Matthew Kaner’s novel approach to building a wine list (not having one) at Silverlake’s Bar Covell has garnered him consistent praise as one of the top sommeliers in the country. He was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Sommeliers of the Year in 2013 and Covell earned a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s list of the top 20 wine bars in America earlier this year. Just a few weeks ago, Kaner was named the Reader’s Choice for Best Sommelier by LA Weekly.
He is perhaps less known for his adventures in making wine, but with three new collaborations out this fall, he can add another accomplishment to his roster of successes. In addition to his Santa Barbara County-based AM/FM label, he has also worked with winemakers in Oregon and Sonoma to produce house bottlings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Bar Covell and Augustine Wine Bar, which he opened with partner Dustin Lancaster earlier this year.
Quick to clarify that he’s not exactly getting his hands dirty, Kaner describes himself as the “cloudy, bubbly figure head” and “driving force” behind the Covell/Augustine private label. “I craft the wine with [the winemakers] but I don’t make the wine and that’s really the hard part. I’m a guy who sells wine and owns wine bars,” he said. “I’ve learned to believe in the division of labor in the wine industry and I trust the people I’ve partnered with for these projects—I wouldn’t get involved with them if I didn’t trust their winemaking philosophy.”
Even though he’s not out there stomping grapes, Kaner’s release of AM/FM in 2007 positioned him as a leader in the burgeoning trend of top sommeliers across the country having a more active role in the winemaking process. And not only have big names like Rajat Parr (Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte) and Josh Nadel (Gothic) ventured into crafting their own wine, they, like Kaner, are shaping demand by focusing on regions they individually want to champion. As younger drinkers turn away from the big scoring wine publications and critics that held sway for years, they are looking to the industry’s top personalities for information and inspiration.
Reminiscent of the chef-driven boom in the early 2000’s, we’re now smack in the middle of The Cult of The Sommelier.
And as Kaner points out, that can have a direct positive impact on the wine in your glass. “I love that [more somms] are doing it,” he said. “Any time some one with a voice gets behind a project, [they] will be successful and there’s a level of integrity to those wines because you’re not going to put your name on it if you don’t stand behind it.”
Since the first release of AM/FM—a Santa Barbara County Syrah made in collaboration with a local winery Saarloos and Sons—Kaner has since bottled two vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and two vintages of Grenache Blanc under the label. His newest release represents his sixth bottling and the first time he’s ventured outside of the partnership with Saarloos and Sons. “When I launched the project in 2008 I was someone very different,” said Kaner. “The project has become greater, grander, and we have a bigger production. With 800 cases of Pinot Noir, we’re eight times bigger than our first vintage.”
Kaner points out that being a sommelier and making wine both require dedication and expertise, but that, at the end of the day he’d rather spend his days behind a wine bar than in the vineyard. “These guys are throwing on dirty clothes and cleaning barrels and clearing yellow jackets and experiencing the physicality of manual labor and the primal part of making wine,” he said. “I’m a little more precious.”
For now, at least, you’re more likely to find Kaner behind the bar at Augustine or Covell most nights where you can try one of his new wine projects.
Bar Covell, 4628 Hollywood Blvd., 323-660-4400 or barcovell.com
Augustine Wine Bar, 13456 Ventura Blvd., 818-990-0938 or augustinewinebar.com