Matthew Kaner, co-owner of Bar Covell on Hollywood Boulevard, and the new Augustine Wine Bar in Sherman Oaks, spoke with high-speed enthusiasm on his background and philosophy of wine service, during the final "hell hole" days before the recent opening of Augustine.
wine fast tracking
I got drunk for the first time at seven years old. I stole a glass of champagne at a friend’s wedding, I’ll never forget it. That set the course for my life. I grew up in Santa Barbara County, a big producing area. Grapes were always something I saw, something I was familiar with. So I knew I had a closeness and affinity for it, even though I wasn’t old enough to drink it legally. So, fast-forward to my eighteen-year-old years, I’m managing a restaurant, I went to college in Santa Barbara, and I lived in a house that was known as the Cock House. Eleven guys, it is what you think with the name. One of my roommates had this well-to-do, tax attorney dad, and he decided I was worth investing time and money and effort into. I don’t know why, I don’t question it, but he showed me what Grand Cru Burgundy meant, and what grower Champagne meant, what Madiera from the 1800s meant, and what aged Armagnac meant, and all these things I didn’t know about prior to that. Fast-forward a little more to being a twenty-one-year-old, feeling taken advantage of being a restaurant manager at that age, and I was also trying to do music, something that was really important to me. I made a lot of music for many years, and toured as long as I could. So, one of the things that my whole life goal was, was being able to afford a nice bottle of wine. So I decided to fake it until I made it. I used the knowledge that I was imparted by my friend’s dad, and I quit my restaurant job. I got a job in Santa Barbara at a place called the Wine Cask, and that was where I started, coming up on ten years ago. And that changed my life. I learned about any and every important wine you can imagine. I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, and I got a job at a place called Silver Lake Wine. That’s where I learned about showing up every day and being a part of a community. That’s where I learned, it’s not how much I know, it’s how much I help people. That’s where I made my decision consciously that I was going to focus on wine as a job. So when I had that mindset, that’s when things really started to happen, the wheels were in motion. I felt like the momentum was undeniable. And I was very lucky. I was approached by a friend who was going to open a wine bar. He asked me about it in 2009, and we took the plunge in 2010. We opened Covell July 2nd, 2010, and life has not been the same since. I feel blessed every day.
do you have your wine decoder ring? - Bar Covell
The no wine list thing was a synthesis of all my big pet peeves. So, you go to a place, you’ve heard about it. They hand you a wine list, you think, “Oh, I can’t wait to see what they have to offer.” You find a couple of things you’re excited about, you make that decision about what you want to buy, and they’re f*/%g out of it! All that time and effort, all that communication, all the recommendations, all of the sudden, the first thing you try to order, they’re out of it. You can never be out of a wine if you don’t have a wine list. Number one. Number two, at Covell, nothing stayed the same. Our wine program of, let’s say one-hundred-fifty wines by the glass, was almost never the same. It would change over weekly, we would sell out of a wine, and it would never come back. It would have been such an intense amount of work to keep up with that, keep it printed, it would have been a waste of my time, a waste of resources, a waste of ink, a waste of paper, just not a smart way to do it. Number three is, most people don’t speak nine languages, most people don’t have a wine decoder ring on, so basically you’re saying, “This primary source document in nine languages, each time I hand it to you, I assume you know what it means, that you know how to read it.” And that’s not the case. So what it comes down to is that it’s not the best way for people to make an informed decision. Having a conversation, though, with someone who knows what they’re talking about, tends to be a better way of making decisions. Other than reading from right to left, “How much does this cost, what is it, oh, OK, I’ll buy that.” So, the encouragement there is, start a conversation, with a little bit of knowledge, we can get a long way together. And just because someone’s never heard of wines from Cornalin, or they’ve never had Tasmanian Riesling, that doesn’t mean they won’t like it. One of the things at Covell that we’re really good at doing, is separating what you know and what you’ve had, and giving context. If you want something light and mineral, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, it matters that it’s light and mineral! And that’s what we deliver. At the end of the day, does it pleasure me, or does it not pleasure me. That’s the end goal, finding that out. So the no wine list, the idea behind the program, other than I’ve never seen it done before, and it’s the most insane undertaking we’ve ever done, it’s a synthesis of things that really piss me off in the industry, that I’m trying to solve.
THE BEST (NON) SOMM
Here’s the deal. With the term Sommelier, there’s such an expectation. I personally quit college, and that’s the last test I took in my life. I don’t take exams, I don’t feel the need to do it, I don’t need to prove myself. But, I have a lot of friends that have gone through the Court of Master Sommeliers, that have gone through the other accreditations. There’s such an incredible time, monetary effort behind that. I have so much respect for people that need to learn, that are constantly on the higher path to know everything about a field. For me personally, I’ve learned through tasting, I’ve learned through traveling, through talking about it, through soaking it up, being a sponge. I’ve never gone through any accreditation myself. So, I’ve been called a Sommelier, I’ve been called one of the best Sommeliers in the country in certain years which is very flattering, and I’m so thankful. But I’m technically not one, because I don’t have accreditation. My argument, for what it’s worth, is that it doesn’t help me help my customers better, so it’s not something that I feel the need to do. But again, some of my friends, that’s their life work, that’s their passion, it’s their calling. And I have the utmost respect for it, because it makes sense in their life. So, am I a Sommelier? Yeah, I do what a Sommelier does, and make people happy with wine. I can pair wine very well with food. I can get you wine for without food. I can do whatever is necessary. But, am I one? I guess. Do I have paper to back it up? No, but does that matter? I argue not. Some of my most-respected colleagues do not have accreditation. It doesn’t mean that you’re better. It doesn’t mean that you get a fancy job. It doesn’t make you someone that can communicate to human beings. It just means that you passed an exam. It means that you paid the fees. It means that you tasted a lot of stuff. It means that you have an i-brain, instead of an iPhone. It’s a synthesis of memorization, repetition. That’s an unbelievable thing to do. There’s another reason why there’s only two-hundred-fifty human beings that have done it. It’s not easy to accomplish.
augustine wine bar, sherman oaks - a rare vintage
Augustine will be fifty to seventy-five wines by the glass. The best thing, Dave, our partner, has this collection of wines he’s been amassing for twenty years. Vintage wines back to the nineteenth century. Lot’s of old things. Lot’s of beautiful things. Incredible places. We’ll do nightly featured wines by the glass from his collection, as well as nightly featured wines by the bottle from the vintage collection. Things like, ’59 Mouton Rothschild. Things like, multiple vintages from the fifties and sixties from all the DRC holdings. The wine bar concept of Covell will be replicated. Wine is the focus. All the service at Covell, as well as all the service at Augustine, is done at the bar. We’re a little different, we’re a hybrid. We’re like when you to to Catalonia, to different regions in Germany, when you’re in Lirac, places in the south of France, this is the concept you tend to see. Owner-operator, behind the bar. It’s their wine program, it’s their friends they’re selling the wine from, and they tend to have some food, because you need food when you’re drinking. It’s conscious. We’re all about the education behind the wine, having some of the best beer you’ve ever had, and being able also to have world-class food with it. It’s more of a wine bar, in its’ actual bones. (Sherman Oaks) is a neighborhood I never thought I would have a foray into. What I realized is, it’s under-served, there’s a lot of sophistication. These people, this is their community, this is their neighborhood. They’ve never had a place that’s cared so much about wine come into their neighborhood. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they interpret it. I’m excited about that.
Partner Dave interjected, "I wish we were open, then I could pour you a nice glass that I had last night. I drank a sixty-six Romanee Saint Vivant. It was great, but it was a bummer, I drank it by myself."
"That’s not a bummer!" exclaimed Matthew.
Dave continued, "I like to share. And I’m not going to drink more than half a bottle by myself, ever. And I know that tonight, it’s not going to be as good. You know, it had its’ magic moment last night. The good thing is, we probably have about ten bottles of that left!"
Your Los Angeles wine experiences await:
Augustine Wine Bar - Now Open - 13456 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Bar Covell - 4628 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90027