No wine list? No roster of the usual varietals greatest hits and a handsome vintage collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy? How is this possible? It sounds like one of those omakase sushi restaurants with a sign put up by the chef who commands “Trust Me” and the only decision for diners is between sake and beer.
Correct, there is no menu. Don’t fret, though. You’re in much better hands with no menu and Matthew Kaner guiding you than with the usual wine lists where you might once again choose the safe route with a big buttery California Chardonnay or an outsized, overly fruity Australian Shiraz. Trust him with wines from the Republic of Georgia or a unique grape from a quiet French region. You’ll thank him later.
That’s the case at Bar Covell, Kaner’s fascinating wine bar in the vibrant artistic community of Silver Lake, about 5 miles northwest of Downtown Los Angeles (of course if we’re counting prime time traffic it could be a 2 hour drive probably).
Kaner grew up in Santa Barbara, a prominent wine-growing region that prior to its big screen “Sideways” success wasn’t on the national radar. Now it’s so well known it can’t even be considered the Southern California little sibling to Napa and Sonoma. Since 2008, Kaner has teamed with Saarloos & Sons in Los Olivos (Santa Barbara County) on a small Cabernet Sauvignon collaboration label “AM/FM.”
Unlike Santa Barbara, Los Angeles of course isn’t much of a grape region. Then again, maybe the Hollywood Hills could be an excellent Mourvèdre and Rhône varietals terroir? However, the area certainly is gaining lots of respect for its exciting sommeliers, wine shops, and wine bars like Covell. In Covell’s immediate Los Feliz-Silver Lake neighborhood you’ll find this writer’s favorite tiki bar in the country (Tiki Ti), a taste of the old Los Angeles bar culture. You’re not exactly having wine there. Los Angeles’ new wine culture does certainly shine though around Covell in Silver Lake, joined by important destinations like Barbrix and Silver Lake Wine, where Kaner worked prior to opening Covell.
With owner Dustin Lancaster, Kaner opened Covell as general manager and wine director in the summer of 2010 and the wine bar hasn’t expanded much since. There are only 10 staff members and the compact kitchen’s capacity relies on an induction burner for heat. The menu features a cheese program, a charcuterie program, salads, flatbreads, house-made macaroni and cheese, and a revered croque monsieur that I’ve known people to drive across town for. While Covell’s size might be tiny, Kaner has 100-150 choices to serve guests by the glass.
Recently, Matthew took the time to talk with us about what wines he’s passionate about right now, what the heck is a wine bar after all, and how little Covell has made such an impact on the massive city-county-region-sprawl that is Los Angeles. The fact is if you want a personality and a place to dispel notions of wine snobbery and a complicated subject that is impossible except for a select few to grasp, we found our nominee to lead the charge in inspiring the world to drink wine with an open mind.
Vino247: What wines, both on and off Covell’s list, are you most excited about?
First off, we don’t have a wine list. We are one of maybe three places in the world I know of that don’t put a manuscript in front of the customer and assume they speak multiple languages, are familiar with grape varieties of the world, and simply want to read at that moment!
The wines that get me turned on are wines that say something, that SING to me. Thierry Allemand’s Cornas bottlings, any Riesling that Emrich Schönleber touches, Semillon from the Hunter Valley in Australia (especially with a little age on it!), Barolo 10+ years in bottle, Reserva and Gran Reserva level Rioja bottlings, Tressallier from Saint-Pourçain, France, Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, anything from Croatia or the Republic of Georgia.
Do you consider Covell a “wine bar?” What the heck even makes a wine bar different in your opinion from a “bar” besides the focus on wines? Is it that we can’t order a Manhattan with our cheese plate?
Covell is a wine bar by definition. How do you define a wine bar? Good question. A wine bar is a business that takes extreme care in their selection of wine, and in turn offers an experience to the wine drinker. It could simply be by having a focus on a certain region, or in our case having 150 wines by glass from anywhere and everywhere (so long as they are honestly made and descriptive of their origin). In New York there is only one type of liquor license, so the inability to order a Manhattan doesn’t fly there in defining a wine bar. But in California, there are so many types of liquor licenses…it’s a bit ridiculous.
Another important element to a wine bar’s definition is offering wine friendly food. AND TO NOT BE CONFUSED AS A RESTAURANT. There are so many RESTAURANTS that call themselves wine bars…it’s a very fine line to walk.
Let’s talk about the wine world here at the end of 2013. What have you noticed has really become a big industry change since this time in 2012? Are we in better shape right now than a year ago?
Wine directors aren’t scared to throw curve balls at their customers and pad their wine programs with weird Eastern European grape varieties no one has ever heard of, or offer Riesling from non-traditional places like Santa Barbara County or Oregon. It all stems from the industry, when we learn more and spread our wings, it translates to the wine drinking populous.
Are we in better shape? Who the hell knows. Are people drinking? YES! So long as people are drinking, we are in good shape. Better/worse/good/bad is all subjective.
Are people more/less passionate about what’s in their glass?
In my little bubble people seem to care more about what they are spending their money on than I’ve seen in the previous 8 years I’ve done wine professionally. There’s a thirst to know what / where / why / who / how – it’s a very healthy desire. Some people simply want Malbec, and they are allowed to simply want Malbec. But some people want to try something they’ve never heard of, and my job is to figure out what they’ve never heard of and make it so they can never say they haven’t heard of it again.
How do you think wine can have that “renaissance” of sorts like craft cocktails and craft beer have experienced recently?
Wine doesn’t need a rebirth, it needs a decoder ring!
Why do we need to have a wine “renaissance?” How about we continue to educate the wine drinking culture that it is ok to have never heard of something before and that’s a POSITIVE. The quest for knowledge makes us realize we really know nothing, and to continue learning leads us down a path of enlightenment.
When passionate people make something passionately, it translates. I can apply this to music, houses, movies/tv, wine, beer, liquor…now, how someone receives this passion, that’s another story. I prefer to be a story teller, rather than someone who makes judgements. The real value in this conversation is the separation of facts and judgements.
Any preferences or pet-peeves when it comes to wine glassware and serving temperature? Is it wrong to have chilled red? A fan of stemless glasses?
I prefer wine glasses that allow me to smell and taste the wine. That said, there’s a lot of restaurants and wine bars with stemware that does not allow for the wine to smell and taste as it is intended…temperature is something I gave up being bummed out about long ago. We all serve our white wines / Rosés / sparkling wines WAY TOO COLD, so I’ll just be patient and allow the ambient room temperature and my warm hands the ability to bring the temperature up. I love drinking red wine at cellar temperature, it’s much more enjoyable. Stem-less glasses make a lot of sense for people who are clumsy :).
Would you say your Silver Lake audience tends to be younger? How experienced with wine? Tourists ever visit or is it mostly locals routinely visiting?
Our core customer base runs from 25-50. Sophisticated in their food choices, in their music choices, in their travel choices…why the heck wouldn’t they care about the wine they are putting in their body?
We do get tourists visiting Covell from all over the globe. This weekend alone I met a couple in from Melbourne, Australia and also a really nice French couple who read about us and made a point of stopping in. It continues to humble us.
Do you think a big obstacle for the newer wine drinkers is the stigma of wine with formality and being expensive? That notion that if you can’t taste the flavors in the tasting notes, you’re not “worthy” of this wine? Or, the belief that every wine is like a first growth Bordeaux? Because every wine is like Opus One…
A further synthesis of my “facts vs. judgements” philosophy. Tasting notes are one person’s judgements. They are also taken from a SNAPSHOT of the wine’s life and evolution. If someone says they smell ground coffee in a wine, and another person doesn’t smell ground coffee, does that make them an idiot? No, it makes them an individual. We are all allowed to experience and interpret our own way.
Because of this, I focus on telling stories that are factual. The judgements are left to the wine journos and critics. Keep judging, and I’ll keep spreading the facts.
How about some emerging American regions…Any Finger Lakes momentum or smaller industries like Virginia and Michigan found around L.A.?
We get a small bit of access to wines from the Finger Lakes, mostly Riesling and Cabernet Franc. I’ve seen a few stellar wines from Virginia and Colorado. The fact is all 48 contiguous States in our country produce wine. Some have a longer history than others.
One of the places I think we all need to pay closer attention to is Arizona. A good friend of mine makes wine in Northern and Southern Arizona and what he has been able to accomplish with respect to honest winemaking and drawing attention to the area is MIND BLOWING. The terrain is much like Northern Italy…it’s really shockingly awesome.
Being in California, land of the (1980’s butter bomb) Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, do you find it hard to convince people to give Old World wines a chance?
Everyone has their own interests, experiences to draw on, and muses. California in 2013 is a very interesting wine landscape. The closer you are to any particular wine country, the focus will more likely be on the wines from that region (AS IS THE CASE IN ALL MAJOR WINE REGIONS AROUND THE WORLD!) – but in a big city like Los Angeles where we have a huge international airport and a big big big population of people from around the world, the wine tastes are super international. People who have traveled to France and experienced French wines on their soil will carry a fondness and emotional connection. I’ve experienced this myself, and it is a special thing!
My bigger goal is to get people who are scared of California wine to realize it’s potential. There’s a consciousness going on in the winemaking community around the major wine-growing regions of California that is moving toward expression of site, lower alcohol, less intervention. If you grow great grapes, unless you fu*k it up, you should be able to make great wine. That concept goes back 1,000 years in Burgundy.
The thing is, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I am trying to alter people’s life philosophy and to simply allow things that are well made and honest to be enjoyable! Keep an open mind.
What are the up and coming wine regions you’re excited about most?
Northern Arizona – Cochise County
Rogue Valley, Oregon
Can you maybe walk us through your thought-process of orchestrating the list for Covell?
My wine philosophy at Covell is based on a few really important things:
One of my biggest pet peeves in the wine industry is when you go out to a restaurant or wine bar, get excited about something on their wine list, order it, and they are fu*king OUT OF IT. Why in the hell would you go to the trouble of printing a wine list, handing it to me, and then being out of something?
BECAUSE WE DON’T HAVE A WINE LIST, WE CAN NEVER BE OUT OF SOMETHING!
Also, EVERYONE WANTS SOMETHING DIFFERENT. You don’t have to look cool to your friend. If you want what you want, you should have it. We have 150 wines by the glass from anywhere and everywhere, so long as the wines are honestly made and true to their origin they have a fair shake of making our wine program. That said, we like to have as many regions / grape varieties / characteristics represented as we can to make sure we can make everyone happy! The bulk of our wine program runs $11-15 per glass, but we also have more fancy wines that run $16-50 per glass in our “reserve program” should someone want something like Barolo, Premier Cru Burgundy, Brunello di Montalcino, Cornas, Hermitage, Côte-Rotie…
What wine are you drinking tonight? What wine are you drinking this weekend to celebrate a Lakers victory (or just to toast to how beautiful L.A. is!)?
Tonight I will be drinking a 1998 Edmond Vatan Sancerre Rouge – he made about 50 cases of this wine back in 1998, all Pinot Noir from his holdings in Chavignol, France (Sancerre area of the Loire Valley).
I almost forgot to ask, how did you become fascinated by wine?
In college one of my roommates dad’s turned me onto fine wine…we are talking Grand Cru Burgundy from the 70’s, old Mosel Rieslings from the 60’s, Grower-Champagnes from the 80’s, Madeira from the late 19th century…fu*k off wine! I was a kid, and all of a sudden I started to realize wine was more than just trying to get a girl in bed…there was something to this.
Finally, since Covell is such a great spot for kind of going “omakase” and just stating preferences…let’s pretend I just arrived after work. I’m looking for a red that is bold yet not too heavy. Not too many tannins, it’s still just happy hour. Maybe some good fruit, something with real character. What should I go for?
Depending on what we had available that particular evening, I’d likely bring you a California Pinot Noir and a Reserva Rioja to taste and see if either made more sense for your mood at that moment. We are ever changing beings…
Visit Matthew at:
4628 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90027
Open Nightly at 5pm, until 2am Friday and Saturday