People say that one of the best things about living in LA is that at any given moment, you’re about an hour away from every natural playground you could ever want — the seasonally snowy mountains, the forest, the desert, the beach, and Santa Barbara’s thriving wine country. Yes, we are counting any and all wine growing regions as natural playgrounds. With some of the country’s best wines within reach, including Napa and Sonoma, and easy access to a dizzying portfolio of international wines, it’s no wonder that Los Angeles restaurants are boasting some of the best wine programs in the country.
We’ve rounded up six of the city’s top wine bars in restaurants with programs as progressive and exciting as they are approachable. So whether you’re a newbie who’s never ventured far from Franzia or a hardcore oenophile who’s watched Somm 100 times, there is something here for every palate – and that includes the food.
Smoke.Oil.Salt / Poco Wine Bar
This Iberian gem, housed underneath a tattoo and piercing parlor on LA’s iconic Melrose strip, features one of the city’s most thoughtfully curated Spanish wine lists, thanks to co-owner and wine director Stephen Gelber. With a 130-plus bottles and 30 wines by the glass list showcasing exclusive Spanish gems like Txakoli and Godello, an extensive selection of sherry flights, and wine cocktails, you don’t need a passport to tour Spain’s rich wine regions. Even more boast-worthy is Smoke.Oil.Salt’s use of the Coravin, a tool that extracts wine through the cork without ever having to open the bottle — thereby leaving the wine preserved. This gives Gelber the opportunity to let guests taste rare and prized bottles of wine that most would never be able to experience otherwise.
For a more casual experience, stop by the walk-in only POCO, the newly opened wine bar concept housed next door. POCO gives Gelber a little bit more room to taste and test wines — all at incredible prices. The weekly rotating glass list features a red, a white, and a sparkling from $5-$7, and everything on the small tapas menu is under $10. Everyone wins! Keep an eye out for soon-to-come monthly “wine socials” like women-only wine nights, sommelier-led tasting classes, and themed industry nights. Make a reservation at Smoke.Oil.Salt.
At Wilde Wine Bar and Restaurant, where the wine selection focuses on small production and sustainable wines from all over the world, it’s all about discovery and adventure. “We want to break down the intimidation behind ordering wine. It should be a fun journey,” says owner and wine director Lorna Donohoe. “We’re excited to introduce customers to unusual wines like ancient grapes being revived in Greece or wines grown so high on The Alps only donkeys can be used to access them.” With themed nights like Vino and Vinyl, where guests can bring in their own records to play, Thirsty Thursdays, where guests create their own wine-inspired cocktails at a DIY cocktail bar, and Fried Chicken and Bubbles every Sunday, there is absolutely no shortage of fun, discovery, and adventure. Be sure to check their website for an updated events list as super cool happenings and weekly series are constantly being added. Make a reservation at Wilde.
Napa Valley Grille
With a name like Napa Valley Grille, you can look forward to a list featuring the best of California’s famed wine country and a passionately educated staff to expertly guide you through it. In addition to tastings and weekly educational emails to his staff, wine and beverage manager Chris Shannon also created a separate (ahem, leatherbound) wine list for servers with tasting notes highlighting the nose and palate of every wine on the list. The restaurant group also proudly features its own collection of exclusive and reserve wines under the Tavistock Reserve Collection in addition to a curated selection of international wines. “One of my favorite things to do,” says Shannon, “is taste someone on a pinot noir from Burgundy versus a pinot noir from California or taste a guest through the delicate difference between a Napa chardonnay and a Sonoma chardonnay. I feel so lucky to be able to ask people what they want instead of telling them what they want. I think it’s important to be a place that’s educational and accepting of everyone’s tastes.” Consider yourself in good hands. Make a reservation at Napa Valley Grille.
At downtown acclaimed Italian favorite, wine director Ryan Ibsen admittedly calls the wine list “a complete and chaotic immersion,” but trust us, that’s a good thing. “At any given moment, I can find just as many unexpected great French pairings as I can Italian pairings. Running a progressive wine program means finding the right tone and voice that appeals to everyone.” When Ibsen notices someone excited about the wine list but unsure about what they want, one of his favorite things to do, whether it’s a single diner at the bar or a party of six, is to provide pairings across the meal rather than the traditional bottle service. “It gives the people a chance to see what we’re all about and helps us to create a customized experience.” And despite the wine list’s exquisite range, Ibsen is quick to stress, “The educational tone is always to make the guest feel comfortable rather than holding the wine over their head.” At Bestia, go for the food and stay for the wine. You never know, you just may find yourself in the middle of an unexpected and unforgettable wine tasting! Make a reservation at Bestia.
“The great thing about building a list around a modern American menu,” says wine director Ben Teig, “is it gives us more leeway in choosing wines from all over the world.” Nowhere is this more evident than in his unique wines-by-the-glass selection. Rather than the so-called standards, Teig prides himself on introducing guests to lesser-known varietals that fulfill the needs of what they’re looking for. Looking for a pinot noir? How about trying this Hungarian red? A fan of Burgundian chardonnays? How about trying the Aligoté, Burgundy’s lesser known white grape? Want to try something completely different? Have a taste of some of their orange wines, which are white wines that are produced like reds. In addition to sourcing off-the-beaten-path varietals, it’s important to Tieg to curate a wine list that is as eclectic as it is affordable. “As pretty as some wines may look sitting on a list, these wines are meant to be drunk! No one should ever have to say ‘I can’t afford a bottle of wine here.’” Redbird offers a large number of reds, whites, and sparkling rosé bottles under $60. “I want the guest to have a great time full stop, and that’s what it’s all about,” Teig states. We’ll most definitely cheers to that! Make a reservation at Redbird.
Sawyer + Kettle Black
These recently opened Silverlake hot spots are sister restaurants, conveniently located next door to each other. Dario Dell’Anno, general manager and sommelier for both Sawyer and Kettleblack, looks to the philosophy and passion of the winemakers to guide his decisions when selecting for the list. “What makes a wine great is the balance between its elements — minerality and acidity – and, of course, the overall structure. If the winemaker is passionate about what they are doing, this balance will almost always show through. But, naturally, at the end of the day, it’s about the concept of each restaurant and if the wine fits in there.”
For Sawyer, with its seasonal California cuisine, Dell’Anno tries to source local California wines whenever possible. The wine list also leans more toward the whites to complement the greater selection of fresh seafood on the menu. At Kettleblack, you’ll find a wine list with more medium-bodied wines and lighter reds to go with a lot of the handmade pastas and pizzas. Dell’Anno loves being able to showcase less common indigenous Italian varietals like Negroamaro, a grape grown exclusively in southern Italy. “It used to be one of those grapes they only used to make balsamic vinegar, but it makes a beautiful earthy and rustic red and it’s one of our biggest sellers.” Also, stay tuned for both restaurants’ use of the Coravin as a way for guests to be able to taste more expensive wines. Soon you will be able to sample rare wines at 2oz., 4oz., or 6oz. pours! Make a reservation at Sawyer. Make a reservation at Kettle Black.
Melissa Monique Flores is a Los Angeles native and founder of boutique hospitality social media company Roman Candle Media. With a resume that spans celebrity chef publicist to organic farm volunteer, Melissa is a salt and peppered veteran of the industry. Find her on Instagram @mmmflo and Twitter @mmmflo.
Photo credits: Melissa Flores (Napa Valley Grille); Ryan Tanaka (Smoke.Oil.Salt.); Sierra Prescott (Bestia); Michelle Park (Redbird); UrbanDaddy (Wilde); Harmoni Everett (Sawyer + Kettle Black).