Food & Wine Thursdays: Does LA Need a Wine Champion?

It’s always a little validating when one of my loyal 4 or 5 readers who aren’t my mother email me questions and ideas to start a wine conversation. I received such an email the other day from a Los Angeles local I’ve known on Twitter (and in person for a few brief interactions) for a while now. He’s not in the wine industry, but he’s a dedicated and curious wine drinker:

So I read a piece over on Eater (National edition) where the author did a run down on the Chicago wine scene, through interviews with the city’s sommeliers.

In this article, one of the guys interviewed mentions that Chicago lacks a media “taste maker” – or something like that, basically stating that Chicago lacks a voice to drive wine trends a la [Jon] Bonne or [Eric] Asimov.

This led me to ask (to myself), who could qualify as such a person here in our lovely city?  I couldn’t really name anyone from a mainstream media perspective.

I know you keep tabs on wine writing and who does what over at LAT and also with the Chron and SF Gate up north – what are your thoughts on the matter?  Do we have someone that could qualify?  Do we skew towards SF’s viewpoint or NY edicts on wine trends? Are we, as a city of wine drinkers, on our own wavelength because we’re sophisticated drinkers in our own right, or are we lemmings?  Or is there really a lack of critical mass overall, which puts us in a lower rung than say, Chicago?  I can’t believe the latter to be the case, but just posing the rhetorical….

I guess there are apt tangents as to whether or not there really is a distinctive voice between west and east coast wine writers. But that’s too murky of a topic.

To stay on point, do we have a wine champion – or even need one?

Just a few thoughts — spurned by that article and then [NAME REDACTED] getting his panties in a bunch with Asimov’s recent article on CA Sauv Blancs.  It might be too localized a topic for the Satellite Show, but just wanted to pose some ideas and questions over.

Take it easy.

Wine culture in LA is something I’ve been thinking about continuously since I moved here a little more than three years ago, after being in the food and wine scene in Berkeley, where several of the country’s most influential wine importers reside. I think that LA is sorely lacking in quality wine writing, especially at our only publication of record, the LA Times. Wine writing at the LAT is a mix. Restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila (with her husband) handles the Wine of the Week column and after that there’s just a freelance amalgamation of articles by writers like The Unnamed and Patrick Comiskey. Comiskey, I think, is quite good, but he appears somewhat hamstrung by the editorial staff. For instance, he wrote an article about James Suckling’s clumsy entree into the social media world which he pitched last Fall (shortly after the Suckling launch) but didn’t get it approved and published until March, when the hilarious inadvertent self-parody that is Suckling-on-the-Web was already widely-known.

So until SIV and Russ Parsons enter the 21st Century food and wine world, even a very good writer is going to be stifled at the LAT. What LA needs is a Jonathan Gold for wine; someone who is thoughtful, adventurous, playful and funny; someone who takes wine seriously (but not pedantically) and explores topics that aren’t just rehashes of rehashes. Essentially, LA needs someone like Jon Bonne at the SF Chronicle. As both editor and principal wine writer, he is able to set the tone for the wine section both with his writing and with the freelance articles he selects and it so happens that his tone appeals to the New Wave of 21st Century Wine Drinkers.

The LAT also has a striking paucity of wine writing in general. After a quick look in their archives, it appears that the only features since Comiskey’s Suckling article is a very good article on $15 wine and an obit for wine maker Jess Jackson, all by Comiskey. Three features since March is great for one writer but sad for a major newspaper.

(Of course, the Chronicle also has a wine section with its own editor, so there’s that. So does the NYT. The LAT does not.)

I’ve yet to read any LA-based wine writer–print, blog or otherwise–that really has what it takes to become a wine “taste maker” for Los Angeles. The writers are largely trend-chasers, still stuck in a 1990’s conception of the wine world, simply drinking bottles and reviewing them and remaining mostly beholden to the France-Italy-California wine axis. This isn’t unique to LA. Lettie Teague at the Wall Street journal comes across as a Stephen Colbert-esque high-status idiot and makes even Suckling look like a forward-thinking innovator.

But there are a lot of savvy wine drinkers here. It’s a community that rivals San Francisco or NYC in its inquisitiveness. I don’t think we’re ape-ing any other city’s wine culture and our proximity to major US wine regions and influential wine importers guarantees LA a wine status considerably higher than Chicago for the foreseeable future.

The Los Angeles wine community is unique because of its sheer size and diversity. It’s very expensive to open up a wine bar in San Francisco or Manhattan and few SF or Manhattan wine drinkers will hoof it to Oakland or Brooklyn to drink there. But LA rent is much cheaper and we have a community that is willing to seek out the good and unique even if it’s miles away. Since the barrier to entry is lower but we still have access to all the wine that SF and NYC does, we might actually have the most diverse array of businesses in the country at which to buy and drink good, unique wine.

But because the mainstream wine writers in Los Angeles have nothing of value to say to us, we read Bonne and Asimov and we go to Lou and SLW and Domaine LA and Mignon and explore and talk about wine on our own. We have to have these conversations because the known wine writers keep repeating the same conversation over and over again.

Our large minority of progressive drinkers aside, the majority of consumers in LA in general, unlike San Francisco, are not critical. It seems, in fact, that thoughtful criticism is thoroughly avoided in Los Angeles by many–I blame the entertainment industry. Consumers like to chase trends and drink What is Known, especially in the Westside and Southwest Valley wherein the highest concentration of wealth resides. There’s a reason every new, innovative restaurant and wine bar in LA has opened up on the Eastside (East Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park, Downtown) or in the Venice area (a sort of Eastside enclave by the beach), these are the neighborhoods where the more open-minded and curious reside.

But, realistically, I think that Bonne and Asimov are exceptions that prove the rule. Few wine writers, especially at major publications, have the mix of intelligence, thoughtfulness, humor and conciseness required to be a true “taste maker.” Steve Heimoff and Randall Grahm, for instance, are both intelligent and thoughtful with their own quirky senses of humor but are lacking in conciseness. Gary Vaynerchuk is humorous (?) and concise without being particular thoughtful.

Because it’s easy for individuals to be their own taste makers, if writers aren’t talking to progressive drinkers like ourselves at, or above, our level, we’re going to ignore them and look elsewhere. This is LA, we have a lot of places to look.

We decidedly don’t have a wine champion. But do we need a wine champion? I think so. I think the time is right for a publication like the LA Weekly to develop a full-time wine column devoted to writing about wine and about the 21st Century wine culture that exists amongst the 22-45 year-old wine consumers in major US markets. The LAT isn’t doing it. LA Wine Blogs, while there are some good ones, are mostly PR-driven hack jobs and aren’t doing it. We need authentic writing for people who have known no other reality than one in which good wine has been a permanent part of the American culinary landscape, a reality wherein good wine has never been absent from the dinner table.

We need wine writing for people who grew up sucking on corks.

I’d like to give it a shot, but it seems like a bad time to break into print journalism. Also, I’m clearly lacking in conciseness.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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8 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: Does LA Need a Wine Champion?

  1. Nice job David. In a way, I agree. There is also another point that can be made, as someone, like myself, in the business can attest to; we do have a sort of taste-setter “group” at the moment. You cite a few operations above but you could easily throw in countless other wine retailers and restaurants. I can’t even count the times I’ve heard from reps, friends, colleagues, etc “oh, so and so works with that wine too” or “that restaurant serves the obscure wine you are working with by the glass.”

    The wine buying for retail and the food industry in SoCal is pretty experimental and the best it has been, in my opinion. So maybe instead of an actual real staff person to coalesce this new wine reality, maybe we can settle for what already exists, an enthusiastic group of wine enthusiasts actually defining the new wine news. Now, how can we reach a larger group by pooling some of these resources? That might be a faster track to bringing it to the people.

    In wine deference,
    Jeff Zimmitti
    Rosso Wine Shop

    • David D. says:

      It’s true. We have an embarrassment of excellent wine shops. More than the SF Bay Area combined, I think. Or at least when I was still living there.

      I like your idea for a group of wine enthusiasts spreading the word. I’ve been working on an idea for a LA Wine Blog–something akin to the HuffPost where it’s moderated and edited but still a fairly open forum–but I’ve been stifled due to lack of interested regular contributors. I know you blog periodically on your shop’s site: Would you be interested in contributing?

      But the more I think about it, maybe we need to go the 90’s Zine route? Something pulpy and fun?

      • Jeff Zimmitti says:

        Sure, I would be happy to contribute. Maybe a site like yours here or a new concept site to tie us all in would be in order. There is reality that this will require work, however. And I know you know that we all can’t go on adding new jobs to our already multiple job plate. Tough one… JZ

    • tricerapops says:

      good pt Jeff. what’s missing is the platform for this collective voice to be heard/shared with others. i can benefit from a chat with you in Glendale, but i can only go as far as what I can share with others (although i try my best via the web). we need to discuss this more over wine.

  2. tricerapops says:

    Two comments:
    1 – I really was hoping for some critical mass behind LA Weekly’s attempt at a recurring series with Lou Amdur, but it seems to be just something they do every-so-often at this point.
    2 – Of what I have read of Matt Kramer’s work, I enjoy his writing and his sensible approach to wine. He seems to have the chops to appeal to a readership both learning about wine and ones that are seasoned enthusiasts. Apparently he used to write for LAT?

    • David D. says:

      1. That would’ve been nice.
      2. I think Matt Kramer is a lot like Comiskey: good, intelligent writer who is semi-handcuffed by the publication in primarily writes for (Spectator). But he’s definitely the best they’ve got and his blog posts are frequently compelling. Yeah, I’m sure the LA Times was good at some point. Maybe pre-Tribune?

  3. Jeff Zimmitti says:

    Maybe a wine summit? There are times when I attend certain trade tastings and I feel like we have the makings for this “taste-setting type group.”

  4. Lou Amdur says:

    Couldn’t we just crowdsource this? Look, for example, at what a great job Yelp does in raising the bar on food and wine discourse in Los Angeles.

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