Matthew Kaner has been behind the bar at Bar Covell, an intimate wine bar in eastern Hollywood since opening in 2010. Matthew along with owner Dustin Lancaster have created a stylish wine bar that combines heavy doses neighborhood bar and wine geek haven. Bar Covell has got the attention of Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine and NBC.
Most recently, Food & Wine Magazine named Matthew one of its 2013's Sommelier's of the year for what has become one of Bar Covell's defining features, no wine list.
We caught up to Matthew and are very excited to feature him as the first of what is soon to be many Drink Ink features.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, did you just absorb wine knowledge through osmosis?
While growing up we used to take trips up to the Santa Ynez Valley or Santa Maria or Paso Robles and the presence of the vine was obvious. My first drinking experience was at a friend of my mom's wedding when I was 7. I stole a glass of champagne and shotgunned it. On the drive home I got sick and ended up throwing up the moment I walked into the house. It's all been uphill from there, thankfully. During college one of my roommate's father (who is a huge wine collector) would come up from LA area with Grand Cru Burgundy, Grower Champagne, Vintage Porto, Aged Mosel Rieslings...that's when I realized it was more than getting drunk, more than trying to get a girl in bed...it was a synthesis of time and place.
What was your first job in the industry?
My first job in the wine industry was at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara working as a sales clerk in the Wine Store before it became the Margerum Tasting Room. Winemakers from all over the world would come to give tasting seminars, so within a year I had amassed a rolodex of tasting memories that I still call upon to this day.
Did you have any formal education or training in wine?
Most people have that one wine that got them started, when they realized wine was something special. Do you have one of those and if so what was it?
1930 Seppeltsfield Port Style. 1999 Thierry Allemand Cornas "Reynard"
How did you end up at Bar Covell? What was the road to you getting to here?
While at Silverlake Wine I became friends with Dustin Lancaster who is my business partner at Covell. He came to me about a year before we opened and said plainly, "I'm going to open a wine bar and you're going to do it with me." My response was, "great, tell me when and where."
You get a lot of notice for your lack of wine list. You're probably tired of explaining it, but humor us, what was the reason behind it?
I have a few big pet peeves in the wine world, and the biggest is something we have all encountered...you read a restaurant review, a friend recommends a new place with a great wine list, you are on Yelp! (yeah right...) and read about a place that's breaking boundaries...you sit down at your table with someone special or even with just a friend and someone hands you a manuscript (whether it be a single page, a short memoir, or a fucking novel's length) that's in different languages with some sort of wonky orientation and organization. Finally you fumble through every possible choice, or at least you make it seem like you did, to find something that seems delicious and within your price range. A server comes over to take your order, you say it with excitement while trying not to mispronounce it! (they WILL JUDGE YOU), only to find out your selection is sold out.
WHY IN THE FUCK WOULD YOU ALLOW A GUEST TO READ A PIECE OF PAPER IN YOUR RESTAURANT / WINE BAR / BAR THAT HAS AN ITEM ON IT THAT IS NOT AVAILABLE?
Simply put, without a wine list we can never be out of something.
Next point, if you hand said manuscript to a guest you are assuming (which makes an ass out of us, trust me) that every set of eyes laid upon it understands every word on it, it's IMPOSSIBLE. People don't carry around a wine decoder ring. The default in this case is for people to order within their comfort zone. Sure, they have heard of Malbec. I saw a movie once that made me think Pinot Noir was great! (MERLOT! I'M NOT DRINKING ANY FUCKING MERLOT!) I'll take a glass of the Right Bank Merlot. Instead of making assumptions, we are guiding people how to describe what they are looking for. We're working on raising awareness that drinking pleasure is SEASONAL. I'm tired of talking about grape varietals. it's not even 20% of the conversation. Cornas and Santa Barbara County Syrah couldn't be further apart in style.
So how does, "I like Syrah" factor into that? It's a life philosophy manifested through the enjoyment of a natural product. Ask questions, listen more, facts not judgments.
Did you think you would get as much attention as you did for just simply not having a list?
Some of the feedback I’ve heard from industry professionals is they find the lack of list frustrating, because they know what they are looking for. Have you found you tend to draw your more average wine drinker or do you see a lot of trade come through your doors too?
Anyone who works in the wine industry is a prisoner of their own experience, as is the average wine drinker. What's awesome about life is you get to make a series of choices, such as: what do I want to do for a living? Who do I want to have as my life partner? Where do I want to send my kids (if I have them) to school? Where do I want to go to dinner tonight? The choice is theirs. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything, I'm just doing what I know how to do, which is show up and work hard.
When I go out, I like to allow a bar or a restaurant to do what they do best. THEIR SPIN. THEIR ANGLE. We all have learned from different mentors, we all have traveled to different places. If you give two chefs the same exact ingredients and 20 minutes to create a dish, they will be different. So my message is to calm the fuck down and allow yourself to enjoy an experience that is outside the box. Or jump back into the box. Pacifiers are comfortable and they make life less scary...
We didn't open Covell to make people in the wine industry happy. We opened Covell to make our neighborhood happy. This is where we live, this is where we spend our time, this is where we are happy. We pour 150 wines by the glass because everyone wants something different, and they deserve to be happy. If using your words sounds like a foreign concept, then you are welcome to go into EVERY other restaurant and wine bar on the planet where you get a blankie we call a wine list to help you make a comfortable choice.
That said, I see a ton of people from the wine industry in here on a very regular basis, from Los Angeles, and beyond. It continues to humble me that people travel from all over the world to get a glass of wine or a beer here at Covell.
When did you get your first tattoo? Where and what was it?
October, 2010. There's a tattoo shop next door to Covell called Dark Horse Tattoo, Adam inked it for me. It's an outline of a wine bottle, and we used a picture of Thierry Allemand Cornas "Reynard" as the model.
What else have you got since?
Waiting on #2, will pull the trigger soon.
For our first ever Drink Ink feature, we asked Matthew to pair wines to five tattooed foods from Eat Ink chefs.
#1 Carolynn Spence: Chateau Marmont Los Angeles CA
While visiting Rioja in May 2013 they served us a hell of a lot of artichoke, as it was the season. It's something I don't sick of, personally. I'm also pretty tired of hearing people complain how hard it is to pair wine with. Go visit Rioja, open a bottle of current vintage R. López de Heredia "Viña Tondonia" Blanco (which I believe right now is 1998) - if you can't find that one, dig your teeth into Valserrano Rioja Blanco 2010. it's the way of the future.
#2 Michael Fiorelli: Terranea, Ranchos Palos Verdes CA
I love chicken. With this tattoo I would open either Domaine de Montbourgeau L'Etoile "Cuvée Spéciale", or go old school and guzzle whatever Jean Foillard Morgon "Cote du Py" was findable at that very moment. Both are hedonistic and make the rooster go, "cock-a-doodle-doo".
#3 Jason French: Ned Ludd, Portland OR
My favorite snaggletooth wine is Fattoria Colmone della Marca "Bianco del Moro" made from Albino Sangiovese, white wine made from the noble Tuscan grape, fuzzy like peach skin and tannic like red wine. No skin contact, until you get this wine blind and can't figure out if it's red or white in one of those fancy Riedel Sommelier series glasses. Then it's skin on skin for days.
#4 Lisa Higgins: Sweetpea Baking Company, Portland OR
When I'm pairing cupcakes and wine my mind goes immediately to my good friends at Saarloos & Sons tasting room on Grand Avenue in Los Olivos, California. They were the first geniuses I'd hear of to sublease part of their tasting room to Enjoy Cupcakes who do cupcake pairings with their wine flight on the weekends. It's a thing of beauty. In particular make sure you try the 2010 "Brother" 100% Syrah from their Windmill Ranch Estate Vineyard in the newly crowned Ballard Canyon AVA. Keith Saarloos and I became friends in 2008 because we stood above this vineyard and together geeked out on things neither the other understood. Today we better understand what the other is trying to say.
#5 Ed McFarland: Ed's Lobster Bar, New York NY
All I want for Christmas is Hunter Valley Semillon. So, let's open some decade old or older Tyrrell's VAT 1 Semillon and drink it with lobster. It's settled. P.S. In Australia they pronounce it "sem-ah-lon" so make sure you say it like that for full effect.