Zach Negin- Hospitality=Community

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Today we’re talking to Zach Negin who is the owner of Tabula Rasa Bar in Thai Town.  

Rather than talking about drinks per se, we take a look inside an establishment that is on the front lines of what we should think of as an L. A. wine bar.   

In the past few years wine bars have been staking out territories across L A and in some cases they have been emphasizing low-intervention or so-called ‘natural’ wines (not to mention artisanal beers).  Tabula Rasa is such a place.  Zach talks about how he came to his project and how he was inspired along the way as an entrepreneur and a ‘hospitalitarian’ (Danny Meyer reference) by many including his original partner Daniel Flores and Ori Menache owner/chef of Bestia fame.

A lot of what Zach has to say is about what happens before the bottles pop and the taps flow.  He recounts his journey to bar ownership. It was a long one.  His decision not to become an engineer (or a mustard mogul) had its origins in his search for the sense of community he felt growing up in a special neighborhood in exurban Maryland.  As he moved his way through life after college, hospitality exerted that familiar, sought-after effect and his time at Bestia restaurant influenced the decisions that he would make about his own business even before he had found a location.

Hospitality = community is the equasion that only needed to be proven when Tabula Rasa opened. Tabula Rasa has assembled thoughtful and canny menus for food, wine and beer, a welcoming environment and a ‘touch the customer’ style of service.  The bar frequently hosts industry-oriented trade tastings, partnerships with food trucks, customer wine education as well as live entertainment. 

This interview could have been left unedited.  Zach speaks in an effortless stream-of-conscious style that make you feel that he has control of any topical direction he might choose and that any direction is viable and interesting.  There is an inherent holistic insight uniting the many subjects that he is likely to touch on.

The way that Zach explains it, the profit motive and the impulse toward generosity and community-building are intertwined.  Doing well is doing good.  Charity and profit are not binary.  They meet at the intersection of community.

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Nina Sventitsky- Romance Adjacent: A Wine Marketing Career

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Nina Sventitsky moved to L. A. from New York in the 1990’s. Her career in marketing for magazine conglomerates led her there. She took a beginner’s wine course at Wally’s and became a wine enthusiast. After a stint at a short-lived wine magazine and a struggle as a wine rep through the economic crash, she became involved with the North American Sommelier Association, becoming a board member and cultivating sponsorships for the organization. Soon after, she landed a job as a marketer for the Rioja wine region. This job has allowed her to participate in the long-term sales strategy of the Rioja Consejo Regulador and flex her skills. Over the years that she has worked for Rioja, the long-term plan has met with continued success. While working for Rioja, she devised a master Rioja course curriculum which ultimately has become an offering at the Napa Valley Wine Academy. This led to her being brought on to run the Academy’s business development. Currently, the Academy is riding a wave of national interest in wine education.

Nina is an exemplar of the matte side of the wine business. Her work has been in the trenches, adjacent to the glossy side, creating awareness of wine, whether through handing out promotional corkscrews at tastings or devising a marketing strategy for the largest educational wine business in the country.

Amy Christine MW- Purple Wine

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Amy Christine started her wine journey as a server in Detroit.  She was encouraged to take the Certified Somm exam which satisfied her attraction to arcane information and laid the groundwork for further extreme studies.  

After a move to Los Angeles and a fruitful stint in service at the evergreen A.O.C., she migrated to wine distribution and its more regular hours so as to more easily see her soon-to-be husband, Peter Hunken- and make wine with him.  They now have several labels, Holus Bolus being the foremost.  

Amy continued her academic fascination with wine and now is one of a handful of women in the U.S. who have achieved the Master of Wine.  She is also active in wine education, mentoring MOW students, teaching WSET diploma level classes and writing articles for the Guild Somm Journal.

So, on a given day, Amy might be participating in teaching, writing, selling, growing vines and making wine.

When she comes to talk with me, there is a lot to discuss.  We cover her career but mainly we talk about specific issues that a women in her position can run up against any day such as the disadvantage of the Central Coast wine producer versus a producer from Europe due to land and labor costs.  Or, sustainable farming and the hall of mirrors that the farmer faces when making a growing decision and the winemaker, a vinification call.  We talk about the joy of the ‘Joy Fantastic’, the recent estate vineyard that she and Peter have leased and which is now a stable source of premium grapes.  We touch on the present generation as a market, how wine styles are changing for the better and what is currently selling in L. A. 

When I ask a question that is part of my boilerplate repertoire, ‘what can be done to advance wine drinking in L. A.?’, I get a surprising answer.  Amy is truly conflicted about the morality (yes, morality) of promoting drinking.  She has taken to heart recent reports on the linkage of drinking (anything alcoholic) to cancer.  We are post ‘French paradox’.  Recent health studies indicate that there is no sweet spot where a of couple drinks are said to be good for us physically.

So, that’s a weird thing to learn about a woman who is up to her eyeballs in wine.  On the other hand, this is a stance that is processessing in a clear-eyed way recent information that not only will not go away, but is also common to the current generation’s understanding in their attitudes towards alcohol consumption.  More moderation is clearly being practiced and national wine consumption is declining.  Instead of going for quantity, there is a trend toward premiumization in wine buying where a young consumer is often more informed about a wine and is willing to spend a little more for it while buying less.  For the better, these are the wines Amy sells - and makes.  

Steve Greer: Hey, Sip That Stuff! Steve Greer Talks Tequila

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Tequila is at the center of a more general expansion of premium liquor worldwide.  The wide-ranging flavors that are derived from the blue agave plant fall into line the with the variations one can find with the world’s finest spirits categories; scotch whisky, rum, cognac and others.  Along with the agave-based mezcal that tequila is closely associated with, it has quickly become legitimized in the marketplace populating all premium tiers and is growing faster than other spirits.

Today’s guest, Steve Greer is a brand ambassador for a relatively new and formidable entry into the fray of the tequila marketplace.  In our conversation we talk about why he got involved with the brand Volcan and the brand’s pedigree and uniqueness.  Steve’s job is crucial to a product that does not put up billboards or advertise on T V. He travels around California extolling the virtues of Volcan to members of the drinks industry who will then serve it to their customers along with the story and information that Steve has provided.

We also get to talking about tequila, the drink.  We talk about how far it has come since it was known mostly as ‘Cuervo Gold’ and was administered exclusively in shots.  We talk about how it fits into the atmosphere of premiumization in the drinks industry.  But we also speculate, for better or worse, on this most successful and Mexican of drinks and what it means to its homeland now that most of tequila is consumed in the U.S.

Note:

At one point in our talk I mention a study on the subject of the role of tequila in Mexico:

‘Tequila Talk: Consumption, gender and the transnational terrain of cultural identity’, by Marie Sarita Gaytan, Latino Studies; London, Vol. 9, Iss. 1, Spring 2011.

Jasper Dickson- Méthode Dicksonoise: Rediscovering Los Angeles Wine

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The idea of starting a Los Angeles winery is a compelling narrative.  Who doesn’t want to drink local wine?  Apart from the touristy San Antonio winery and Rupert Murdoch’s Bel Air vanity project Moraga, Angeleno Wines is the sole commercial winery in the city of Los Angeles or its immediate environs.  

Jasper Dickson’s motivation in his local winemaking concept should probably be looked at foremost in terms of utilitarian convenience: If you live in a place and make wine, its easier to make wine from that place.  Still, he’s obviously on to something bigger.  Jasper has drawn on an opportunity to stake out a claim to the revived legacy of Los Angeles wine production.  This revival is necessarly linked with but happening at a delay from the locavore movement in food and drink that has been the norm in Los Angeles for years now.  Why is this?

Well, the reason that there is no longer a wine industry in Los Angeles is because land for homes and office buildings is worth more than for grape vines.  So, winemakers have gone elsewhere.  But, if one is determined to find grapes, one can.  Jasper found his grapes in Agua Dulce, about an hour outside of L. A. proper and at first, he brought them north to a crushpad in San Benito county, all the while with his eye out for a place in L. A. to make his wine. That reality happened in time for the 2018 vintage and Angeleno Wine currently is located north of Chinatown.

Having points of civic pride like the Dodgers or the Walk of Fame are endemic to the allure of a city and for all the regionalities of Los Angeles, there are a multitude of these points. The history of Los Angeles is short by some measure, but the legacy of the Los Angeles wine industry goes back to its beginnings as a post-mission settlement.  Angeleno Wine will qualify as a point of pride and most likely a successful business: a quality wine producer steeped in the history of the city. Incidentally, the facility and wine bar is pretty much at ground zero to L. A.’s original vine plantings.  

Kanpai, Kerry!- An Afternoon with Kerry Tamura

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Sake in Los Angeles has broken out of its role as a warm accompaniment to tempura and maki rolls. Sake of all categories and regions are now common in restaurants beyond those exclusively Japanese. 

My guest is Kerry Tamura, who’s family blazed trails in Japanese-style hospitality in Chicago, with Shino, Café Shino and Murasake Lounge.  Success came to the Tamuras particularly in the 80’s when many Japanese contract employees of the auto industry moved to the Chicago area to be near the action. Shino and Café Shino served this new Japanese population with high end food and drink as well as a hostess bar component unique to the midwest.  In the last incarnation of the restaurant, Kerry reconceived it as a sake lounge after experiencing widespread demand for premium sake at the now-closed Japonais by Morimoto where he was working at the time.  Kerry and his mother cashed out of the newly viable business a few years later and Kerry came to live in L.A.  With him he brought the understanding that sake is on a fast track to acceptance and popularity in the U.S. and that Los Angeles is ground zero for this potential with its large asian population and tourism industry as well as America’s increasing fascination with all things Japanese.  And so it was natural that Kerry quickly got involved with World Sake Imports.  Based in Honolulu, it has forged strong bonds with some of the most important sake and shochu producers in Japan and has pioneered seasonal, unpasteurized sake delivered to clients from the breweries to L. A. in pristine condition.  In our talk, Kerry holds forth about sake, his growing company and the expanding opportunities that we all have as sake becomes more popularized and adapted into mainstream food culture as a worthy and flexible accompaniment.

Amy Atwood- Naturally, Wine

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When she launched Amy Atwood Selections ten years ago, Amy Atwood was by and large alone with a portfolio that was defined by mostly pure and low-intervention wines.  The wine author and friend Alice Feiring helped Amy to understand that her tastes had migrated to wines of this style and individuality- and these were the wines that Amy put in her portfolio.  

‘Nothing added, nothing removed’ is the philosophy of those who strive not to intervene in wine that is a pure expression of its grapes.  The wines in Amy’s portfolio are fermented by means of the native yeasts that they brought with them from the vineyard. These wines were fermented and stored in vessels that imparted little additional flavor like cement, clay or well-used barrels.  The white wines were sometimes made like the red wines, allowing the white wine must some time in contact with its skins, harkening back to ancient wine-making traditions where there was less difference between the white and the red.  

The grapes worthy of this kind of winemaking are best grown organically or biodynamically.  Again, ‘nothing added’.  In the ‘vigneron’ model where the winemaker also grows the grapes, which is more common in Europe, organic grapes are commonly produced even in difficult locations. In California, the grower and the winemaker are more frequently separated and the winemaker often finds that desirable grapes are not available without some chemical inputs.  Farming without chemicals is more challenging and costly.

Ask Amy about why certain of her California producers do not source organically farmed grapes (including her own brand ‘Oeno’) and she will tell you that they are working towards it- there are added costs, it takes time to change, and things are getting better.  It is a process.

Still, much of this generation’s wine consumers seek wine grown organically as well as created without additives that are often used to ‘improve’ a wine’s flavor or maintain consistency from year to year.  For this market, most of Amy’s wines are wildly popular. So, as the natural wine movement helps pull the larger part of the industry toward more purity and disclosure, Amy observes a trending process moving toward improvement.  She foresees an environment where winemakers will voluntarily declare their use of organically grown grapes and list the ingredients (or lack thereof) on their label thereby separating themselves from those who include additives.  

Should labelling rules be hastened?  She wouldn’t disagree, but who wants an added layer of government oversight? Maybe her relaxed approach is because she has carved out a unique space that is largely insulated from the wine distribution system as a whole where much of its product derives from chemically farmed grapes and slavishly ‘consistent’ (read manipulated) wine.  Or maybe because she has cultivated her business over ten years and she knows patience. 

She shows her sunny disposition with easy laughter, often speaking about the inherent good in the professionals around her.  In this interview, I provide the often negative foil to human motivation that she sees as essentially positive.  These beliefs flow from an enthusiasm for her work which is the outcome of many years of hawking wine for others and eventually the realization that she could sell wine for herself.  Furthermore, she could sell the wines that she liked.  It would be accurate to say that many of the wines in the AAS portfolio are natural wines, but they are better defined as being wines that Amy loves.

Her creation of her unique import/distribution company, Amy Atwood Selections, Oeno wines and her joint ownership in the new gin brand Future Gin illustrate her belief in our inherent ability to move toward what we desire. That attitude is inspirational.  

 

Notes:

*At one point in the interview, I say that ‘as went Shiraz, so went the Australian wine industry’.  I misspoke when saying ‘ …the Australian wine industry’. I meant  ‘…premium Australian wine in the U S’. 

   

 

 

Jeridan Frye- Spreading the Gospel of Champagne

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What could be more Los Angeles than a glass of bubbly? Whether it is the prickle of Barefoot pink moscato or the creamy friction of Dom Perignon, wine with bubbles is the drink of the fabulist and the arriviste.  L A in spades.  Jeridan Frye is a U S brand ambassador for Ruinart Champagne which is a ‘maison’ within the famed LVMH champagne portfolio along with Moet, Krug and others.  We talk about the phenomenon of ‘lifestyle’ that fuels the success of a classic brand like Ruinart.  What is it?  How does one attain to a champagne ‘lifestyle’?  The people at LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey) know well and each of their champagne brands generate a unique frisson in associations with art, cuisine, travel and collectibility.  In  total: luxury.   Jeridan is a communicator and she tends toward the subject of the extreme quality of Ruinart and its history.  Since it is literally the first house of champagne, formed in 1729, there is a good story to tell.  Since the wine is made from grapes of nearly unsurpassed quality and is masterfully crafted, Jeridan brings good news to her audiences of distributors, collectors, restaurant staff, colleagues and consumers.  Then they get to drink Ruinart. But what about ‘lifestyle’?  This week the Frieze Art Festival arrives in Los Angeles.  This is where Ruinart will be seen in the hands of festival-goers.  Some will qualify as ‘influencers’ and post like mad.  Ruinart has sponsored an artist to execute a Ruinart-themed project.  Attendees gazing at each other over flutes of champagne will see the like-minded.  The bubbles stimulate emotion and celebration so it’s said. Jeridan is part of a team of marketers and logisticians who make the brand tick and make sure that it is seen in the right places.  As you can hear in our talk, she loves her work.  Not a bad gig.

Note:

At a certain point in the interview, speaking about blanc de blanc champagne, Jeriden refers to champagne ‘houses’ or ‘producers’ as opposed to champagne ‘growers’.   To explain the distinction, Ruinart or Moet is a ‘house’.  ‘Growers’ are small-scale grape farmers that in the past generation or two, by and large, have come to making champagne with their own grapes under their own name after traditionally selling their grapes to the larger ‘houses’ (such as Ruinart).  Being a champagne ‘house’, in turn, means that you tend not to own the vineyards to meet your large production needs and that you must depend on usually many different farmers for the necessary grapes. 

Tom Hunter- Revel Wine: Facilitating a New Era in California Wine

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The L A wine scene has changed a lot in the 21st century.  In 2001, Tom Hunter recounts going to sell wine in L. A. for a small portfolio and having restaurant buyers tell him that they only carry wine that is sold in supermarkets because if customers don’t recognize it, they won’t buy it. 

Revel Wines started out in 2006 and by 2007 Tom had joined partner Matthew Plympton and a philosophy began to emerge as to the wines that they would sell henceforward.  With importing out of the question because of the cost, the two began representing a new generation of winemakers who recognized what  California had to offer in the way of unique vineyard sites, often beyond the traditional locales.  These winemakers were preoccupied with wines of terroir, emulating making the european wines that Tom revered.  The economics of winemaking invited this new generation to explore and experiment with their sourcing of grapes, whether from ‘non-premium’ regions or with reclamation projects of old, abandoned vineyards. Wines from unfamiliar grapes started appearing.  

To fully appreciate the influence of a given vineyard site on impressionable grapes, these winemakers did away with unecessary inputs: cultured yeasts and other winemaking substances, the flavor of new oak barrels and what was then the trend to overextraction that favored fruitiness over savory and mineral flavors. Kevin O’Conner of Lioco was the first signator for this new regime and soon a long list of like-minded producers supplied Revel’s portfolio.  For a reference point, Jon Bonné’s “The New California Wine” is riddled with Revel portfolio members.

Like some other sucessful fine wine distributors, the ultimate success of Revel is in its understanding that the progress of the company must be horizontal not vertical.  Its producers make small batch amounts that by definition vary by each vintage. Therefore, their customers must appreciate the variation that is the charm of the artisinal.  Large vendors and chain restaurants demand consistency and volume of product.  Revel’s clients are small and so are their producers.  Neither can scale up much.  For Revel to expand, they bring in other small producers under their tent. Or they start selling cider.  Or they expand their international portfolios. Their points of distribution remain small-scale.  But it’s not that much of a concern because, as Tom says, he doesn’t have to be very rich and he wants to work with people he likes.

In our talk, Tom describes the development of the company and answers my questions about its details.  He is generally breezy and candid with his answers and I can’t help but think that the success of the company and its impact on wine drinking in the past ten years is really an afterthought to Tom that has been suppressed by the day to day rigors of selling his products.  Regardless, it must be said that the Revel portfolio has had an outsized effect on the wine drinkers of Los Angeles and beyond.

Notes on the podcast:

* I mention 2 things I took away from the Jon Bonné article properly titled “Why Is the Wine World So Un-woke?” https://punchdrink.com/articles/wine-world-unwoke-food-media-anthony-bourdain/The first I describe to Tom, the second I forgot to get to in our interview.  It is: “Why buy wine from assholes?”

* At some point in the Interview I mistakenly refer to ‘sulfites’ as ‘sulfates. 

* In the discussion of ‘organics’, i should have made a distinction between ‘wine made with organic grapes’ which is what I was really thinking of and ‘organically made wine’ which is more problematic from the labelling standpoint. After all, ingesting glyphosate or other chemicals from the vineyard (which has been documented) should be of more concern than the conscientious application of tartaric acid, for instance, in high-end winemaking.  In general, I should have had this part of the discussion laid out way better.  I did the subject a bit of a disservice and was not as prepared as I should have been.

Taylor Parsons- Life After République

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If one doubts the commitment Taylor Parsons had in spreading wine to his public when he was an active sommelier, one only need to look at his last stop, République, a case study in bringing wine to its rightful prominence. Everywhere there were displays and processes going on that let you know that it was time to drink wine. The nightly wine choices mirrored the nightly choices coming from from the kitchen in equipoise and were displayed on a 70-strong list unique to the evening. If one needed to go deep into Burgundy or Champagne, there was still a startlingly large list which also moved through many other wine terrestria and price points.

Here Taylor describes what can happen when a committed staff and operator meet up with a receptive consumer base: a positive feedback loop where the receptivity of the customer begets further levels of hospitality and investment.

We also talk about Taylor’s life and movement to and out of restaturant work as well as other varied subjects such as practical limits of sustainability, affordable wine lists and new wine categories. To conclude, Taylor reveals the boundaries of where we can expect his upcoming bottleshop to land.