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How much for a taste of history? At Augustine, vintage wine is worth at least a glass


Among the many complications the last year has wrought upon L.A.’s bar and dining scene, there is one that is both new and somewhat unprecedented: the delayed celebration.

Coronavirus shutdowns and public health fears resulted in the deferral of countless birthdays, anniversaries and other assorted joyful observances. But with the city’s dining rooms reopened (albeit with limits), and a full return to capacity service scheduled for June 15, Angelenos are making up for lost time. And for those looking to celebrate a special date with a bottle (or glass) of rare vintage wine, a visit to Augustine Wine Bar can feel like being in the company of a generous collector.

Augustine was closed for almost a year save for a brief, frustrating reopening attempt last summer, and for now, entry to the Sherman Oaks hideaway requires reservation by phone, with limited walk-in seating available under the county’s statutes. The bar specializes in historic and pedigreed wine, with the evening’s selections written by hand on a chalkboard above the bar and to the right: a glass of 1985 Gainey Cabernet from Santa Barbara for $30, $40 for a 1979 Alessandra Giuseppe Barolo, a late-’90s Dehlinger Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley for $35.

“A lot of restaurants have really deep vintage wine lists — if you go to some of the classic places in New York or Boston or New Orleans, you’ll find them,” Augustine co-founder David Gibbs said. “But the problem is you have to commit to a bottle. I couldn’t find a place doing it by the glass.”

If you’re thinking a $40 glass of wine seems beyond the range for all but the most dedicated wine geeks, Gibbs points out that Augustine offers a range of options, including 6-ounce pours of contemporary California wines beginning at around $12. “People sometimes equate expensive with what’s best,” Gibbs said, but that’s not always the case. “Beyond the rare stuff, we offer other glasses of wine here that are amazing and will give you a great experience.”

People sit at a wine bar.

Augustine Wine Bar co-founder David Gibbs says people are happy to be back in one another’s company.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Gibbs, 55, caught the wine bug during the years he toured with the alternative rock band Gigolo Aunts, drinking Müller-Thurgau in Germany or Central Otago Pinot Noir in New Zealand. “We’d argue over everything, but the one thing we agreed on was wine,” he said.

He moved to Los Angeles in the late ’90s to pursue gigs as a studio musician, working on film projects like 2001’s “Josie and the Pussycats” adaptation, as well as television shows including “Alias,” “Smallville” and “The O.C.” It was around this time he became a regular at Bar Covell, a Los Feliz wine bar with an influential legacy and die-hard clientele.

He’d been thinking about a vintage wine bar model for years before he teamed up with Matthew Kaner and Dustin Lancaster from Bar Covell to open Augustine in 2015, inspired in part by Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, a restaurant with a six-figure inventory of bottles. Their vision for the Sherman Oaks wine bar included an expanded version of the Florida restaurant’s vintage-wine-by-the-glass approach (Kaner has now departed the bar’s ownership), paired with elevated wine bar food and an accessible, contemporary wine list alongside rare vintage offerings.

A man stands at the entrance to a wine cellar

Augustine Wine Bar co-owner Gus Renaud shows the entrance to a private room in the cellar.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Their gamble — a wine bar that serves pyrotechnic natural orange wines from Slovenia, throwback California Petite Sirahs and vintage by-the-glass wines from California, Burgundy and Piedmont — struggled for the first few months, but eventually its customer base expanded, starting first with what Gibbs describes as a neighborhood embrace before eventually becoming a destination for vintage wine seekers.

On one pre-pandemic visit, Reid Antin, 26, a filmmaker pursuing his master’s in film production at USC, was sipping and sniffing his way through a glass of ’69 Serio & Battista Barolo. “Usually I drink beer,” he said. “But I’m obsessed with ‘Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood,’ and I’ve never had a wine from the year that film takes place.”

The verdict?

“It tastes like a beautiful, faded film print.”

::

Gibbs is like a walking reference library of California wine: he knows who went organic and when, who sold to a conglomerate and why, and which vintage of Heitz Cellar’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet is worth the price. He sources his wine through a variety of means, some modern (like digital wine auctions and Craigslist searches) and others staunchly analog: estate sales, private collections, and long-simmering relationships that turn into cellar sales. He continued to acquire wine during lockdown.

One adventure story started with a web listing for vintage Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, and it led Gibbs on a long path to Tijuana, where he encountered a private seller sitting on cases of Dom Pérignon Champagne from the 1960s left over from his father’s restaurant. The only catch was they were buried underground.

“It was in this old brick and cinder block basement that had partially caved in,” Gibbs recalled. “We had to crawl through 20 feet of earth to get to these bottles, but there they were: cases of Dom from 1969, ’73 and ’75, still in their original wrappers and boxes.” He brought them all back home across the border, safely cooled in a bed of ice packs.

A menu board

The menu board at Augustine Wine Bar.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s really no place I won’t go to look for wine,” Gibbs said, but not all stories are created equal, nor are all wines equally rare. Gems of Gibbs’ collection at Augustine include a 1928 Chablis sourced from the estate of the film composer David Rose (Judy Garland’s first husband), a bottle of re-corked Bordeaux from 1892 and a 1940 California Cabernet personally opened and sampled by Robert and Peter Mondavi in 1946, before being partially rebottled. (Those bottles are so deeply rare and special, they’re unlikely to end up on the chalkboard menu anytime soon — curious guests at Augustine should inquire about additional bottle availability, especially if they have a particular year or producer in mind.)

Today there is an undeniable cautious optimism to Augustine’s approach post-pandemic. “People have been so genuinely excited to be back,” he said, “not just because of the wine, but also because we’re social animals— we crave groups, and other humans to be around. And ultimately that’s what being a bar is all about.”

“I’m so grateful that people have chosen to come back and support us,” Gibbs added. “We have people coming in now, saying they missed a 50th birthday or a 30th wedding anniversary, and asking do I have anything special to make up for it?”

And he does — in fact, that’s rather the point. Whether you missed celebrating your 70th birthday or are toasting to one of those unlikely lockdown engagements, Gibbs has wine for you in his vast collection, no matter your birth year or price point.

“There’s no formula for what we have open here, no rules,” Gibbs said, a shy grin on his face, as though the very notion brings him elemental pleasure. “Every bottle is waiting for the right person.” Now more than ever.





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