When asked recently by the Los Angeles sommelier Taylor Parsons “What style of wine do you enjoy?”, my mind went blank. That’s not because of a lack of wine experience on my part or the type of sensory overload from the noise and lights that some Los Angeles restaurants can overwhelm a diner with. I just never really think about what I enjoy. I don’t know my type other than the unhelpful “I like good wine.” That narrows it down.
I think about pairings with the food when ordering wine like the majority of diners. Some meals I go for the “interesting” wines to learn something new, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I go for wines that fit a unique niche and hopefully can teach my fellow tablemates something new about wine regions or styles or varietals. Of course I’m also subject to choosing a wine off a list that I consider the best value or from a winery I know personally, or I just tell the sommelier to surprise the table because they know what’s best on the list right now.
But what do I enjoy? What style would be perfect right now in this specific occasion? Everything I listed in the second paragraph comes down to a style— texture, expression, spice, sweetness, level of acidity, type of fruit (is there fruit?), amount of aging, barrels used or stainless steel, level of oak, and so much more. When one of Mr. Parsons’ assistant sommeliers mentioned a Jura Chardonnay she is crazy about and is off the list but in the extensive cellar, it struck a nerve. Bingo. On the first suggestion they knew the style I wanted even if I couldn’t say more than “white wine.” It was a fuller, vibrant white at good value, allows me to teach my table where the Jura even is, and since they didn’t know much about the nutty characteristics of a Jura white, they were in for a pleasant curveball that hit the strike zone.
And so this type of give and take in the reassuring hands of wine director Parsons and his two other sommeliers at the eight month old République in Los Angeles, unfolds across the vast restaurant six nights a week. Parsons is guiding you the diner based on your style preferences and the occasion because he knows at the end of the day a sommelier’s role is also to be a server and make the diner comfortable. And barely anything at a restaurant makes a diner more at unease than wine selection.
At République, Parsons guides you to the wine by what you want, whether it is a direct pairing or as specific as a lighter, herbal, slightly fruity red around $50 to $60 dollars. It’s more helpful therapist than salesman, a breath of fresh air in wine list discussions. The conversation helps everyone involved and also is necessary because so many of Parsons’ wines are a bit off the beaten path, and the list is far from a greatest hits of Napa and France book. With the discussion and the list, it’s a unique, refreshing, and a little off the beaten path wine experience.
Then again, Parsons didn’t take a road too often traveled by sommeliers to reach his current position at this fabled restaurant space on busy La Brea Avenue.
Growing up in Southern California with wine often on the table as his family enjoyed meals, Parsons never really had a wine epiphany moment since his family liked having it around with food. He’s quick to point out his family weren’t “wine people,” proving you definitely don’t have to be in the industry or constantly debating the merits of one château compared to another to enjoy wine with food. Everyone can savor wine in food’s company or not.
Heading to the East Coast for college at Brown University, that importance of cooking and enjoying wine with food continued–though I’m not sure if Parsons found the school dining hall compatible with wine. Parsons graduated with a degree in Africana Studies then aspired to be a jazz pianist in Madrid. Returning to the States, Parsons arrived in Lake Tahoe as a “ski bum” but then blew out his knee. Away from the slopes, he took up a job then running a grocery store wine section. Indeed, those labels weren’t exactly ones you might work with when running a wine program for acclaimed chefs like Mark Peel and Wolfgang Puck.
Yet not much later, Parsons moved back to Los Angeles and in 2007 started running the wine program for Peel and his former wife Nancy Silverton’s classic California cuisine establishment, Campanile. That was quite the leap from Tahoe grocery aisles to Campanile’s big stage. But Parsons was ready.
Then it was onto Puck’s flagship Spago over in Beverly Hills and then a return east in 2010 to Melrose and Highland, as beverage director for Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Mozza restaurants (Pizzeria and Osteria) where the focus clearly shifted towards Italy for his wine programs.
In 2013, Parsons joined the chef Walter Manzke and the prolific restaurateur Bill Chait (Rivera, Petty Cash, Short Order, Sotto, Picco are among his LA establishments) in opening République. From day one, Manzke and Parsons have worked closely together, describing the chef-sommelier daily discussion as “very organic.” Parsons says Manzke humbly calls himself “just a cook” but really “he’s one of the most sensitive chefs to wine,” in addition to being a gifted chef beloved by Los Angeles diners and critics alike no matter where he cooks or what cuisine (he also runs Petty Cash, a not French at all taqueria not far from République).
République resides in a grand, storied building built in 1929 by Charlie Chaplin as a mixed-use building. It’s enormous with multiple dining areas— starting with the glassed-in front off La Brea with a historic tile fountain purchased by Chaplin himself (Campanile used to have the fountain inside but Manzke moved it back outside like how it was for Chaplin).
The front area also features a bar and bare-topped casual table seating with a Marco Pierre White photo looming large overhead on one side and a daytime bakery by the host stand at the entrance on the other side. The central courtyard’s Gothic stonework and Spanish mosaic tile flooring is a knockout. It’s anchored by a communal table that evokes a Medieval feast hall (or Hogwarts if you’re of a younger generation), flanked by the open kitchen and its wood-fired oven with a handful of counter seats getting a front row view.
The rear dining room is cozy and intimate in all wood and trim red leather banquettes (the restaurant has no white tablecloths, a big change from what you might find at say Benoit or Bofinger in Paris). Together, it’s nothing short of spectacular— a miniature Alcazar meets Chartres Cathedral with hints of industrial warehouse within the concept of a Parisian brasserie. Got that? This is serious architecture for serious, yet relaxed cooking. The adjective most frequently used by diners I’ve talked with is “stunning.”
It’s a 200 seat restaurant of multiple architectural and dining space personalities. That’s just like the wide array of eager Los Angeles diners filling those seats. Wine selection cannot be an easy task for Parsons with these statistics. Do you go big with the wine bibles to satisfy the magnificence of the environs and guarantee there’s bound to be something to please every palate?
Parsons creates a riveting and tidy edited list nightly that puts an emphasis both on quality and can “spark conversation” between the floor staff and diners. This an emerging concept that Parsons (and the author) are very excited about where restaurants, like Charlie Bird in New York as one example, are doing a fantastic job with wine and food together, without an overwhelmingly dense or complex list. That list is by no means the entire cellar. It’s what is presented as the best roster for that evening, complimented by the un-listed bottles the floor staff can lean to as well.
Instead of hundreds of Burgundy and Napa Cabs, you get a wine list of around 70 choices that changes often to reflect how Manzke’s menu features both menu constants and a good percentage of items that change weekly and daily. As wine director, Parsons knows each dinner service will be different and his list must reflect that. The list is a single oversized sheet that almost has as many food items listed on one side as bottles of wine on the other. By-the-glass offerings are listed next to their bottle price, always a nice touch for comparisons. Excellent values include the 2012 Failla Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, a gem at $65 and Selbach-Oster’s Riesling Spâtlese Graacher Domprobst 2010 from the Mosel for $60. Arnot-Roberts’ excellent 2012 Watson Ranch Napa Valley Chardonnay is on the list, as is a 1996 Domenico Clerico Barolo.
Reds feature a 2009 Dujac Chambolle-Musigny from Burgundy that actually is also offered as a carafe and by the bottle, another nice element not seen often in the States. My table enjoyed an un-filtered 2012 Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône from the tiny region of Brézème with on point herbal notes with subtle dry fruit in a good, medium body. France and California are the main areas on the list but you’ll find plenty of Europe from Italy to Spain to Austria. Parsons also has a Semillon from Australia’s De Iullis.
The list is split into five categories with “Champagne & Sparkling” at the top, a natural for the many diners commencing with a platter of Kumamato and Coromandel oysters. Immediately the Patrick Piuze Crémant de Bourgogne NV ‘Non-Dosé’ caught my eye.
That’s followed by “Whites” then “Rosés.” Only six Rosés were listed but they’re strong listing an Ameztoi Txakoli, Chateau Soucherie in the Loire and the classic Domaine Tempier of Bandol. “Reds” are next with “Sake, Cider, Fortified and Sweet Wines” concluding the list. Pastry chef Margarita Manzke’s unique combination of a brownie-like chocolate fondant with savory black truffle ice cream truly benefited from the fruity yet full ‘La Bulle Gamay’ Vin Mousseux Beaujolais from Maison P-U-R, working in stride with each other like a dessert version of roast chicken with truffles paired with a two year old Beaujolais.
Remember, the list is to help guide the conversation. The real list to choose from is the conversation with Parsons about what you want and perhaps which items off Manzke’s menu you’ll be ordering (I’m not aware of any off-menu dishes in the case of the kitchen but you never know…).
It was totally unintended but that 2011 Les Dolomies ‘Les Combes’ Chardonnay from the Côtes de Jura appellation selected for me paired with Manzke’s sweet white corn agnolotti offset by the earthy warmth of chanterelle mushrooms and sharp parmesan with the wine’s minerality with tropical fruit heft was the definition of a perfect match. I stopped after two bites to inform my table-mates of this, only to learn they were several bites ahead of me and fully aware how beautiful the duo worked.
One of Manzke’s most ordered dishes is one of his simplest, relying on three key ingredients: toasted baguette (freshly baked by Margarita Manzke and the pastry staff, don’t miss it with the wood oven pan drippings and Normandy Butter as well) topped with softly scrambled eggs then topped with the creamy, briny sweetness of Santa Barbara sea urchin, called “Eggs on Toast.” Parsons enjoys pairing Champagne or a richer Chablis with them. For escargots en Croûte, Parsons would probably select a very green wine like a Sancerre or Grüner Veltliner (the list has a 2011 Schloss Gobelsburg Reserve Lamm Erste Lage from Kamptal, Austria) to match the dish’s parsley intensity that Parsons likens to a pesto without basil.
Parsons loves matching white wines, even with meat. A recent four week dry-aged pork chop with stone fruits would go very well with a sweeter Riesling in his view. It’s definitely not a traditional pairing but one that works because of pork’s versatility with sweet, bright sauces and white wines.
Now after a little under a decade running premier Los Angeles wine programs, Parsons knows the challenges in this city compared to its peers like Chicago and New York. From the city’s reliance on driving to the high percentage of the population that likes to wake up early for pilates, yoga, and other virtuous exercises, it’s a tricky market when it comes to wine consumption with meals. It’s also an eager market that is catching up in energy and knowledge to the likes of New York and that other major California city to the north.
Parsons points out another reason less wine might be purchased at restaurants these days—and it doesn’t mean there’s less alcohol being consumed. Los Angeles doesn’t necessarily drink more cocktails than its urban peers. Just in general more people are enjoying cocktails, mainly because of the “craft cocktail” movement of the past decade that have made cocktails simply more enjoyable before, after, or even during a meal. That in turn affects wine consumption. This echoes a piece by San Francisco Magazine’s Sara Deseran on “Dining Under the Influence” because bartenders are making more dark, stirred, powerful drinks instead of the Gin and Tonics genre (the writer is guilty of choosing the stirred drink category when enjoying cocktails).
When asked about the new smart phone wine apps that supposedly can act as a sommelier and make life much easier for wine consumers, Parsons emphasizes the importance of personal taste over a device simply telling users that this wine tastes like these flavor profiles: “Wine tastes differently depending on lots of contextual factors, including the day, the weather, one’s mood…the notion that an app can tell you what a wine will taste and feel like to YOU by throwing out some fruit names is nonsensical to me.” This echoes why more and more restaurants and even winery tasting rooms are skipping the tasting notes. After all, what does baked apple, cardamom, and orange blossom really taste like together?
Another pet peeve of Parsons that would definitely be echoed by many of his peers is how the Los Angeles market seems to be well above the national average in terms of choosing to bring their own wines to restaurants. République’s $30 corkage fee is very reasonable and very close to the average you’ll find at restaurants of this caliber, if not slightly cheaper. When Parsons worked at Spago, the corkage fee was also $30 and now is $50.
Many diners bring their own wine with the corkage fee because they think that restaurants are out to gouge the customers by making their main profits on wine and spirits. That might unfortunately be true in some cases but absolutely by no means is the norm in the industry, nor should it be the prevailing mentality of diners. Parsons agrees: “The notion that restaurants essentially take a loss on food and make it up on beverage is only partly true — liquor is definitely a revenue area with typically higher margins, but in most fine-dining restaurants I’ve worked in, the margins on food were the same or greater than those of wine. Any good operator who in turn employs good management will want to offer great products at fair prices. This, along with genuine hospitality, is what entices people to return. In this context, it pains me to see people come into the restaurant with a $10 bottle of wine they just bought at TJs [Trader Joe’s] on their way in. They are going to pay $30 to open it. Yet, for that same $40, I can offer them something really interesting that pairs beautifully with our food. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Parsons understands the pros and cons of funky wine lists versus wine lists focused on tried and true regions and varietals. He knows the frustrations diners can have with the bizarre lists filled with orange wines, varietals they’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, and the wines of obscure young or lesser known regions like Ontario, Canada or Slovenia: “I think putting esoteric wines on a list for the sake of esotericism is misguided and does a disservice to the diner. Not having a great Chardonnay when your food and your guests call for it is just a sign that the person buying isn’t paying much attention.”
It can be nerve-rattling to try a wine from a new region for some diners, who at the same time have no issues with eating more adventurously. Parsons acknowledges this two-sided concept on food and wine: “People have proclivities about what wine they drink (or spirit they want) that are FAR stronger than their food preferences. Guests might say something like ‘I don’t really care for raw fish’, or ‘no red meat for me’, but never do they say ‘I exclusively eat beef wellington.’ Yet they do that all the time with wine and spirits. Often, a guest will inform us that they don’t like highly-acidic whites, or tannic reds…which is great!
But, at least once a night, a guest calls me over to the table and tells me, ‘I don’t see any Napa Cabernet (or whatever) on your list, and that’s the only thing I drink’. Another popular one is, ‘how dare you not carry Grey Goose?’ To me, this dogmatic approach to drinking does both the restaurant and the diner a disservice. Guests come here — hopefully — to experience what we do, to try the food of our chef and his cooks, to eat in our dining room, and to be served by our staff. Why not just go along for the ride and experience the full-breadth of what the restaurant is trying to do?’ At République, Parsons clearly strives for a balance to please both adventurous wine drinkers and myopic wine drinkers dining at the restaurant.
When it comes to favorites, Parsons does have a real fondness for the Loire Valley and their natural wines. He loves that we’re seeing more Sierra Foothills wines and wants to see more of the wines from Sicily’s regions further south from Mount Etna. And like many sommeliers, he wishes diners were more open to Sherry. To Parsons it’s a great food wine but he sees how people are hesitant to try wines that are distinctly oxidative.
Slowly we’re seeing Sherry emerge across the country, following the footsteps of the tightly edited wine list as a new, engaging direction for wines and restaurants. République offers a number of Sherries such as Valdespino’s ‘Inocente’ Fino. I’m guessing that after a taste of that with Manzke’s Tasmanian sea trout tartare “dip” where crispy pork rinds function as the “chips” skeptics will become Sherry believers (or “flor’d” as Sherry drinkers cleverly claim).
There’s no doubt that there is plenty of excitement in the air again as the famed building on La Brea has evolved from Chaplin to Campanile to République, thanks in large part to Parsons’ wine program in harmony with Manzke’s cooking. It’s a little French, a little California, a little worldly innovative. And you’re sure to choose that perfect wine from a conversation with Parsons (or his staff) that fits the style you’re looking for, even if you don’t know how to say it.
624 South La Brea Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(310) 362-6115; RepubliqueLA.com
Open Monday- Saturday for Dinner, Cafe/Bakery Daily 8 am to 4 pm