On the Trail

hollywood

Sipping Bubbles, Saving Bees

hollywood, sparkling wineKate Soto

With a light, zesty texture and just a hint of sweetness, Honey Bubbles is easy to like. It’s a new sparkling Moscato on our shelves, and it’s an incredibly amiable wine with an elegant hold on its sweetness--citrusy and floral notes with enough acid to balance its residual sugar. When Greg St. Clair poured it for the staff a few weeks ago, it was a hit all around.

But it’s also a brand that’s very easy to support. Honey Bubbles is the pet project of two WSET-trained wine geeks who fell in love with the Moscato grape, but also had a yearning to do good. Scott Roughgarden and Christiana Gifford care about wine and wanted to make a good product, but they also wanted to give back. When they settled on the name Honey Bubbles for their wine, the light bulb went on: this project would be about making good wine while supporting the bees that make it—and about 80% of the food we eat—possible.

The two started the project about four years ago, but they’d met much earlier in a serendipitous tangle of turns that led them both to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. Christiana was visiting from Las Vegas, and, while sitting on the beach, her BFF asked her to help decide between two beachfront restaurants for her wedding. Christiana was drawn to Shutters, so they went up and had a glass of Champagne. And guess who was their server--none other than Scott. Two years later, when Christiana decided to move to LA, she knew that if she was going to work as a server to support herself (and her then-dream of being a makeup artist), she wanted to do it at Shutters. When she got hired and showed up in uniform, Scott remembered her! He trained her on the job, and they became fast friends. Years later, they both took the WSET courses together.

It was during these courses that they hatched their plan. One of their instructors waxed poetic about the Moscato grape--its ancient roots, its flavor profile--and the two decided that the U.S. market needed a wine that highlighted the beauty of the grape without the often-cloying sweetness. “We bought every bottle of Moscato on the U.S. market that we could,” Scott said. “We felt like it had become the Coca Cola of wine in the U.S. because what we were getting was so sweet. It’s a noble grape varietal, one of the most produced grapes on earth. We said to each other, ‘let’s do a fresh take on it.’” They raised money and drove the first cases around in their car. But all it took was a foot in the door: once they could pour the wine for people, buyers started picking it up.

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From the start, they wanted to be cause driven. They give part of their proceeds to organizations that lobby for less strict beekeeping regulations, to beekeepers themselves, and to programs that promote education on Colony Collapse Disorder. They also support an organization called Honey Love that does non-harmful removal of bees without fumigation in Los Angeles, relocating instead of killing the unwanted bees. “Some people don’t even know about what’s going on with the honey bee, how quickly they are disappearing,” said Christiana. “They are essential to our ecosystem. We try to let the people we work with know how vital bees are, for instance, in any farm to table menu. We work with Honey Love to try to breakdown the barriers of fear around honey bees, especially in children, and to host events for National Honey Bee Day (August 18th).”

While doing good, they’re making good wine. They source their grapes directly from the Asti and Veneto regions in Italy, and work very closely with the winemaker. Because they are not trying to give their wine the Moscato d’Asti DOCG status, they are not beholden to Italian regulations—meaning that they can make their wine higher in alcohol (about 11% vs the max 6% of the DOCG), and they can hold back the residual sugar. These two factors make for a more balanced, food-friendly expression of the grape—it’s good with dessert but also with cheeses or spicy food. They make it in the traditional Charmat method, which allows this aromatic varietal to really express its personality. The basic motto behind the whole operation? Quality at a good price.

This motto seems to be paying off. They’re new to the market, but all they need to do is pour a glass for people—then the line starts to form. This is what happened at an Italian wine competition in Florida recently, where they truly had a line all the way around the event of people waiting to try their wine, and where they ended up winning the People’s Choice Award. They’re humbled by this, and expressed a lot of gratitude for how people have embraced the brand so far. Christiana will be pouring this lively wine on Thursday in our Hollywood tasting bar, so you’ll have a chance to try it for yourself! 5:30-7 $20. Come check out the buzz!

- Kate Soto

Lanson Serves Up Aces at our Hollywood Tasting Bar on Thursday

champagne, hollywoodKate Soto

Lanson might not be the biggest brand out there in Champagne, but they’re not trying to be, especially in the U.S. Though they’re one of the oldest Champagne houses in existence (founded in 1760), and they’ve been purveyors to the British Royal Court since Queen Victoria, they’re newly back on the U.S. market after a very long hiatus. And this fact, according to owner Enguerrand Baijot, has allowed them to enter the U.S. on their own terms, working face to face with independent retailers and distributors who are passionate about Champagne. So, you won’t find them on the shelves of chain stores, and that’s just how they like it. They consider themselves an alternative to the huge brands, “in terms of taste, style, profile, and price,” according to Baijot.

This careful, attention-to-detail approach is evident in their wine. Their characteristic crisp, fresh, clean style is achieved by blocking malolactic fermentation—a part of the winemaking process that converts tart acids to creamier acids and imparts a certain roundness in texture. These are sleek, linear sparklers—and have been since the beginning of the company. The wines are also Pinot Noir-driven, aged much longer than the minimum requirement, and comprise 50-60 percent premier and grand cru wines, even in their nonvintage labels. They say you can judge the quality of a Champagne house by its NV wines since it’s easier to make excellent vintage wines in excellent years than to make NV blends consistently outstanding each year. Baijot stands behind their NV Black Label and encourages newcomers to start there to get a sense of house style.

You may also start with their NV Brut rosé, as it’s the same initial blend as the Black Label, with a bit of red wine added for color and depth. It has more of a medium body but holds on tightly to that refreshing characteristic. Says Baijot: “Southern California is sunny all year long. There’s a magical thing that happens with sunshine—people think rosé. Rosé has tremendous food pairing possibilities especially with shellfish and sushi.” It’s a by-the-glass pour in all of the Nobu restaurants, so he recommends heading to Malibu and pairing the Lanson rosé with the awesome view.

For a different direction, there’s their NV White Label Sec. It’s drier than a demi-sec wine (and more rare), but sweeter than a brut. The extra soupçon of residual sugar provides a rounder, softer texture. Instead of the green apple notes you get in the Black Label, you’ll find baking spices, pastry, cinnamon, and honey notes. Baijot recommends pairing it with with spicy food such as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai. Or try it with a soft cheese and foie gras instead of Sauternes. It’d be great with a summery dessert, and, since it’s not that sweet, it’d be a lovely counterpoint, especially on a hot day.

Though newer to U.S. drinkers, Lanson has been beloved by the British for a long time, thanks to their long-standing place at the Royal Palace. They have also been proudly (and exclusively) sponsoring Wimbledon since 1977. Baijot broke it down for this sports neophyte: “Wimbledon is magical. It’s the most magical tennis grand slam in the world, I’ve been to the U.S. Open and the French Open. But at Wimbledon, time has stopped. Everyone is so elegant, the players all wearing plain whites. You may even see the Queen in the royal box. It’s the kind of place that was probably just the same 100 years ago. And everyone drinks Champagne—only Lanson. It’s the only tournament in the world where you are allowed to drink courtside. Wimbledon is all about authenticity, tradition. And we are not a shiny, modern brand. We are all about taste, tradition, what’s inside the bottle. That dedication to quality and truth really appeals to Wimbledon and the people behind it. That’s the reason we’ve been together so long.”

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That sounds expensive, right? It could be, but to Baijot it is important that Champagne is an affordable luxury, so you can grab several of their bottlings for about $35 at K&L. His motto is “everyone should be able to get a bottle of Champagne whenever you want, not just special occasions.” He says, “Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and prepares you for food, puts you in the right mindset. Start any meal with Champagne—lunch, brunch, dinner—and your experience is better… Enjoy a bit of water, a lot of Champagne!”

In 2011, Baijot moved to the U.S. so that he could hand-curate where he placed Lanson. He says: “I love it here! I love the challenge. It’s definitely a challenge. No one was waiting for us, we came back at a difficult time. We didn’t have the big money for marketing of other brands, but we are meeting people face to face and creating a good network of partners who believe in us. We are boutique, family owned, we don’t do business with chains in the U.S.—just with the independent retailers, with retailers who appreciate that behind every label there’s a story. We are very proud of our dedication to quality and making Champagne the same way since 1760. Always family owned, always been made the same way. We’re excited to be back on the shelf at K&L.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between Lanson and K&L in the fall, when Lanson will be giving K&L customers the California exclusive for the launch of Clos Lanson 2007. This is only the second vintage release of wine from their historic one-hectare 18th c. vineyard—the last vineyard to remain in the city of Reims. Until then, join us in Hollywood as we pour through the Lanson lineup, including their 2002 Gold Label, on Thursday, June 21, 5:30 to 7PM. $5 in our tasting bar. There may be some Wimbledon swag if you play your cards right.

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- Kate Soto

Trust Her Palate: Thursday Tasting in Hollywood with Garber & Co.

domestic, hollywoodKate Soto

“We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers.”

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Sandy Garber leads with her gut. She trusts her palate. And she wants you to, too.

For over thirty years, Sandy has been a renegade spirit in the wine world. She was one of California’s first female somms--and one of the first pregnant ones, no less (in customized server’s tux and all). Way back then, her son’s palate started its training in utero, and he’s now her partner in crime at Garber & Co, an independent distributor/importer/winemaker team that brings delicious, off-the-beaten-path wines from around the world to California.

They’ve built their portfolio based on her mantra of trusting your palate: she doesn’t care whether her wines have scored big points with the critics or whether she represents the most well-known brands. She finds wines and winemakers that she loves, and she brings them to the California market. Some of the wineries only make a few hundred cases per year. Some of them practice organic or biodynamic farming or low-intervention winemaking. Some of them are growing grapes in Uruguay or Armenia. But she believes in each and every one of them, and you can trust that they’ll be delicious. “We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers,” she says.

I’ve been intrigued by Sandy Garber for some time. I tend to like her wines very much. But I am also fascinated by the journey she’s been on, especially as a woman, and especially as someone who’s seen the change in the wine culture of this city over several decades. After leading tours at the Robert Mondavi winery and then road tripping through Europe’s wineries, she landed a somm gig at the Beverly Wilshire in the eighties. “It was a long time ago, and shortly after I was hired I was pregnant with Jeremy,” she told me. “There weren’t any women doing it, and there weren’t many restaurants who even had a somm.”

When she started out in LA, California cuisine was burgeoning, and there was a lot of excitement around food and wine. Over time, she saw that early energy shift toward a thirst for expensive Napa Cabs and away from cutting-edge wines. “I worked for Chalone for 15 years, and it was focused on exciting, terroir-based wines at that time. But, when I left, everyone was so driven by the wine press. And to me it doesn’t really make sense. Why trust Parker when you can just trust yourself?”

In her estimation, it’s only in the last five years that there’s been a noticeable, significant sea change. ”There are a lot of young wine buyers now who are super excited to learn about off-the-grid wines. There’s so much enthusiasm from young people, probably because food culture has exploded in L.A. It’s exciting to watch.” Her business has changed as well. The addition of her son, Jeremy, has brought his enthusiasm and perspective into the mix. “He finds a lot of the producers and brings a young energy. Instead of being static, we’re expanding.” She sites cru Muscadets and a Gris de Toul as examples of wines that would have been non-starters ten years ago. “It’s what keeps our industry exciting rather than have the same portfolio year in and year out. We try not to have stuff from regions that are overfished. And there’s a real hunger for it.”

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Garber and her husband also make their own wine from sourced grapes in Paso Robles under the the Topanga Vineyards label. They started with Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet, then added the Jackhammer.label, geared toward affordable, solid Pinot, Chardonnay, and rosé. You can now find these in a can, making them easy for camping or the Hollywood Bowl, while still maintaining their integrity as seriously drinkable wines.

With the help of a “grape whisperer,” she and her husband farm their own 50 vines of Syrah on her property in Topanga, as well. Syrah, she says, is kind of her spirit grape. It’s the wine she’s always wanted to make. “It has a lot of different faces, it can do a lot of different things. I love the peppery, spicy quality from well-made Syrah. I love the softer tannins and its richness.”

Tomorrow (Thursday, May 24th 5:30 to 7 PM $5) in Hollywood, we’ve invited these good folks to pour us some of their California favorites (with a soupçon of French rosé). They’re all perfect for your Memorial Day barbeque, whether you’re grilling up veggie burgers or T-bones. But don’t take my word for it. Come out and taste for yourself--then trust your palate!

Here's the lineup:

2014 Topanga "Chroma" Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon $19.99
2016 Obsidian Ridge "Obsidian Ridge Vineyard" Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon $26.99
2017 Dragonette Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Rosé $21.99
2017 J. Mourat "Collection" Val de Loire Rosé $12.99
2017 Preston "Estate" Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc $19.99

- Kate Soto