The first image that emerged in my mind when wine director Maxwell Leer presented me with the wine list during a recent dinner at Bestia in Los Angeles was the map. This wasn’t a grand map covering every major wine-growing region worldwide, nor was it a map of specific appellations within one collective region. This was a casual, sketched map of the southern half of Central Europe and the western portion of Eastern Europe that helps diners gain immediate insight into where the geographic focus of the wine list will be. Immediately, I knew that Italy wasn’t the sole focus for the rest of the night. It would be the central narrative complimented by a diverse supporting cast.
At its heart, Bestia is an Italian restaurant. Yet its creative menu with significant influences from far beyond Italy doesn’t resemble your typical trattoria menu much past the organization (antipasti, pizze, paste, secondi, dolci). Chef Ori Menashe was born in Los Angeles, one of the most global cities on any continent, and grew up in Israel. Menashe’s background helped drive this one-of-a-kind Italian concept, both on the menu and the wine list.
A not so traditional Italian meal demands an atypical wine list that covers a wide spectrum of flavor profiles. You’re not just getting an ordinary Primitivo here to sit in the background of robust cuisine on the plate. The wines best meant for Menashe’s food aren’t going to be common Chianti or borrowing big, commanding reds from Bordeaux. Before Bestia’s late 2012 opening, Leer was given the instructions to curate a wine list to compliment the menu and the convivial Bestia experience.
It’s not a formal restaurant; it’s a large, handsome space with striking design elements like meat hooks as chandeliers. Make the list make sense with the restaurant. Leer took those instructions and sprinted away to the cellar emerging with one of the more thoughtful, unique wine collections I’ve encountered not just in Los Angeles but across the country.
And it’s far from a phone book sized list hitting all of the benchmark Napa Cabs and Burgundy Grand Crus. There are 47 bottles on one side of a single sheet of paper and 20 more on hand as bottles and by the glass on the side with the map. Indeed, its a pleasure to quickly grasp where Austria is in relation to Hungary and Slovenia when considering the Bodrog Bormuhely Hárslevelu-Furmint, the Berger Gelber Muskateller, and the Batič Rosé Pinot Gris.
Of the 67 wines on the list, 27 hail from Italy at this “Italian” restaurant for those keeping score. The other forty call Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, or Spain home. Even within these countries crowded onto the diminutive roster, you’ll find impressive variety. Austria’s showpiece is a 1987 Roter Veltliner from Setzer ar $130. There are also several bargain Austrian wines like Ott’s 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a liter bottle of the 2012 Hofer Zweigelt.
Oh, California does get some representation. Leer chose wisely including two of the state’s most riveting young winemakers with Graham Tatomer’s 2010 “Kick-On Ranch” Riesling from Santa Barbara County and Ryme Cellar’s 2010 “His” Napa Valley Vermentino from husband and wife team Megan and Ryan Glaab.
Far from California but perfectly representative of Bestia’s narrative, Fruili terroir couldn’t be better highlighted than by the 2007 Vinja Barde “Matos Nonet” blend of Malvasia Istriana, Fruilano, and Sémillon. Leer scored a great 2007 Brunello di Montalcino from La Gerla. A personal favorite of mine, the little known Plavac Mali, is on hand here as the “Postup” from Dingačin a 2008 vintage from Peljesâc, Croatia.
What an energetic list at Bestia that mirrors its eager-to-learn and to-please designer. Here’s a wine director who even started a program of presenting by the glass pours from select jeroboams on weekends. Leer’s excitement for the labels on his list works in tandem with the ever palpable pulse you feel inside the dining room. Listen to him discuss a Pinot Noir from Italy’s Vallée d’Aoste and you’ll be far more rounded in wine knowledge within three minutes. Trust Leer.
It’s inevitable that many diners will raise both eyebrows at first when looking for their comfort zone Chardonnays and Zinfandels. Their comfort zone bubble will be pieced. Sometimes these eclectic collections are put together simply for the sake of making a bold statement. Here the usual varietals aren’t missing to avoid the commonplace or provoke. They’re removed because they simply aren’t best for the Bestia experience. In a way, Leer has created a work of art and a textbook. You must admire the skill that went into identifying the right wines for such a compact roster and a not so compact dinner menu.
Leer graduated from New York’s Bard College in the Hudson River Valley with a social studies degree. His restaurant career began in nearby Kingston where you’ll learn soon how that opportunity opened his eyes to a focused career with a keen attention to detail.
Then it was off to the west for the young man. In Portland, Oregon, Leer worked front of house at the restaurants DOC and clarklewis. With the clarklewis chef Casey Lane, Leer moved to Southern California and opened The Tasting Kitchen in 2009 on Venice Beach’s ultra-fashionable Abbot Kinney Boulevard. There, Leer’s opening list was even smaller than Bestia’s, weighing in at 21 bottles.
His final stop pre-Bestia was drastically different than the previous intimate restaurants and the upcoming Bestia. Leer served as wine director for the high volume molecular gastronomy domain of José Andrés, The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills. It truly is a bizarre establishment where Wagyu Philly Cheesesteaks are served on “airbread” and the beverage focus veers more towards martinis with sphereified olives. Chances for a personal wine list is not great at a venue like this. But Leer made do and learned all he could about newer regions to him like Spain and South America.
Crossing the city from west to east, Venice to West Hollywood, it was LA geographical destiny for Leer to continue east to Downtown’s emerging Warehouse/Arts District (the name depends on who you’re talking to but it’s roughly a mile south of Little Tokyo and 2 miles east of Downtown’s Financial district where former industrial spaces are swapping sheet metal for lofts, restaurants, and coffee roasters/cafes like Handsome and Stumptown).
The very talented team of major local restaurateur Bill Chait (of Los Angeles’ Sotto, Picca, Rivera, Republique) and husband-and-wife chef/pastry chef duo Menashe (formerly chef de cuisine of the highly regarded Angelini Osteria) and Genevieve Gergis (a self-taught pastry chef!) brought Leer to Bestia. Not surprisingly after year one, this powerful quartet runs the Los Angeles restaurant of the moment. Bestia sure isn’t suffering any form of sophomore slump.
In his spare time outside of Bestia, Leer takes off for the countryside and is trying his hand as a winemaker. He’s paired with Joseph Filippi Winery in Rancho Cucamonga to express the terroir of the San Gabriel foothills. Their first collaboration is out as the 2012 Fleur de Valle Grenache Vin Gris ($12). I’m wondering when we’ll see a few bottles on the Bestia list. Hopefully very soon.
Maybe Rancho Cucamonga is the next Paso Robles or perhaps more of a higher altitude Arizona wine country? Just imagine how much fun wine discussions will be when you ask for a Cucamonga like how you ask for a Sancerre. No matter what, Leer is accomplishing his goal of opening the wine world’s eyes to considering local terroir much like the beer and food sectors have advocated for local brewing and local ingredients.
In her very positive Los Angeles Times review of the The Tasting Kitchen back when Leer first arrived in town, critic S. Irene Virbila implored diners to converse with “resident Italian wine geek and manager Maxwell Leer” to best understand the list. A prodigy was found then. And Leer today is only 30 years old. Imagine where his wine passion will take him next.
For now, you can get a sense of what makes Bestia so adored by this vast city’s restaurant crowd with Maxwell’s thoughts on orchestrating Bestia’s program, what wine the Dalai Lama would tell Maxwell to make, and even a “Wolf of Wall Street” reference (we’re not that far from Hollywood!). If possible, the story is best enjoyed with a palate cleansing glass of Mauro Vergano’s Vermouth Bianco. It’s his choice for a halftime break sipper in a long meal full of dense, bold flavors.
Vino247: First off, how did you become fascinated by wine?
My first job out of college in 2005, I worked in the old capital of New York, Kingston, in a cobblestoned neighborhood known as the Roundout, a stones throw from the Hudson River. The chef, Graziano Tecchio, was a Venetian pug who was born in restaurants, and rode religiously to his Downtown Café on an old Vespa. With his hulk hands, Graziano would pound meat and roll our fresh pasta in a small open kitchen facing a dining room with around 50 seats. Everyday Graziano would sip grappa and espresso on the sidewalk and talk passionately about his culture; the food and wine of Venice. Occasionally, children from nearby Hudson Valley farms would show up with baskets of fruit and vegetables to sell him; even if not in need, Graziano would buy. I saw a remarkable intensity in Graziano that was both marvelous and frightening; it inspired me to want to work hard and learn. I haven’t looked back since.
Let’s talk about the wine world here in the spring of 2014. What have you noticed has really become a big industry change since this time in 2013? Are we in better shape right now than a year ago?
The wines of California are happening. From the bedrock pioneers like Steve Edmund making 2012 Vermentino/Grenache Blanc ‘Heart of Gold’ in Eldorado County to newer grower/producers like Graham Tatomer in Santa Barbara whose 2010 Riesling Vandenberg is fascinating, California is producing more and more interesting wine with each passing vintage. I am also very much looking forward to tasting whatever form of effervescent wine Wenzlau Winery’s partnership with Cédric Bouchard manifests.
Are people more/less passionate about what’s in their glass?
I think enthusiasm for wine is contagious. But, I also believe that some wines will not intrigue people in isolation from say certain foods. For instance, I might pour for you an 8.5% Riesling Spätlese by Josef Leitz from the Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreuz out of an elephant trunk magnum and you might think “this wine is too sweet for me.” If, however, I serve that same exact wine alongside a bowl of carrot juice strozzapretti with reduced tomatoes, lentils and rabbit ragu you might just start to tear up.
What wines, both on and off Bestia’s list, are you most excited about?
On the winelist, I am really excited about Darting’s [1 L Screwcap] 2007 Riesling Kabinett from the Durkheimer Nonnengarten in Pfalz, Germany. This 10% abv. off-dry wine and our cuisine at Bestia are incredibly dynamic with one another. Off menu, we have been offering magnums of Cyril Zang’s Cidre, which at ~4.5% abv. is a tooth-kicking mouth party.
Can you maybe walk us through your thought-process of orchestrating the list for Bestia? Ori and Genevieve’s menu isn’t small but isn’t too large to work with in deciding good wines with each dish…What do you aspire for mark-ups on the list?
I was asked by Chef Ori Menashe, Genevieve Gergis and Bill Chaite to prepare a wine menu that was distinctive and salable and desirable with the cuisine. This meant to me: brevity, brains and balls. So, we did that by forming a near 70 SKU list. It’s been wildly successful. Past that, I’d say showing you value is the most important goal. If I pour you a $12 glass of wine it should taste like the best $12 wine you’ve ever tasted. If not, I’ve failed you.
Are you into the whole biodynamic/organic wines movement or is it overrated/ over-hyped?
You can never overrate the importance of sustainability in monoculture. That said, flavor first. Just because your native yeast fermentation came from a dry-farmed, un- sprayed vineyard managed meticulously by hand and plowed by heirloom oxen doesn’t excuse your decision to demonstrate bad wine flavor.
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?
Serve wine in a glass that’s clean, moves liquid without too much friction and that feels substantial. At Bestia, we serve our reds at 54 degrees out of the cellar. So, no, there is nothing wrong with the red wine feeling cold to the finger. Regarding stems vs. no stems, I don’t want to change the contents of the cup with the temperature of my hands. So, I prefer stems.
What are your thoughts on the role of terroir? Does terroir make the wine or is it really the winemaker, or both as it’s often thought to be?
Micki Moosbrugger, at Schloss Gobelsburg in Northern Austria, was talking to a group of us visiting his cellar this past June and he spoke of the responsibility of taking over a 12th century cellar managed mostly by monks. Micki said terroir was “expression.” I think the same.
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?
Perception is not passive. Perception is active. Have you seen “The Wolf of Wall Street?” “Sell me this pen!”
What are the up and coming wine regions you’re excited about most?
Tokaji and Somloi Hungary. The “dry” wines of these regions that have just a tiny- little bit of residual sugar (i.e. less than 9 gms/L), most of which are exclusively available by Blue Danube (a California based importing company for Central and Eastern European labels), are blowing my mind.
Do you think a big obstacle for the newer wine drinkers is the stigma of wine with formality and being expensive? That notion that of if you can’t taste the flavors in the tasting notes, you’re not “worthy” of this wine gets in the way of enjoyment? Or, the belief that every wine must be a pinnacle bottle like a first growth Bordeaux? Because every wine is like Opus One…
There is a lot going on in this question. I discern the overall inquiry to be, “are people intimidated by wine given that certain wines (i.e. Opus One) can cost an arm and a leg?” To respond, most people ask me “So…what’s the best wine you have?” Or, better yet, “what’s good?” To which I usually reply, “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” Sometimes a follow up from the guest will be “you know what I mean…what’s the best deal on your menu?” As “deal” in most instances I translate to meaning “bargain,” I typically sell liter bottles from Austria and Germany in the $40-50 range. But, a “deal” could also mean – to say, Kermit Lynch – a bottle of 2007 Rainoldi Valtellina Inferno Riserva Nebbiolo from Lombardy: the birthplace of Nebbiolo. You see: the beauty of a wine really does lie in the eye of the beholder.
What are your thoughts on where a few domestic regions/ varietals are right now like Oregon Pinot Noir? California Chardonnay? Any Finger Lakes momentum or smaller regions like Virginia and Michigan found around L.A.?
I’m super amped by wines like Arnot-Roberts Trousseau from Healdsburg. Trousseau (or, Bastardo in Portuguese) is a grape from the Jura of France and typically produces super ethereal, light red wines with high acidity and low tannin and Duncan & Nathan are killing it with their Trousseau. I don’t work with a ton of Oregon growers but I absolutely love how Brooks makes Riesling in the Willamette Valley; it’s electric. Lastly, when I was last in Colorado wine country I noticed some really interesting hybrid wines made of Chardonnay grapes and apples aged in Appalachian Oak.
Would you say your Downtown audience tends to be younger? How experienced with wine? Tourists ever visit or is it mostly locals routinely visiting?
Absolutely. Downtown is full of young and wonderful people. Although we are lucky to have such rare locals, at Bestia, we aggregate everybody.
Let’s choose a few dishes from the menu and a few wines from the list to mix and match…(feel free to choose anything you desire). Maybe the ‘nduja pizza for starters?
For the Al’Nduja (pronounced “all’enduya”) pizza with red onion, scarlet frill (purple- green-looking mustard lettuce), tomatoes and mozzarella I would pair a drier wine style as there is a dominant sweetness in the pie offsetting a bitter char from our wood burning Acunto oven. The Clos Cibonne 2011 Cru Classé Tibouren rosé from Provence, France would be ideal as it’s a rich, full-bodied rosé the color of Crocoite. Aged under fleurette for one year in 100 year-old barrels in a cellar by the sea, this wine makes ‘nduja shine.
Well, we should (not!) neglect dessert wines! What should I have with the wonderful chocolate budino tart?
There is a wine by the glass specifically for this dessert as Genevieve Gergis has blessed us with this fine chocolate specimen since day one and it is called Pommeau de Normandie by Famille Dupont. Pommeau is a fortified apple wine of Normandie/ Britanny (France) made by taking unfermented, fresh-pressed binet rouge apples and mixing it with one-year old Calvados Brandy made from the same apples at a ratio of 2/3’s juice to 1/3 Calvados. That mixture is then placed in 400 li. (i.e. medium-sized) neutral oak barrels for 30 months of ageing. The result: a 17% abv. amber-hued, apple- y nectar bad ass perfect for budino.
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, my colleague and great friend Jesse Brawner invited me over for some late night excellence. We drank Movia 2007 Ribolla Gialla from Slovenia and later had a serious sit-down with Hiedler 1991 Weissburgunder Kabinett Schenkenbichl from Kamptal, Austria. To pair with this, Jesse cracked a can of Portuguese sardines packed in oil and provided by the fantastic Lou Wine & Provisions. To quote Werner Herzog: “whhhowwwwwwhh.”
Finally, let’s switch your wine director title for winemaker at my winery in a region of your choosing in Italy. What wines would you make for our 2014 vintage?
I would prefer to meet Johannes Selbach for a walk in the dusty vineyards of Rancho Cucamonga to discuss why wine regions thrive or sink. After a long walk, I would propose flying out of the Ontario airport to Slovenia (the Goriska Brda in particular) and walk across the border to the Colli Orientali. At that moment, the Dalai Lama would appear and suggest making an off-dry (Tocai) Fruilano. I tell the Dalai Lama, “No way man…I’m on my way to Tokaji, Hungary to meet Kristian Farkas and figure out how he makes his wines taste so magnificent.”
Visit Maxwell at:
2121 E. 7th Place (by Santa Fe), Los Angeles, CA 90021
Open for Dinner Nightly at 6pm to 11 pm, Midnight Friday & Saturday