Natural winemakers are all about bucking convention and breaking rules. Thankfully, a few of our favorite L.A. restaurants (and one great S.F. spot) have hopped on the trend
Words by JOHN WOGAN
Natural wine has taken off in Los Angeles recently, and we are thrilled — not only is it free of harmful junk found in even the “best” conventional wines (pesticides, fertilizers), natural wines result in fewer hangovers (trust us, we have tested this theory). So what is it, exactly? Natural wine is produced without additives or chemicals, so that all you get in your glass is made from the grape itself and nothing more. And with so much of it flowing around the city these days, we’ve put together a list of our favorite spots to indulge — plus a solid option in San Francisco.
Still going strong after more than a decade in business, Gjelina (and its chef and owner, Travis Lett) has come to define the restaurant scene in Venice. Crowds regularly wait in line for Lett’s remarkably fresh heirloom tomato and little gem salads, as well as perfectly fired pizzas. But the wine list offers just as much reason to visit, conceived by beverage director Henry Beylin. He’s chosen natural varieties from California’s Central Coast and across Europe (including, sometimes, funky rarities from Georgia), with over 20 options by the glass. Beylin travels to Europe twice a year in his quest to evolve Gjelina’s ever-changing list. 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, 310-450-1429.
Night + Market Sahm
Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market Sahm is, in our opinion, the best Thai food you’ll find on the west side. What’s really remarkable, though, is that the wine offerings are just as good (it even won a James Beard Award for Best Wine Program last year). “I love every bottle,” says Sarah Yenbamroong (Kris’ wife), who’s in charge of the list. “But, if I were to choose just one, it would be the magnum of ¿vamos? ¿vamos? ¡vamos!. It’s a collaboration between four winemakers [Laureano Serres, Joan Ramon Escoda, Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat]. The grapes are garnacha, gamay, parellada, so it’s a red wine, but with white wine grapes mixed in. It’s some of the best we’ve ever tasted.” 2533 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, 310-301-0333.
In 2014, husband-and-wife team Jaime Turrey and Brooke Fruchtman opened this charming Echo Park spot that draws in the locals with its bright and cheerful interior, back garden, excellent tartines and salads (we go for the grilled watermelon-and-feta with fresh mint), and selection of natural wines. The list includes some truly delicious (yet reasonably priced) varieties, from Italian pinot grigio and gruner veltliner to tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon from California’s Santa Ynez Valley and Central Coast. And in case you were wondering — ostrich is not on the menu. The name comes from a former rail line between Echo Park and Griffith Park. 1525 Sunset Blvd, L.A., 213-537-0657.
Jon & Vinny’s
This boisterous West Hollywood canteen is perennially packed. That’s because the team (which has opened a few of our other favorite restaurants around town, like Son of a Gun and Trois Mec), serve incredible pasta and pizzas (go for the “white lightning,” made with mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, onion, oregano and pickled jalapeno). The natural wines are similarly spot-on, with a big selection of reds, whites, rosé and orange (a type of white wine made by leaving the grape seeds and skin in contact with the juice — the result is a colorfully vibrant orange hue). The serene, blond wood interior makes for a chic yet casual atmosphere we can’t seem to get enough of. 412 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., 323-334-3369.
New York native Helen Johannesen opened her wine shop in 2015, in a cozy nook at the back of Jon & Vinny’s (where she’s a partner, along with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo). She quickly established Helen’s as the go-to for neighborhood locals looking for a beautifully curated selection of bottles. Each one has Johannesen’s stamp of approval after she carefully considers the organic methods of production from smaller vineyards around California and Europe. It’s a constantly changing rotation, so no matter how many times you return, you’re bound to find something surprising and delightful. Johannesen also hosts wine classes that are fun and educational, and even runs her own wine club. There’s now a second Jon & Vinny’s location — with a second Helen’s — in Brentwood. 412 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., 213-280-5118.
Healthy, plant-based food is better than ever these days, and it reaches new heights at Botanica in Silver Lake, opened by Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer in a remodeled liquor store. It’s a one-stop shop for everything food-related, with a bright, sun-soaked dining room, as well as a market, where you can pick up super-fresh, high-quality veggies, fruits, eggs and coffee. Our favorite thing to do is pick up some groceries at their market before settling down to a glass (or two) — especially Sperling’s favorites: “I love everything from La Clarine Farm in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of Northern California. Hank Beckmeyer has been producing super-natural wines in a polyculture environment for over a decade; his wines sing with freshness and purity of flavor. La Clarine’s light-bodied reds Mo-Ma and Gar-Ma are my summertime favorites — served a touch chilled, of course.” 1620 Silver Lake Blvd., 323-522-6106.
You could say this Silverlake bottle shop is the mecca of natural wines in L.A. (or at least on the east side). There’s not an ounce of snobbiness here, and staff are extremely helpful and know their stuff. The result is the sense that no question is out of bounds, whether you’re planning the perfect pairing for a dinner party (but don’t know where to start), or if you already know a little something but aim to become an expert. We also love stopping by for the occasional hosted wine tasting or event — such as the Triple Beam Pizza pop-up, currently happening every Monday from 5 to 9 p.m. 2395 Glendale Blvd. A, L.A., 323-662-9024.
In Los Feliz, chefs Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer have perfected their own brand of Middle Eastern California cuisine, which might include items like the marinated feta with roasted beets, scallions, apple and chrysanthemum, or a truly wonderful broccoli toast with labneh, pumpkin seed and pomegranate. The best part about Kismet, though, are the Natural Wine Workdays: from noon to 6 p.m. every weekday, the team selects three natural wines they love, each at $10 a glass. Recent varieties have featured French pinot noirs from Burgundy and Gamays from Brouilly. Otherwise, sommelier Kae Whalen’s favorites include the Josep Serres, “Espartalix,” Garnacha Peluda, Pinell de Brai, 2016. As Whalen explains, “Serres is a young winemaker in Catalonia who works with a variant of Grenache that tends to be a little more savory and feral than what you find in, say, the Rhone — peluda, or ‘hairy,’ refers to this characteristic and to the grape’s fuzzy leaves. “Espartalix” has peluda’s usual gamey quality, but with a burst of tart fruit and a little fizz to keep things lifted and bright.” 4648 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., 323-409-0404.
David Chang is something of a legend on the east coast (for proof, look no farther than his Momofuku empire), and he’s making big gains on the West Coast, too, thanks to Majordomo, his new Chinatown hot spot that opened last year. The menu is an eclectic mix of Asian-inflected dishes (roasted duck crispy rice with citrus, dates and turnips; marinated black cod with bok choy and blood orange), and the natural wines are superb, thanks to Richard Hargreave, the restaurant’s sommelier. For something a little different, though, try a carafe of natural sake (Japanese rice wine). The “Okarakuchi” is produced from rice grown in the mountains near Kyoto and has a pleasantly dry acidity that goes so well with Chang’s creations. 1725 Naud St., L.A., 323-545-4880.
Whenever we’re up north, you can bet that Bar Agricole, in SoMa, is one of our first stops. Not only do we love the converted-warehouse space and outdoor patio (amidst a fragrant herb garden), the food is excellent and supremely fresh — especially the veggie dishes, like citrus and beet salad with pumpkin seeds and fennel. And almost all of the ingredients are sourced from local farms. But the real reason we come is the natural wines, which grace a phenomenal list that includes a to-die-for “Paolo Bea,” a Monastero Suore Cistercensi that’s an orange wine from Lazio, Italy. 355 11th St., S.F., 415-355-9400.
May 1, 2019