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Pubs and Pinot Envy

Posted: Mar 13, 2008 5:09pm ET

I went to Father’s Office in Santa Monica for dinner the other day when I was in Southern California. I hooked up with the owner Sang Yoon, who is a big-time Champagne collector and a good guy all around. I have had some long dinners with him in Los Angeles, but I had never eaten at his gastropub. I brought along wine honcho David Haskell, who is consulting now after selling his wine bar Bin 8945 in West Hollywood.

Anyway, the place was jamming at 7:30 pm. It was packed and there were no seats, even for the owner. After about a half an hour, we found two stools at the bar and ordered some starters, which included some tangy smoked eel, juicy ribs and delicate grilled sea bass. This is not your normal pub food, but Yoon used to be the chef at nearby Michael’s Restaurant a few years back. And he knows his stuff in the kitchen. Really. The food is excellent. In a proper restaurant, he could be starred.

That’s certainly not going to happen. Most people come to the place for a burger, which is made with ground dry-aged sirloin, as well as the sweet potato fries, which are double-fried to a crunchy perfection. I say he has the best burger in town. And they come for the four or five dozen beers on tap, mostly small micro breweries in California.

The place is super-jovial and fun. Everyone seems on a friendly high with the food and brew. David and I brought some wine along with us (this isn’t normally allowed at FO!) and we felt out of place despite how good the 2001 Côte-Rôtie Rene Rostaing and 1979 Ridge Petit Sirah were. And they were excellent with the burger!

But it made me think about wine and bars in general. Why can’t wine bars be so buzzy, fun and full of comradery? Are we too competitive when it comes to wine? Call it Pinot envy, or whatever. My wine is better than your wine. Maybe it's just bottle jealousy? You know the drill.

Why couldn’t we all hunker down at the bar and pass the Montrachet instead of the wheat beer from Chico. Yoon says there is a stigma to wine, so it will never work. That’s why his wine list is so miserable at FO. Apparently, his new FO in Culver City will have more wine, but most will be served from barrel.

Maybe he has a point. Why bother?

Markus Nybom
March 13, 2008 6:39pm ET
James, don't you think the difference in decor in general between wine bars and pubs says it all? Wine bars seem to go for a more sophisticated look and experience, and conversely become less fun.A little like how a good old BBQ-party usually is more jovial and fun than a gala dinner.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  March 13, 2008 7:19pm ET
James, Mr Yoon has it right. I think it is because there is less pretense with beer, even good microbrews. People just go out and want to throw back something fun and good with their burger or ribs. Most brewpubs have been patterned on the English version of a neighborhood watering hole, or the old "Cheers" type bar. It loosens folks up and makes for some instant familiarity. I hate to say it, but when you get a bunch of serious wine drinkers together like that, there is always a bit of formality and one-upmanship. That is until everyone has three glasses or so under their belts and the veneer strips away.

The burger may be Kobe beef topped with chanterelles, applewood smoked Niman Ranch bacon, and aged Rogue Oregon Blue (dang, I just made myself hungry), but it's hard to beat washing that down with a good beer, around a bunch of other happy people.
Jonathan Lawrence
March 13, 2008 7:22pm ET
Hi--I'm off the topic (I don't see anywhere on the site to address a general question to you), but I have a question about terminology sparked by the latest video (the 100-point Merlot): you refer to the year 2004 as 204; I believe I heard you earlier refer to 2005 as 205; I'm not familiar with this abbreviation and haven't run across it in other speech or writing on wine; can you clarify? It seem that either the full year or "04" or "05" is the convention here.Jonathan Lawrence
Lisa Dornbach
Walnut Creek, CA —  March 13, 2008 8:07pm ET
I used to live around the corner from Father's Office and always went in for the burgers and beer. I would occasionally try something from the wine list, but was never impressed. With wine bars in general, I think they are too intimidating to novices and therefore the pub always draws more crowds. When I take non-wine geek friends to a wine bar, they look at the menu and have no idea how to pronounce half the words or what any of the wines taste like. However, most of the time, a wheat beer tastes like wheat beer, and IPA like an IPA. To me the diversity in wine is a big draw, to others it's an annoyance. In short, everyone can find something they like at a pub, but at a wine bar most people don't know what they like.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  March 13, 2008 8:30pm ET
My wife and I stopped by a wine bar on a date night last Friday. It's a very cool place with an excellent wine selection in general (particularly for San Antonio). It's coolness, though, perhaps defined by its rather stark decor, just doesn't really lend itself to the buzzy pub-like atmosphere you're talking about. I just can't picture myself going to a wine bar for a pub experience. I always envision a mellowed out, relaxed atmosphere where I can actually mull over and enjoy my wine. Perhaps it's that analytical aspect of wine drinking (and I know you do that) that results in a more subdued setting. I don't think it has anything to do with bottle jealousy. It would perhaps seem inappropriate to be pub-rowdy while sipping a nice Cabernet. At least to me... - Jim
James Suckling
 —  March 13, 2008 8:52pm ET
Johnathan. I never thought about it. But that's my abbreviation I use. I hear it in the wine trade too.
Mark Dankel
Las Cruces, NM —  March 13, 2008 9:54pm ET
Some people like big tent religious revivals. Others prefer to sit quietly in a 16th century basilica. It's probably good both opportunities are available, but one isn't a substitute for the other. I appreciate a finely crafted beer, but the environment in which I'm able to enjoy it is less important to me than is the case with say, a 1997 Brunello. I don't know why; it just is.
Danny Nelson
Oregon —  March 13, 2008 10:44pm ET
Pretense may be part of it, but I think its just simple math. Great night filled with beer ends up with like a $50 bar tab. Most wine nights, especially if buying of a restraunt list that won't even get you past appetizers.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  March 14, 2008 12:01am ET
We're lucky here in the SE Denver burbs. We have Bistro Al Vino. Owner Alan Schwartz has plenty of resturant and club experience. He serves up great music nightly, good food, and a fun group of people in a wine bar atmosphere. The place rocks! Top shelf beers are served along with about 100 wines by the glass and great cocktails. On the other side of business, menu pricing stratifies the customer base so that the patrons don't see fights in the parking lots or people chucking up beer all over the restrooms. May sound a little elitist, but it is what it is. It's a great neighborhood wine bar, with all the fun of the pub without many of the downsides.
Roy Piper
March 14, 2008 2:25am ET
Ever been to one of those rock and roll sushi bars? They may be fun places but usually the sushi itself is awful. Great sushi is somewhat contemplative and the same goes for wine. It might work if the wine was cheap, but the idea of going to a rousing wine bar that serves Two Buck Chuck and Yellowtail sounds depressing.
John Osgood
New York, NY —  March 14, 2008 10:02am ET
James - The burgers and beer at Father's Office are insane. I'll be out this weekend to visit some friends and to go to Craft for no corkage night on Sunday. After reading this post on FO, I just might have to pop in there for lunch. Great post.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  March 14, 2008 1:38pm ET
James - I've often thought the same thing. Years ago, when living in Pasadena and having just started my winery, I thought it would be neat to eventually open a Micro-Winery (like a Micro-Brewery) in Pasadena. And I wanted it to be FUN! I even had a name picked out... 16 Ounces (a pint-sized wine bar). What I envisioned was a high energy place.

To keep the action going, I thought of doing a "taste off" a couple of times a night. I'd interrupt the action, give everyone in the bar a shot glass of a new wine we were considering adding to the list, and do a thumbs up or down vote. I'd also thought about fighting flights, were over the course of a night we picked the winner from 3 wines - which also got added to the list. Or the Monday Night Winemaker Showdown... where 2 winemakers came and poured wines... and then the audience picked which they liked best... and the loser got dunked with water. Or something like that ;) Silly stuff. Fun stuff. But with GREAT wine and tasty food.
Richard Martinez
Reno, NV —  March 14, 2008 2:10pm ET
James,I am currently working on opening a wine bar Reno, so I found your blog very topical. Finding the exact ambiance and tone for the new wine bar is a struggle. My goal is to have a wine bar where everyone is welcome and comfortable in an unitimidating environment. But I just can't bring myself to go off in the pub or sports bar direction. I like those places but I go to them for different reasons than a wine bar. I think there can be some overlap between the two. But I don't want to have sports blaring on TV or people yelling when I am at a wine bar. They are different places for different reasons in my opinion. And there is plenty of room for both. Maybe the key is the same as a great wine, balance.
Richard Martinez
Reno, NV —  March 14, 2008 2:11pm ET
James,I am currently working on opening a wine bar Reno, so I found your blog very topical. Finding the exact ambiance and tone for the new wine bar is a struggle. My goal is to have a wine bar where everyone is welcome and comfortable in an unitimidating environment. But I just can't bring myself to go off in the pub or sports bar direction. I like those places but I go to them for different reasons than a wine bar. I think there can be some overlap between the two. But I don't want to have sports blaring on TV or people yelling when I am at a wine bar. They are different places for different reasons in my opinion. And there is plenty of room for both. Maybe the key is the same as a great wine, balance.
Richard Martinez
Reno, NV —  March 14, 2008 3:21pm ET
Hey Brian, those are some great ideas. Mind if I steal some? Featuring your wines of course!
R M Kriete
March 14, 2008 4:06pm ET
Ok Brian.....I'll go!
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  March 14, 2008 4:55pm ET
Richard - steal away! But if you use the name, I expect a royalty check! :)
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  March 14, 2008 5:12pm ET
I agree with what has been said above. When I go to a wine bar, I don't expect the same atmosphere that I'd find at a brewpub. Nor do I want it. In my opinion, sipping a glass of good wine lends itself to quiet conversation and, perhaps, discussion and contemplation of the wine. Sipping a well-made beer, by comparison, lends itself to loosening the tie at the end of a long week and have a good ol' time. I love them both, but for different reasons.
Craig Phillips
Pasadena, CA —  March 15, 2008 5:15am ET
A few thoughts on this blog: The burgers at Father's Office are the best in LA....no doubt!! The problem with making a wine bar like that would be the crowds they draw there.....it would be impossible to walk out of that place at the end of the night without wine stains all over yourself (it's elbow to elbow with a mad dash for a table as soon as anyone indicates they may be getting up from their seat). And Brian, since I live in Pasadena, I highly recommend you move back and open up that wine bar you've always dreamed about!!! Don't give up on your dreams....for our sake!! P.S. Please bring a few bottles from your winery!
Mark Meer
Los Angeles, CA —  March 15, 2008 2:14pm ET
I think it's all about how wine bars/tastings are presented. There is a local spot that did away with the dimly-lit, relaxed atmosphere and replaced it with a bright, more open space. It can be a lively place to enjoy wine, around people who think of it as a fun and casual part of life.
John Valenti
Detroit, Michian, USA —  March 15, 2008 4:31pm ET
What is great about wine is the same thing that prevents it from being a "beer tent" consumable: It's cerebral. A good wine is like poetry, to be sampled, considered, discussed, and experienced. It's character and merit need to be discussed, with friends, and to appreciate it in the fullest, it requires a bit of dedication. For myself, and many others on here I would bet, the wine IS the main course.

Beer, on the otherhand, even at its pinnacle, it something to be downed quickly. It's variations infinately more linear than wine (which I do not mean at all as an insult), it does not demand the same attention to enjoy. I love great brews - the more hops the better - but beer evokes a completely different mindset for me.

It seems to me at times that wine drinkers are almost reflexively overconcerned about appearing "snobbish", and this seems to me to be a bit of that snobbery showing through. Why shouldn't there be a different atmosphere between them ? For instance, I love movies: all kinds. But I wouldn't expect the audience at a screening of No Blood for Oil to show the same "energy and comradery" as a screening of Superbad. Both extremely good, extremely enjoyable movies, but suited to different moods entirely.
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  March 16, 2008 2:18pm ET
I frankly think you hang out with such a high end and falutin' crowd that you miss out on the cheap fun places. A real neighboorhood wine bar is neither snobby or serving "name wines". Ther are plenty of places in Manhattan, Brooklyn, LA,SF, Paris that are very much publike in atmosphere, but they are pouring wine to have fun with for locals, not fancy pants rated wines. If you are interested I can send you a list. What happens when you hang out with people that run the wine industry and the best restaurants is they take you to the "name" places owned by others of that ilk..What you need to do is strike out on your own and sniff around the less trendy areas without an entourage of the famous. Then you will find the "pub like" fun places that will not set you back an arm and a leg
James Suckling
 —  March 16, 2008 10:52pm ET
Very cool Jason. Send me your list, particularly for Los Angeles and Paris...
Craig Phillips
Pasadena, CA —  March 17, 2008 2:02am ET
James, you should try Bodega Wine Bar in Pasadena. It is located at Paseo Colorado and I think it would fit very well into Jason's list.
Craig Phillips
Pasadena, CA —  March 17, 2008 12:14pm ET
And actually nothing beats Silverlake Wine on Glendale. They've managed to keep wine purchasing (and tasting...paired with food on Sundays) fun, unpretentious, and modern. A must visit when on the Eastside.

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