for its eclectic wine selection.

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Many sommeliers give a nod to A.O.C.'s Styne, who relies on instinct and observation to select more than 250 wines a year for a clientele skewed a generation younger than the town’s average restaurant-goer. Her openness encourages her staff to learn with her. Their enthusiasm is evident in the dining room. “She tastes everything, is interested in everything,” says Amy Christine, an A.O.C. sommelier. “I definitely taste a lot of wines that I wouldn’t get a chance to taste at another restaurant. There is an elegance to the way she chooses wines, supporting winemakers she really cares about, serving what she thinks people should be drinking.”

Nothing, however, has had as much influence recently on wine drinkers as the film “Sideways,” says Styne. “ ‘Sideways’ gave people the license to start talking about wine, to start having fun with wine,” she says.

Since then, demand for California Pinot Noir has been out of control, according to every sommelier interviewed. “And I haven’t sold a bottle of Merlot in six months,” says Patina’s Espuny.

But sommeliers say they have taken the opportunity to introduce diners to the full complement of New World Pinot Noirs as well as to Burgundy wines, which most diners avoid because they don’t know they are French Pinot Noirs. They also don’t know that Bordeaux wines from St.-Emilion and Pomerol are Merlots, the sommeliers say. Those wines are among the most popular in town, they note.

“The town is full of reluctant Francophiles,” says Birmingham. “We wish we liked our California wines better.” But given an alternative, Angelenos are quick to abandon them. And, once they do so, they become quite content surveying what the rest of the world has to offer.

Witness what has happened to the ultra-expensive Napa Valley Cabernets known as cult Cabs. They are still on wine lists but no one is ordering them, sommeliers say. It’s been that way since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. “If people in L.A. are going to spend that much money, they buy Bordeaux,” says Sona’s Mendoza. “I have a whole vertical of Harlan only because no one buys it.”

The days when a sommelier could build a following by recommending yesterday’s hot wines are over.

Just ask Prince.

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Hot off the lists

The bestselling wines at local restaurants, according to sommeliers, reflect the current California Pinot Noir fad and a reliance on familiar wines. But some other more unusual wines have become sudden hits, and these hot labels are evidence that diners are learning to love a broader variety of wines -- especially when they’re poured by the glass. Here’s a look at wines that sommeliers say are clicking with diners right now.

Mark Mendoza at Sona

Bestseller: 2003 Babcock Pinot Noir Santa Ynez Valley

Hot label: 2001 Domaine les Pallieres Gigondas, Rhone Valley

Eric Espuny at Patina

Bestseller: 2003 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River, Sonoma

Hot label: 2003 Brancott Gewurztraminer “Patutahi Estate,” New Zealand

Claudio Blotta at La Terza

Bestseller: Bortolotti Prosecco Venito, non-vintage

Hot label: Barbolini Lambrusco Emilia-Romagna, non-vintage

Caroline Styne at A.O.C.

Bestseller: 2000 Arcadian Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard

Hot label: 2002 Domaine Stirn Tokay Pinot Gris, Alsace

Gregory Castells at Bastide

Bestseller: 2002 Chateau de Fuisse, Pouilly-Fuisse, Burgundy

Hot label: 2004 Yves Cuilleron Viognier Vin de Pays, Rhone Valley

David Rosoff at Campanile

Bestseller: 2003 Scott Paul Pinot Noir “La Paulee” Oregon

Hot label: 2003 Giacomo Borgogno Barbera d’Alba

Peter Birmingham

at Norman’s

Bestseller: 2003 Far Niente Chardonnay, Napa Valley

Hot label: 2002 Bruder Dr. Becker “Dienheimer” Kabinett Scheurebe, Rheinhessen

Kevin O’Connor at Spago

Bestseller: 2001 Silver Oak, Alexander Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon

Hot label: 2003 Domaine Jo Pithon, Anjou Sec Les Pepinieres

-- Corie Brown


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