Veni, vidi, vici, vino

Times Staff Writer

QUICKER than you can say "Cruvinet," Los Angeles has become quite the town for wine lovers looking for a little fun.

Consider the 5-month-old wine bar Vinoteca Farfalla in Los Feliz. A chalkboard over the long wooden bar lists some 45 wines by the glass. Friends huddle over plates of salumi and cheese, dipping breadsticks into tapenade and sipping Nero d'Avola from Sicily or Malbec from Argentina. It's Wednesday night, and the narrow little place is packed.

In Studio City, an exciting selection of sherry accompanies the bar snacks at Next Door, a stylish new tapas lounge attached to La Loggia Italian restaurant. Nothing could be better with that plate of 18-month-aged jamon serrano and Spanish cheeses than a little glass of "La Gitana" Manzanilla. Interested in an oloroso? The Bodegas Dios Baco is just the thing, hazelnutty and rich and deep burnished gold.

Restaurant openings may have slowed to a crawl in the last few months, but no fewer than nine wine bars have opened, with several more on the way.

Their range, stylistic and geographic, is striking. They include a cash-only, roughhewn Fairfax district hideaway that stays open till 2 a.m., and a sleek, Christopher Lowell-designed indoor-outdoor space in a Manhattan Beach boutique hotel. Even Fleming's, a nationwide chain of high-end steakhouses with a new location in Woodland Hills, calls itself not a bar and grill, but "prime steakhouse and wine bar."

The food is all over the map too -- a minimalist selection of cured meats, olives and cheese; Francophile crepes and croque monsieurs; futuristic tapas such as a "sundae" of potato and oranges; and even a New York strip steak.

For a certain type of enterprising wine lover, there's something irresistible about the idea of opening a wine bar. It's a relatively inexpensive way into the restaurant business, and the result can be terrifically personal.

On an unlikely block of Fairfax Avenue, Bodega de Cordova swings into action on the late side. Step into the narrow little candlelit room and you could be in a village in Spain -- or maybe on New York's Lower East Side.

"You have a tavern every 10 feet in Madrid," says owner Kenny Cordova, who opened the place three months ago. Returning to Los Angeles after living for a year in the Spanish capital, he brought with him a dream of opening a wine bar. "When I lived in Spain," he says, "one of my favorite things to do was to sit down in a nice environment that feels cozy and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with friends. Or alone."

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Personal vision

CORDOVA, whose wine list typically includes just 13 to 15 wines, all Spanish, is an anti-snob. "You can't drink a glass of wine and not enjoy it, even if it's mediocre." He serves wine in glasses small enough to make aficionados of a certain stripe bristle. In Europe, Cordova says, "it's customary to drink in small glasses. And no one goes into a tavern and asks for a particular wine. They ask for a glass of red." He purposely sought a long, narrow space, he says, "to mimic what the taverns look like in Europe."

Just as personal, but quite different, is 2-month-old La Maschera Ristorante's wine lounge in Old Town Pasadena, where a DJ spins chill-out music on Friday nights while Charlie Chaplin films are projected on a wall. Locals wash down wild mushroom bruschetta or mini smoked salmon pizza with glasses of Pinot Grigio or Barbera d'Asti.

Pasadena has become a hotbed of wine bars, with three new ones joining old standbys Bodega Wine Bar and E's Wine Bar and Restaurant. Beside La Maschera, there's 2-month-old Crepe Vine, also in Old Town, and Madeleine's Restaurant & Wine Bistro, on East Green Street.

"In Pasadena, it's easier to get a liquor license than it is in L.A. or Santa Monica or any other community," says Art Rodriguez, a Pasadena-based liquor license consultant who facilitates licensing throughout the state. The conditional permit process is simpler in Pasadena than it is in L.A., he says.

Whether slick or funky, with elaborate menus or just a few snacks, the new wine bars are eminently welcoming and laid-back. They're like coffeehouses for the enologically curious, or those who just like a glass of something interesting and a tasty bite. Arrive early, they're quiet and soothing; come late and they're hopping.

Clearly one reason for the wine bar boomlet is simply that Angelenos have fallen in love with wine.

"It could be an extension of a consumer trend where wine is now being seen as more casual and fun and less for special occasions; less for white-tablecloth French restaurants, more for going out for a bite," says John Gillespie, executive director of Wine Market Council, an industry group. "Just a couple of small plates and a really good wine, and that's the evening." A recent Wine Market Council study found that Americans' consumption of wine is rising in relation to beer and spirits.

From the restaurateur's point of view, it's a simple matter of math. It costs $604 for a wine and beer license, and you apply to the state, Rodriguez says. The going rate on the street for a full liquor license is $60,000, he says, "And that's the highest I've seen in L.A." It's available only by lottery from the state; otherwise you have to buy one from someone who already has one. "It's like taxi medallions in New York City," Rodriguez says.

Some of the new wine bars do have full bars, usually because they've been added to an existing restaurant or hotel.

In the case of Sopra, which sits in a second-story space in West Hollywood's Antiquarian building, it's because owner Oliver De Mori's family has owned the spot through previous incarnations, including Pane Caldo, that the license wasn't an issue.

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Less serious approach

DE MORI calls Sopra "spuntini and bar," but it certainly feels like a wine bar. Perch on a stool at the grand wooden bar and sample compelling small plates (those are the spuntini), such as white anchovies from Morocco layered over sliced potatoes or spicy mussels with roasted almonds. With striking Murano glass lights over the tables and a dramatic wraparound view of city lights and the Hollywood Hills, you're in a fun catbird seat from which to survey the crowd and sip a surprisingly good Valpolicella Ripasso from the Veneto.

OK, so the wine service at many of these spots isn't always as serious as enophiles would like it to be. At Sopra, a server poured two glasses of wine from a bottle I had ordered without offering it first to taste. ("It's my first night working here," she gasped, embarrassed, when asked about it.) At La Maschera, vintages aren't listed for many of the wines. White wine is poured way too cold at Bodega de Cordova and Crepe Vine. At Primitivo in Venice, the grandfather of L.A. wine bars (it opened in 2002), a Marsannay was poured recently with the explanation, "It's Chardonnay, with a little white Burgundy." (Don't tell the producer!)

At Zinc Bar, the server couldn't find a thing to say about the 2003 Trimbach Riesling offered by the glass, other than "I don't know." And of the four wines listed under "Old World Red," one is from Australia and one from Napa. Though Shade's website touts Zinc Bar's "unique wine preservation system -- by which a large selection of fine international wines are offered by the glass," the velvet-rope venue feels much more like a party bar. And the majority of the designer jeans-clad crowd brandish cocktails or beer.

But the next wave of wine bars seems to promise a deeper degree of wine seriousness. Sommelier Thierry Perez (formerly of Providence) will be wine director and general manager at Royale, a restaurant with a wine bar in the mid-Wilshire district Wilshire Royale apartment building; an early February opening is planned. Perez says Royale's wine bar, which will offer 40 wines by the glass, will be comfortable, spacious and quiet. "To enjoy a glass of wine," he says, "you need to take some time; you need to take pleasure in it."

David Haskell, who was wine director at the erstwhile Aubergine in Newport Beach and at Aquavit in New York City, plans to open Bin 8945 in West Hollywood (8945 refers to the Santa Monica Boulevard address) in April. His partner is chef Matt Carpenter (formerly of Josie).

Haskell was reached by phone in Meursault, France, halfway through a pre-opening research trip through Burgundy and Bordeaux. "I think it's very important as a wine lover and a sommelier," he says, "to be able to physically see some of the vineyards and talk to the producers of the wines."

Haskell says his wine list will draw on his father's 2,500 bottle cellar which includes many old Bordeaux and small producer Champagnes; he'll augment these with finds from around the Old and New Worlds. He expects to offer 57 wines by the glass.

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Too darn hot

AND then there's Lou Amdur, who's close to fulfilling a 6-year-old dream of opening a wine bar, inspired by typical Parisian bars au vin. He and his wife, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, were on vacation in Paris, and, he says, "I realized that at the time, there were no real wine bars in L.A."

Amdur plans an early February opening for Lou, on Vine Street. The former information architect in the software industry, who holds an advanced certificate from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London, envisions a frequently-changing list of 25 wines, mostly from small producers. Though no particular geographic focus is planned, there is one thing he intends to get right: the temperature. Red wine, Amdur says, should be served at a temperature that many people find surprisingly cool.

Does that mean the wine will come with a lecture? Certainly not. "You're here to enjoy yourself," says Amdur, "not necessarily be educated."

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Another round

New wine bars

Bodega de Cordova. A charming spot that could be in a tiny village in Spain, with a six-item menu including jamon serrano and piquillo peppers, both on crostini. 361 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 951-1969. Wine and beer. Cash only.

Crepe Vine. This polished French spot has comfy banquettes and a handsome tin ceiling. Keep your food order simple: Skip the coq au vin in favor of moules frites, one of the simpler crepes or a croque monsieur. 36 W. Colorado Blvd., Suite 1 and 2, Pasadena, (626) 796-7250. Wine and beer.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. The national chain, which started in Newport Beach, has come to the San Fernando Valley. You can order from the regular menu of prime steaks, chops and seafood at the wine bar. 6373 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 346-1005. Full bar.

La Maschera Ristorante. One side of this good-natured Old Town spot is a wine lounge, with assaggi (bar appetizers) such as mixed bruschetta, rotoli di melanzane (eggplant rolls) and marinated shrimp. 82 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, (626) 304-0004. Wine and beer.

Madeleine's Restaurant & Wine Bistro. Small plates such as olives and almonds or a charcuterie and cheese plate are served at the wine bistro or ask for the full menu. 1030 E. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 440-7087. Full bar.

Next Door Tapas Lounge. Stylish and friendly, the lounge has a central fireplace and sleek banquettes. The tapas menu is evolving. Loungers didn't seem to get brandade-stuffed piquillo peppers or ajoblanco and infused red wine shaved ice; Redondo Iglesias 18-month-aged serrano ham and Idiazabal cheese seem to go over better. Too bad, because the chef has a flair. 11814 Ventura Blvd., Studio City (818) 985-9222. Full bar.

Sopra Spuntini & Bar. This sparkling, second-story room is a great place to relax with a glass of wine and sample spuntini, Italian small plates. 8840 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 492-0880. Full bar.

Vinoteca Farfalla. From the owners of nearby Farfalla Trattoria, this wine bar has a great vibe and an odd, Brazilian-accented menu. (The Vinoteca shares a kitchen with Tropicalia Brazilian grill next door.) 1978 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 661-7365. Full bar.

Zinc Bar. In Shade, a new boutique hotel, Zinc is more party bar than wine bar. In good weather, expect long waits. 1221 N. Valley Drive, Manhattan Beach, (310) 546-4995. Full bar.

Selected others

A.O.C., 8022 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 653-6359.

Bodega Wine Bar, 260 E. Colorado Blvd., Suite 208, Pasadena, (626) 793-4300.

Cobra Lily, 8442 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (323) 651-5051.

Enoteca Drago, 410 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 786-8236.

Monsieur Marcel, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 939-7792.

Primitivo Wine Bistro, 1025 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 396-5353.

XO Wine Bistro, 1209 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-3509.

-- Leslie Brenner

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