Credit: Jon Deshler
2454 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Antoinette Bruno: How
did you develop an interest in wine?
Matthew Straus: I was
lucky enough to work with three consecutive great sommeliers,
each of whom taught me different, essential lessons. Christian
Vassilev opened my eyes to flavor when we worked together
at the Federalist. Most of what I know and feel about wine
comes from my experience with George Cossette at Campanile.
George has a way of quietly saying more about wine in ten
words than most people can say in an hour. He gave me my instincts,
my senses of integrity, authenticity and modesty. Stephane
Clasquin at L’Orangerie taught me a lot about bottle
maturity, and about great wine service. I’m forever
indebted to each of them.
WILSHIRE RESTAURANT | Los Angeles
Matt Straus, 33, has been working in food service for the
past eighteen years, beginning with a stint at the neighborhood
McDonald's when he was fourteen. He worked primarily in kitchens
until he graduated from college, at which point he began an extended
involvement with service and wine.
Prior to moving to Los Angeles in 2000, Straus worked in renowned
Boston restaurants such as The Tuscan Grill, The Harvest and The
Federalist, as well as with the acclaimed late French chef Sophie
Parker, in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Since moving to L.A., Straus has held service positions at Campanile,
L'Orangerie, Sona and Grace, where he performed the duties of wine
director. In March 2005, Matt marked his return to the kitchen when
he concluded a program of study in European cuisine at the Pacific
Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition
to serving as wine director at Wilshire, he operates his own company-heirloom-
which is dedicated to serving classically styled food and wine.
Straus is thrilled to be a part of the team at Wilshire, where
he maintains a wine program with concentrations on value, bottle
maturity, and bio-diversity, and has the opportunity to pair wines
with some of the highest quality food in the city.
AB: Describe your fondest
MS: I’ve only been to
France once, in 2004, as a very lucky guest of the great importer
Martine Saunier. I tasted all over Burgundy and the Rhone, with
some of the region’s best producers. We barrel tasted at Jobard
and Leroy, and had lunch at Chateau Rayas. The last night we had
dinner at Martine’s house and near the end of the meal, she
blind tasted us on a wine that we all agreed was the best wine of
the trip. It was layered, and infinitely complex—just gorgeous,
which was saying something, because we had just been tasting some
pretty fancy stuff. It turned out to be a 1992 Château de
Tours Vacqueyras—an inexpensive wine from what was thought
to be a mediocre vintage. It probably cost eight or nine dollars
when it was released.
Is it strange to say that it was empowering? Of course Leroy and
Rayas are worth every penny—I still buy those wines for the
restaurant and for myself. But to be spun around by a wine so pretty
and so unheralded, in that context, said a lot about hype. And for
the epiphany to have been facilitated by Martine herself, who sells
the fancy, expensive stuff we had been drinking, for me says a lot
about the kind of grace and selflessness one often sees in the wine
world. Martine is one of the greatest salespeople I’ve ever
known, but her strength is derived entirely from her honesty and
integrity, which are essential to working effectively with wine.
In vino veritas, right?
AB: Where have you worked
MS:Tuscan Grill, Harvest, Federalist
(Boston), Campanile, L’Orangerie, Sona, Grace (Los Angeles).
AB: What courses have you
taken? Awards won?
MS: Campanile, L’Orangerie,
Sona. Tiny unknown appellation when realized $9.
AB: What courses have you taken?
MS: No coursework or awards.
The restaurant experience has always been the main thing for me,
which has meant that my focus hasn’t ever been on talking
about the difference in soil composition from one village in Burgundy
to the next. It’s probably safe to say that most of the people
I’ve served in my career haven’t known that red Burgundy
is pinot noir. I feel like I have some work to do on the basics
with them before I start focusing on the dirt in Nuits St. George.
I can’t remember ever waiting on someone who wanted to talk
AB: What is your philosophy
on wine and food?
MS: I’d want to eat a
great plate of cassoulet with my last bottle of funky old red wine.
I don’t care very much for foams and gelees and streaks and
swirls on plates. I think great food is simple and unassuming, and
speaks for itself, and that simple flavors and dishes make the best
accompaniments to wine. I wish that more great chefs would decide
to serve good product at reasonable prices. So much of our talent
pool is busy with foie gras and caviar, while the closest thing
to a national American cuisine is Applebee’s and the Cheesecake
AB: Do you favor Old World
or New World wines? Why?
MS: That distinction is blurring
more and more everyday. I would say old world, because I always
favor wines with moderate ripeness and alcohol and good acidity,
and if I had to pick a favorite region, it would be Burgundy. But
my favorite winery in the world—Hanzell—is in California.
1971 Hanzell Pinot Noir is the best wine I’ve ever had, and
almost all the wines that Bob Sessions made in the subsequent 30
years there are on course for similar greatness. I think they represent
the best of the old world and the new. The vines were born in France,
the winemaking values acidity and balance, the terroir on their
little mountain in Sonoma is something special. And they have the
added benefit of these consistently magical California growing seasons.
Hanzell is a great dispeller of two myths: that California wine
doesn’t last and that chardonnay and pinot don’t last.
Anyone who tastes some 30 year-old Hanzell wine wouldn’t ever
say either of those things again.
Did I answer the question? I think Manfred Krankl is one of the
world’s greatest winemakers, and his Sine Qua Non wines are
the epitome of what might now be called ‘new world.’
But the closest things I’ve ever tasted to Sine Qua Non syrahs
are Guigal’s single-vineyard Côte Rôties. So on
the one hand Manfred is thought to be the poster-winemaker for super-juicy,
extracted, modern wines, and on the other hand, I think he’d
say that this venerable old Rhône producer is something of
a model, or at least a reference point for him. The path to winemaking
greatness seems at least to run through Europe, but I’m not
sure what there is to say beyond that.
AB: Tell me about a perfect
wine and food match that you discovered.
MS: Epoisses cheese and a white
wine grape called savagnin from the Jura. Perhaps the two greatest
savage, animalistic edibles ever bestowed on humans. Wait for the
kids to go to sleep, though. Things could get racy.
AB: What wines do you favor
for your cellar at home?
MS: Neal Rosenthal told me
once that the most important quality in ageworthy wine isn’t
brawn or ripeness—it’s balance. I’ve come to agree
with him completely, and so those are the wines I collect, in all
price points. The vast majority of cellared wines—especially
in restaurants, are expensive, but there are fifteen dollar bottles
that will age beautifully for a long time. I encourage cellaring
as much as I can. I think we’re drinking wine way too young,
racing through vast quantities of current vintages and missing out
on all the beauty and experience of putting bottles away for a while.
AB: What are your ultimate
career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
MS: I really want to run a
restaurant and a great cellar program, but I also love to write
and paint and teach, so it’s hard to say where I’ll
be in ten years. I dream about having my dad’s Dixieland band
play Saturday nights at my restaurant, and about having a lot of
great friends around all the time who love great wine and food.
That would be a good start.