Rebecca Phillips of Vintage Wine + Eats and Buvette on the Rise of Chillable Reds and Portuguese Discoveries - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Rebecca Phillips of Vintage Wine + Eats and Buvette on the Rise of Chillable Reds and Portuguese Discoveries

Rebecca Phillips began her hospitality career as a server before a question about winemaking led her down a rabbit hole from which she has yet to escape. She was deep into The Wine Bible when her employer at Little Dom’s, an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles’s Los Feliz neighborhood, asked her to become a supervising manager. “I will do that for you,’’ she replied. “But in exchange, I’d like to take over the wine ordering and inventory.” She laughed, “They were like, ‘What’s the catch?’” Phillips later moved on to become the General Manager and building the wine lists for Barbrix and All’Acqua before opening two of her own spots with partners Joe Barker and Peter Brill. Studio City’s Vintage Wine + Eats, a neighborhood wine bar with a rotating list and nightly specials, like one dollar oyster Mondays, opened in June of 2019. Sherman Oaks’ Buvette, a dimly lit, cozy spot that focuses on sparkling wines and cocktails, followed in July of 2020 and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, both locations have consistently increased their wine sales. —Alissa Bica

Can you describe how you navigated your way into the wine cellar at Little Dom’s?

I invented a role for myself—I called myself a wine liaison. Susan Brink was the sommelier and she was the person who put the wine list together. I really wanted to learn, and I knew that I wanted to have my own wine list, but I didn’t know enough yet. So, she would pick the selections and I took over all the ordering, all the inventory. As I learned about the wines, I would do staff education, or pick a special for the week and tell everybody about something like sagrantino—this is what it is, and this is where it’s from. It was the perfect job for somebody who is learning because I had a mentor, and I was able to learn the logistics of things, like what it takes to order three cases to get your by-the-glass break.

What areas of wine have caught your attention?

I think right now, what’s happening in Armenia is super interesting. Because it’s an ancient wine region—it’s the birthplace of wine, but then communism really stunted the growth of the region. It didn’t progress the same way as France and Europe and the rest of the West did. But now there’s this diaspora of Armenian Americans who are going back and making fine wines. It’s kind of the same story that we see in Europe after World War Two, quantity over quality happened all over and then all of a sudden in the 1980s you get the kids coming in going, ‘Wait, we can make fine wines in this region.’ That’s what’s happening in Armenia right now and it’s exciting; it’s all these ancient grapes, like areni.

Then, the Santa Rita Hills. It’s our backyard wine region here in Los Angeles. And I think that the chardonnay that’s coming out of the Santa Rita Hills right now is so good. It’s slightly reductive, really crisp on the palate.

I also like Languedoc and Roussillon. There’s a lot of experimental wine that comes out of those places. You see orange wines and chillable reds—those are certainly very popular in Los Angeles; the natural wine scene is so hot right now.

What are your favorite wines from those places on your list right now?

I have the Zulal Vayots Dior Areni at Buvette. It’s incredibly well balanced with notes of cherry, cranberry and black pepper.  If I tasted it blind, I would guess it was Burgundy. We also have the Zulal Voskehat at Vintage. I love The Pairing Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County at Buvette and an Alma Rosa Chardonnay from Santa Rita Hills at Vintage. The Alma Rosa will please even the ABC (anything but chardonnay) drinkers. The crisp citrus acidity on the palate is so refreshing that it balances the kiss of oak you get on the nose. And the La Tour de Gatigne Grenache Rosé from Languedoc at Buvette because it has all the characteristics of its more famous neighbor (Provence) for a friendlier price tag. 

What categories do you focus on most at your restaurants?

Buvette has a focus on sparkling wine. I would really like to get some cool vintage Champagne in there this year. We have about 15 sparkling wines by-the-glass and then we offer a flight of bubbles every night. It’s a way to discover pet-nat from Wisconsin and the difference between Prosecco and Cava. We sell a ton of Carboniste’s Sparkling Albariño from Gomes Vineyard. It’s a California sparkling albariño with an octopus on the label, super random but very tasty. We also have a seasonal craft cocktail list.

And then at Vintage, I would say our highest sellers are orange wine and cabernet—big, bold reds. It cracks me up because it’s like old school and new school. And I would say we sell them in equal quantities. Right now, we’re pouring the Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia and Eco Terreno Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley—it’s inexpensive, it’s biodynamic and it tastes like a delicious chocolatey, smooth, vanilla cabernet. For orange wine, we have Jos Wine Flash Orange from Georgia and Les Petits Sylphes Clos des Cimes, a field blend from southern France.

At Vintage, we sell a lot of retail wine. It didn’t catch on until COVID. But I loved the idea that you can taste something, enjoy it, and then bring a bottle home with you. That part of the business model has really taken off. Then, with our wine club, they get discounts on stuff to take out. We have a whole retail rack where people pop in on their way home from work, grab a bottle to go—you can taste the stuff that’s on our list—and then it all gets marked down if you want to take it out. We like to focus on SKUs that are high quality but inexpensive so that people can think of us as not just a wine bar but also a wine shop.

What new category did you add this year that got the most traction?

Light, juicy chillable reds. I thought, ‘Let’s put it on the menu and see if people are into it or not.’ And it turns out that people love chillable reds. We’re in Los Angeles, nine months out of the year it’s hot during the day. We have this fun category that’s fruit forward, juicy, glug-glug kind of wine. We do the carbonic syrah from Solminer right now. We have Breaking Bread Zinfandel, we cycle that one on the list a lot. We fly through it.

What was the most exciting bottle for you to sell this year?

It was it was a 1994 Quinta do Poço do Lobo Cabernet Sauvignon from Portugal. It was this bottle that I’ve been sitting on—I inherited it from one of Joe and PJ’s other restaurants. So, we put a little box on the menu called ‘Treat Yourself.’ We’re using the Coravin to do high-end pours—we have a Santa Rita Hills chardonnay from The Hilt that’s 60 bucks a glass and a cabernet from Kelly Fleming for $69 a glass. So, it’s not your everyday wine but it gives you the opportunity to try these cool things. I had one bottle of this random Portuguese cabernet, and somebody bought it the other day. We opened it, and it was so good. I could not believe it. It was one of the best-aged wines. It still had fruit, it still had freshness, but it was complex and had all the tertiary stuff. It was such a banger. I was like, ‘Oh my god, if I had known it was this good, I would’ve brought it home!”

Are other beverage categories impacting the sale of wine in your restaurant? What are they?

We have a couple fun, local beers, but we sell very few of them comparatively to wine. We sell a lot of wine cocktails at brunch, like The Shogun—it’s sake with Japanese Burmutto, which is like vermouth and tastes like yuzu, flowers and oranges. I add matcha simple syrup, lemon juice, shake it and serve it with basil. It’s delicious.

At Buvette, it’s probably 75 to 25 wine sales to cocktails. Cocktails are funny because one night we’ll sell a ton of them and then for two nights in a row, sell none.

Have your wine sales increased or decreased over the past year?

Increased. We did open right before COVID. So, we’ve built this small business through the pandemic. It’s hard for me to tell, are our sales increasing because people are going out more? Or are our sales increasing because people finally know we’re here? I feel like it’s probably a combination of those things. We’re still a new business, you know?

Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Spirits Editor and Critic at Wine & Spirits. She is also a Certified Sommelier and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.

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