Lately, I’ve felt like I’m not holding up my end of the promise of “wine” in this “wandering and wine” titled blog. So I have resolved to include a steady study of Los Angeles wine bars into the curriculum. I’m willing to make that great sacrifice for you, the reader. I know; heroic. So it begins one Friday in May, I’m rolling into Tarzana to meet my friend Rrrrramon at Unwind. Time to get our wine geek on. Where is this place anyway? Tucked neatly away, inside a maze of beige stucco, next to the iHop, I find my destination. At the bar of Unwind sits Rrrrramon. He spreads his arms wide for a hug.
Let’s rap about wine bars a bit, shall we? To start, I am not talking about a restaurant with a nice wine list, I am talking about a self-proclaimed wine bar. Vino, in some form or fashion, should be present in the title. Usually, they are cozy, shadowy, a touch vintage, a bit upscale, a dash of hip, with a slice of an ex-Pat in Paris in the 1950’s vibe. The best conditions for appreciating wine include generous natural light and a white surface to gauge color. But for wine bars, these tasting room rules don’t apply. Atmosphere baby, atmosphere. Even more important than ambiance is selection. It’s the first thing I look at. I start with quantity and quality but what I find separates the men from the boys is diversity and uniqueness. If a wine bar has six reds by the glass I have to deduct a point. And if all six are earthy with muted fruit then I know what the owner likes to drink, but again, I count it against the total score. Let’s investigate Chardonnay as an example for a quick moment. I’ll let you in on a funny observation: every person in the wine industry I’ve met claims to dislike Chardonnay, except for French (all wine lovers are Anglophiles, whether they admit it or not). This means they are drawing a line in the sand against the California big buttery oaky style. The French, by contrast, is more delicate, with citrus flavors prevailing. Magically, no one in the industry likes the most popular selling wines in the US. See, even in wine geek circles, folks are always fighting to be cool and hip. Sigh. However, if you own a wine bar, I need to see several expressions of the varietal on your list, showing off Chardonnay’s amazing diversity. I believe a wine list at a wine bar should have something for everyone, even that monster who wants a glass of butter and oak. Off Chardonnay, circling back to uniqueness; if all the wines are familiar, recognizable supermarket labels, more points are deducted. And please show some creativity beyond the six noble vines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling) and whatever is trendy at the moment (currently Malbec and Rose). Finally, we come to the service. Wines hold stories inside; this history of the vineyard, the conditions of the growing season and vintification, the reflection of the terroir in the flavor, the memories the flavors invokes, the progression of a glass. It’s a tall order but at the best establishments, your guide will help pair the perfect glass of wine for what you are craving and spin a tale while they do it. So simple really, we’re just looking for all of that.
Covell in Hollywood is the gold standard. I bring it up now, but I will wait till later in this survey to visit it to see if any other contenders are ready to challenge for the crown. Once I sat at their bar, decor the perfect mash of hipster Hollywood, and ex-Pat Paris and described what I wanted. Three samples were poured for me to investigate. I fell in love with a blend made by Vines on Mary Crest. I never forgot the name and once while running a half marathon in Paso, I happened upon the winery; a tiny Mom and Pop operation. The owner was pouring for us this overcast March morning. I told him about tasting his wine and Covell, loving it and never seeing it again. Vines on Mary Crest doesn’t distribute. They are too small. Like many small vintners in California, they make their living purely off their wine club and tourism. The owner from Covell drove around wine country and simply bought up cases. That’s how it wound up at the bar. That’s how I went from lounging at said bar describing what I had a taste for to going on a journey. That’s how I learned every wine at Vines at Mary Crest is named after a song because the winemaker used to be a musician. And I remember the way he opened bottles at our tasting with panache. I recently ordered wines online from Vines. Covell led me to that moment just by helping me that one day. There may have even been some cheese on hand when they did it. How great are wine bars?
Unwind has a classic, warm and welcoming feel. Formerly Peasant Wine Bistro, it’s had a recent change in ownership. Exposed brick and wood trim are illuminated by elegant, old school chandeliers watching from above. A thin, rectangular shaped restaurant, the bar runs parallel to the comfy plum colored cushioning lining the opposite wall. The energy is lively with a touch of intrigue. Unwind does a great job checking the ambiance box. The tables are all booked this Friday night. Rrrrramon and I settle in at the bar. I’m a fan of eating at the bar in general. I see more, hear more, interact with the place itself more when I do. I bounce around between saying hello to Rrrrramon, checking the Warriors vs Rockets playoff game on TV and diving into the wine list. Quick departure to say I love that this wine bar has sports playing on the TV at the bar. It feels as though they are catering to exactly me! Back to it, Unwind has a respectable list. Good, not great, in my opinion. There is a nice variety, with a mix of California local and wines of the world. I ask to try the Vouvray listed under “Worldly Whites”. Vouvray is a French wine region in Loire Valley where they make a great Chenin Blanc. If you don’t know, old world wines, easily defined by places that had kings; France, Italy, Germany, Spain, name their wines after the region of origin. Champagne, Chianti, Rioja, these are all regions, not grapes. Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti wine, for example. In new world wines, California, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, we name our wines after the grape. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. Why? Cause we’re bratty teenagers I assume? The Benoit Gautier Clos La Lanterne Vouvray is an absolute delight! High acid, a touch sweet, pear, peach, lemon, and mango having a fruit party while catching the brides floral bouquet. Rrrrramon gives it a try and changes his order. I score geeky Somm points with my friend. Rrrrramon even texts me the next day asking what the name of the wine was that we drank. He made a new friend and starts his Vouvray journey. I find it really odd Unwind leaves the producer off the menu and just lists the region for imports. I asked to see the bottle. All that appears on the list is Vouvray, Cote du Rhone or Rose of Provence for examples. Worse, the bartender didn’t know the name of the producer. I did notice similar strategies last year in Paris and like I said, we’re all Anglophiles. Hmmm.
Rrrrrramon and I are starving so we split the escargot and fig and blue cheese bruschetta appetizers to start. I’m thrilled to find a partner in crime for my escargot obsession. My Grandpa Joe gifted me this love, but I often find myself the sole taker. Not this time and the friendship deepens with a new connection. My friendship with Rrrrrramon is, and has always been, a society of mutual food and drink obsession. The apps are killer. The fig and blue cheese bruschetta a masterpiece of sweet and savory flavors bouncing off each other. The escargot chewy, dripping with garlic and butter flavor. Yummy sounds abound. Armed with our glasses of Chenin Blanc, we talk about this and that. We discuss the final season of Game Thrones, Rrrrramon’s family, my job, his job, the film and television industry, ladies and mutual friends. Every so often I drift back to the TV to check on the NBA playoffs. In a strange dose of irony, none of my close friends in LA are sports fans, whereas I am obsessed. Rrrrrramon asks some really uneducated basketball questions. I fill him in on some of the drama in the matchup, guessing that’s what he’ll key into. I don’t have high hopes; he’s wearing a scarf. Rrrrramon loves scarves and I suppose I love mocking Rrrrrramon’s love of scarves. We’re very symbiotic in that way. France quickly becoming a theme of this piece, I continue my stay there for my second glass, but head to reds with the Saint-Amour Coeur de Gamay from Beaujolais. Again, we don’t get much in the way of education or instruction from our bartender. She is pleasant but hurried. I play steward for Rrrrrramon and I this night. Rrrrramon selects the Gamay as well. Clearly, I’m on fire with my selection this evening. My entree is less of a rock star than the appetizers. I try the parmesan crusted sole and herb risotto. It’s one big note of richness. Rrrrrramon seems happier with his grilled lamb chops. I eye them longingly. I do oh so enjoy the wine. Big tart cherry flavor with hints of spice. It goes down quickly. Rrrramon and I end up splitting one more glass between us. A chill invades the air. If you’ve been paying attention and think, “see it’s good Rrrrramon is wearing a scarf”, know that it doesn’t change a thing for me! I am gonna go right on shaking my head about its existence. Besides the scarf, Rrrrramon is the perfect company. It’s been way too long since I last saw my friend. Must be better about that, we both agree with future promises. Saying that a lot these days. Living for the moment, tonight we are thick as thieves. We bear our opinions and hearts perched at the bar over glasses of vino. In that respect, points won or points deducted, Unwind fulfills it’s purpose brilliantly. What else really can you ask for? Excelllent atmosphere, solid selection, great appetizers, passable service, extra credit for sports on the TV. Give Unwind a go.
And I did a terrible job with photos. But the website has some nice pictures.