A Natural Wine Happy Hour For Every Day Of The Week
If you've paid any attention to consumer trends over the past decade, or even if you've watched TV for two minutes, you've probably noticed the boom in "natural" products. Diapers, potato chips, under eye concealer, gun lubricant. Wine hasn't escaped the greenwashing mania.
In the last three years, wine drinkers have started to pay attention to wineries touting "natural," "organic" and "biodynamic" offerings. But what exactly do these words mean? Unfortunately, not much.
As with nearly every other ingestible product, we have no succinct or universally agreed upon definition of a "natural" wine. Roni Ginach, the founder of Roni Selects and a former wine director of Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica, makes her living importing and distributing "natural wines" and even she says the term is "murky."
"To me, it has to do with an overarching, holistic grape-growing and winemaking philosophy, starting from creating or helping to preserve living ecosystems in the vineyard and forgoing the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides," Ginach says. Good luck getting that on a label.
At its most basic, she says, "It extends to making wine without additives and adjustment."
Winemakers can alter their wines at every stage of the production process: growing, picking, fermenting and bottling. "Conventional" winemakers and mass-market producers (your Two Buck Chucks and most grocery store wines) generally use pesticides during the growing process, machines to harvest, chemical fermenters and flavor additives during fermentation then bottle their wines with high quantities of additional sulfates to act as preservatives.
Like organic farmers, "natural" winemakers avoid pesticides and herbicides during the growing process. They generally harvest by hand, which is more time consuming and expensive but allows them to filter out rotten or sub-par grapes. And they often let their wines ferment using yeasts present in the winemaking environment. Some will add low levels of sulfites during bottling to ensure their wines stay stable between corking and uncorking. Other natural winemakers don't add any.
Natural wines make up a small segment of overall wine production and sales but the lack of industry standards, or even an accepted definition for "natural" wine, makes tracking the size of the market difficult.
Wine and spirits consultancy IWSR predicts worldwide consumption of organic wine will increase to 1 billion bottles annually in 2022, up from 349 million bottles sold in 2012 -- but that's still only 3% of the total global wine market. Wine and spirits think tank LAist predicts a wave of future buyouts as Big Wine snaps up small "natural wine" producers, similar to the craft brewery consolidation of recent years.
Maybe the closer we get to ecological collapse, the more we crave purity -- clean living, clean eating, clean boozing -- however nebulous that definition. Whatever the reason, Ginach hopes the increased popularity of "natural wines" will push corporations and large wineries to shift to more sustainable practices, but she anticipates some producers will use the term "natural" as a marketing ploy rather than a winemaking philosophy.
With no legal regulations around "natural wine," the term is already being co-opted by companies to add an eco-friendly patina to their products in hopes of wooing unsuspecting consumers -- and that's most of us, including me.
Much of what I know about "natural wines" I have learned sitting on barstools or in wine shops, talking to members of the small community of professionals (and drinkers) who have been advocating for them for years. But drinking wine is an expensive habit.
In my thirst to learn more about enology without draining my savings, I've discovered that Los Angeles has plenty of tastings and a couple of "natural wine" happy hours -- enough to find a good one every day of the week.
MONDAY: Esters Wine Shop & Bar
Anchored by a large, square marble bar in the center, the refurbished Art Deco space is a chic spot to sip a sparkling Pet Nat. Wine director Kathryn Coker curates a selection of more than 250 wines from small producers with transparent winemaking practices. Since last October, Coker -- whose definition of "natural wine" closely resembles Ginach's -- has ensured that every wine bottle she stocks comes from a chemical free vineyard. During Monday's all-night Happy Hour, you can choose between three "natural wines" (a red, a white and a rosé) for $9 per glass. But the real draw at Esters is the bottles, all of which you can drink in-house at retail prices anytime you stop in. On the low-end, you'll find plenty of options in the $20 range (although big spenders can go up to $900). I spotted a few favorite bottles, including J. Brix's Merlot Nouveau and Meinklang's Weißer Mulatschak, while I sipped a $9 glass of Domaine de la Damase Mourvèdre. Pop open a bottle with a friend or two and keep your per-glass price under $10.
1314 Seventh Street, Santa Monica. 310-899-6900.
Monday - Thursday: noon - 11 p.m.; Friday: noon - midnight; Saturday: 11 a.m. - midnight; Sunday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Happy Hour: Monday: 3 - 11 p.m.; Tuesday - Saturday: 3 - 6 p.m.
TUESDAY: El Prado
Last January, long-time El Prado employee Nicky Fisher took over this Echo Park stalwart. Along with minor aesthetic changes, he started serving only natural wines and launched a Tuesday night Drinking Club. The bottle-focused event is one of the liveliest and most fun wine happy hours in town. Wine director Natalia MacAdams has curated a Drinking Club list of nearly 30 wines (plus a few ciders and beers), most of which don't overlap with what they pour by the glass -- and they're all available at retail rather than restaurant pricing. You'll find a few bottles in the $20 range and a slew of great options at $30. The bar serves only a few snacks so MacAdams has populated her list with wines that can be enjoyed without food. The first time you attend El Prado's Drinking Club, you'll get a customized, laminated membership card and every time you purchase a bottle of wine, you add a sparkly sticker to it. Collect 15 stickers and you win a prize (currently a pair of Drinking Club socks).
1805 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park.
Monday - Friday: 6 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Saturday - Sunday: 2 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Drinking Club: Tuesday: 6 p.m. - 2 a.m.
WEDNESDAY: Highland Park Wine
Highland Park Wine is the newest member in the family of wine shops that includes Silverlake Wine and Everson Royce Wine & Spirits in Pasadena. (Everson Royce bar in DTLA has a nice list of natural wines but their happy hour offerings are all conventional wines.) The small space specializes in organic, biodynamic and small production wines. Each Wednesday, they load up the bar in the back of the shop with cheese, charcuterie and Nancy Silverton's focaccia then charge $15 to taste one white and two red wines. Staffers are game to chat about the wines they're pouring and, in case you fall in love and want to take a bottle home, all the wines in the tasting are discounted. If you happen to dart into Highland Park Wine when they're not doing a tasting, you can still take advantage of their bar space. They always have a few bottles open and they'll pour you a glass for a mere $5.
5918 1/2 N. Figueroa Street, Highland Park. 323-545-3535.
Monday - Thursday: noon - 9 p.m.; Friday: noon - 10 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Tasting: Wednesday: 5 - 9 p.m.
THURSDAY: Tabula Rasa Bar
Tabula Rasa is another bar that traffics only in "natural wines" and offers a daily happy hour. It features a $2 discount on all wine and beer and, even rarer, "natural" wines for $7 a glass. The house wines generally aren't small production wines and they might not be from the most esteemed vineyards but they're a decent way to expand your palette on a budget. Owner Zach Negin wants these "intentional" or "minimum intervention" offerings to be as approachable as possible. Although Tabula Rasa is great any day of the week, Thursday is ideal because of the $15 Nice Wine Time tasting series. Take a seat at the long bar (you can transition to the cushy booths or back garden later) for a "semi-educational" experience and the bartender will summon whichever winemaker, sommelier, importer, wine rep or friend of the bar is pouring. They'll give you a rundown of each of the four half-glasses of wine selected for that night's tasting. Sometimes, the guest wine pourer will curate a list. If not, GM and beverage director Nicole Dougherty will pull four wines (or maybe throw in a beer or sake) from the cellar.
5125 Hollywood Blvd, East Hollywood. 213-290-6309.
Monday - Thursday: 5 p.m. - 1 a.m.; Friday - Saturday: 2 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Sunday: 2 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Happy Hour: Monday - Sunday: 5 - 7 p.m.
Nice Wine Time: Thursday: 5 - 8 p.m.
As the only restaurant on this list, and one that doesn't have much of a bar area, Kismet's happy hour is perhaps the hardest to access and the most overlooked. I never venture to the barstools in back, instead sitting at one of the Instagram-cute tables, even if I only plan to drink. Kismet's wine deal, called Natural Wine Workdays, runs from noon to 6 p.m. on weekdays, so it's perfect if you can slip in before the dinner rush. On any given day, beverage director Kae Whalen features three wines from a single producer (the wines change often but don't show up two days in a row looking for something new). Both the menu and server offer background on the way the wines are produced and the qualities of each one. While it's easy for an experienced oenophile to taste the differences between a gamay and a pinot noir, Natural Wine Workdays are a great way to explore the subtle variations among varietals.
4648 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz. 323-409-0404.
Monday - Thursday: 11.a.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Natural Wine Workdays: Monday - Friday: 12 p.m. - 6 p.m.
SATURDAY: Lou Wine Shop
Lou Amdur has been selling natty wines since before customers knew to ask for them. He debuted his first wine store in Los Angeles in 2005 then expanded to an adjoining restaurant. After shuttering those businesses, he opened in his current space in 2014, focusing on "natural and unusual" wines. The industrial shelves at Lou Wine Shop are packed with more interesting wines than the average person could buy in a year. Near the mirrored back wall, there's a tasting area where Amdur hosts irregular weekday events and regular Friday and Saturday tastings, which often feature bottles from less familiar regions. If you've ever nodded while someone declared "the orange wines from Georgia are fantastic" and wished you knew what the hell they were talking about, this is the tasting to attend. When you happen to catch Amdur in the shop, chat him up over one of your wine pours. You'll come away knowing more than you did before you walked in.
1911 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. 323-305-7004.
Monday - Saturday: 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Sunday: noon - 7 p.m.
Tastings: Friday: 6 - 8 p.m.; Saturday: 4 - 7 p.m.
SUNDAY: Bar Covell
Bar Covell can be intimidating. Aside from a few wines highlighted on the glass boards above the bar, it doesn't traffic in menus you can quietly peruse. Instead, drinkers are corralled to a space marked "Order Here," where bartenders will ask you, "What do you like?" Once you've run that gauntlet, the bartender pours you sips from a series of bottles, explaining each wine's properties without mentioning the per-glass price. You'll have to be bold enough to ask. However, when you have a glass in hand, the wines are always excellent. (Once you know your preferences, the guidance of the bartenders is invaluable.) The best "hack" is to show up around brunch on a Sunday, go next door to HomeState, grab a couple breakfast tacos and eat them while you sip wine at Covell's relatively deserted bar. You won't be overheard if you don't know how to tell the bartender what you like and you won't be holding anyone up if you want to try four or five wines before you order. When you pick a wine -- and this is why a bar without a tasting series or happy hour discount gets to be on this list -- you can order by the half-glass. The advantages for budget and variety are obvious. Half-glass orders are available every day but Sunday brunch is the best time to take advantage of them.
4628 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz. 323-660-4400.
Monday -Thursday: 5 p.m. - midnight; Friday - Saturday, 5 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Sunday: 5 p.m. - midnight.