Friday, November 20, 2009
Lou on Vine aka Lou's Wine Bar in Los Angeles has a loyal and cultish following for wine and food lovers in Los Angeles. Lou Amdur was on the forefront of both the bacon and natural wine craze. Lou's has been serving up his 'pig candy' snack (thick cut bacon carmelized with brown sugar) and some of the most interesting wines available in California for several years now.
1.What is Lou's on Vine all about?
I own an intimate (OK, small) wine bar located at the southern edge of Hollywood. We’re located in a strip mall, still fairly barrio, right next to a laundromat. During my first few months I pondered--as an expat from the old Lower East Side--the irony of being on the cutting edge of gentrification, but in the four years I’ve had my lease the neighborhood has hardly become a bastion of boho chic, so my anxiety was misplaced.
I learned from the old Itacho location on Santa Monica and Highland that it’s possible to run a small restaurant in such a spot. On one of my first trips to Los Angeles from New York a friend took me to Itacho and I wondered to myself, “Why is Frank taking me to this sketchy restaurant, next door to a porno shop on a street populated by transvestite hookers?” And then I had the most delicious izakaya meal and realized how ill-equipped was to understand the social geography of Hollywood. As a New Yorker I had difficulty decoding Hollywood—in New York no one thinks to comment about a restaurant that’s next to a funeral home or laundry, but in Los Angeles, it’s a cause for comment.
I offer twenty five to thirty wines by the glass and I change up the list three to four times a week. The focus of my list is on natural wines, autochthonous grape varieties, and traditional winemaking techniques.
I am interested in the way in which wine grapes are farmed, so organic and biodynamic viticulture are important to me, and I’ll indicate on my list if a wine is farmed organically or bio-d. I have tremendous admiration and respect for growers who farm their grapes naturally, and believe that farming in general is a craft and a skill that we don’t appreciate as much as we should. I now understand, however, that it’s possible to farm in the most sensitive and beautiful manner but still make a boringly conventional wine in the winery. So sure, I pay obeisance to the truism that a wine is made in the field, but I also know that it is also made or unmade in the winery.
In addition to natural viticulture I am also interested in how well grown, clean fruit picked not too ripe, and vinified via low intervention winemaking, can yield wines that have, I don’t know, another dimension of vibrancy. I appreciate honest wines, which in practice means low or no use of sulfur, and no dependence upon fancy manipulative techniques, e.g., de-alc. Oak, too, is an issue: I believe that we use too much new oak here in California. I’ve had humbling experiences, however, with the use of new oak on some wines. Not long ago I dismissed an Austrian red wine as “too new world” in style, because I thought it was too oaky. Later, the grower brought me successive vintages of the same wine and I saw how the oak disappeared in this St Laurent reserve after one or two years of age. Then again, if you’ve ever opened an over-oaked bottle of Napa cab after ten years of bottle age, the oak is still going strong, masking any tertiary aromas that may be there.
About natural wine: I do believe that wines fermented with natural (wild) yeasts are more complex and delicious than wines that are made from selected yeasts, but I’m not Taliban about my beliefs. I think about wild yeasts in wine as akin to bread yeasts: pain levain, real sourdough bread made from wild yeasts, just tastes better than the bread you make with Fleishman’s yeast. For some wines, however, the organoleptic aspects of yeast are the least interesting part of the mix, so rather than scold winemakers for using selected yeast, I think it’s essential to accept that there’s so much yet to learn about yeast chemistry and that it’s possible to make a very good wine without wild yeasts—it’s really a dialog that we should be having with vignerons.
Natural wines are important to me, but I think it’s also important that we maintain the biodiversity of vitis vinifera by supporting vignerons who stubbornly cling to their old grape varieties. I admire growers like Jacky Preys, who, for example, grows a small patch of pre-phylloxera fie gris, a genetic ancestor to sauvignon blanc, and functions as a conservator of this old variety--and then you learn that he’s also interested in reviving or recreating archaic wine types, such as borru. Thierry Puzelat has done something profound with the vineyard of menu pineau that his dad once tended—a grape variety not replanted following phylloxera, and not recognized today as something capable of producing a good and interesting wine, but in Puzelat’s hands, it is.
I find new ways with old grapes exciting, e.g., Gardies’s dry muscat from Roussillon, and Tissot’s Crémant du Jura Indigene, made with a proportion of straw-dried grapes. I’m also interested in the spectrum of historical winemaking practice, so you’ll find “orange” wines on my list, kveri-aged wines, appassimento wines from Italy, and traditional, rancio fortified wines from the south of France. Right now I am thinking a lot about falernium, a wine type that was savored in antiquity but is no longer being made. I’ve asked my Italian colleagues if anyone in Campania is making a traditional falernium wine, and so far, I’ve yet to discover one. Maybe I’ll try to make a bit myself next year (though sourcing falanghina here in Los Angeles might be a problem).
I realize that this probably pains me as a Luddite, or as a reactionary hopelessly clinging to the past. But some of the growers that I admire the most are trained microbiologists rather than enologists, e.g., Coralie Delecheneau (and I think, Puzelat too?). Natural wine is not hippie wine, made in funky, laissez-faire conditions. I doubt you need training in microbiology to make a good natural wine, but judging from the results, it certainly helps.
2.What did you want to be when you grew up?
This will date me, but I wanted desperately to be an astronaut. I loved Star Trek and Lost in Space, but also Heinlein’s kid’s books, like Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I had a large poster of the solar system taped to my wall and I’d gaze at it every morning, entranced, as I was putting on my socks. By my early teens I realized that we were never going to colonize the moon, and the Willy Ley–fired fantasies faded away. And, in retrospect, the moon is not such a nice place to live, though the recent discovery of water there opens up the possibility of terraforming it. You see the old science fiction ways die hard.
3.How did you fall in love with wine and how's that relationship evolving?
I’m a Jew, and Jews drink wine. We always had wine around the house, but of course it was the usual horror show Mogen David or Manischewitz. But to a four year old kid with a sweet tooth, I greedily drank my allotted Dixie Cup full. By the time I was five or six, my uncle Eli Amdur had been growing his own grapes and making his own wine for a number of years. He was a chemical engineer who got the wine bug bad in the 50s, and grew two acres of grapes in the exurbs of Minneapolis. He was a pioneering quality grape grower, not for commercial ends, and published about his growing techniques and grape crossing program. I remember tasting his wine and although I found it bitter (compared to the sweetened dreck I’d only known), I really liked it. That’s my prehistory with wine.
For sake of brevity I’ll tell you a little story about something I observed few years ago about a bottle of wine, and how that changed me. At my wine bar we pour a bit of wine from every bottle we open and smell it to see if it’s corked. Corked bottles are placed to the side, and once a month I tally up the faulty bottles and ask for credit from my vendors. I was handling a corked bottle of Foillard’s Morgon and I noticed something was growing inside of it.
Upon closer examination, I saw that this bottle of wine was able to sustain a healthy colony of mold: none of the other bottles I’d set aside had. What was it about Foillard’s wine that was different? I knew about Foillard and the gang of four, but I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of going with a low sulfur regime. By the way, I haven’t noticed a higher ratio of faulty bottles, TCA or otherwise, with Foillard’s wine, and I’ve poured through probably thirty cases of it at this point, so don’t believe folks who insist that you must load up on sulfur if you want to ensure shelf-stability for your wine.
Foillard’s wine was the only bottle that was able to sustain life, and it was itself a sort of living thing because it wasn’t all sulfured up. I often read comments about wine being a living thing, but in reality that’s wrong: wine is mostly a glorious form of putrescence and decay. But here was Foillard’s wine, a wine that is now a touchstone for me, that was literally a living thing. And that funky bottle of wine was led me to natural wine.
4.What were you doing before founding Lou's?
I had an aborted career as sociologist and taught as an adjunct professor for a couple of years. Then, the call of Mammon led me to software, and I worked at dot.com startups as a user experience engineer and later information architect for several years until I had to stop, it was stealing my soul. So, this is my third career. I think I may have one more up my sleeve.
5.Please share your current favorite food and wine pairing and why.
We’ve been pouring Marjan Simčič’s ribolla for a few weeks. It’s a Slovenian wine that sits for sixth months on its skins in big neutral barrels. It could be classified as an orange wine, but it’s actually not terribly orange. Simčič’s ribolla, I’ve discovered, (a) likes air, and (b) like to be served not too cool. Usually with seafood I think of wines that have a good spike of acidity on the attack, but this wine has a soft, ripe texture and citrus flavors without all the spiky acidity, and it pairs wonderfully with pan-roasted scallops. Scallops can have nuttiness to them, and I think this wine does, too—the echo of citrus and nuts really works. It’s also delicious with sheep’s milk cheeses, such as the Vermont Sheppard sheep’s cheese we have right now.
Posted by Amy Atwood at 1:59 PM