List-less at Bar Covell: How Ditching the Wine List Works

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Restaurant

Matt Kaner will tell you he operates Bar Covell without a wine list. He’ll tell you his staff can sell more than 150 by-the-glass wines without the aid of paperwork, notes, or any kind of functional internal rolodex. But he’ll be lying. There is a wine list at Bar Covell. It’s Matt Kaner.

Spicy Mac and Cheese with Trocken Nake Riesling, Emrich-Schonleber, Menzinger Fruhlingsplatzchen, Germany, 2009Spicy Mac and Cheese with Trocken Nake Riesling, Emrich-Schonleber, Menzinger Fruhlingsplatzchen, Germany, 2009

Bar Covell in Los Angeles

Bar Covell in Los Angeles

Sommelier Matt Kaner of Bar Covell

Sommelier Matt Kaner of Bar Covell

Ballsy? Yes—and refreshing. Traditional wine service has something charmingly archaic about it, a ritualism that won’t (and probably shouldn’t) ever fully go away. But recent years have seen strides against type: unexplored wine regions, wines on tap, natural wines, orange wines, craft beer pairings, etc. Maybe the dissolution of the traditional wine list was inevitable?

Kaner thinks so. “A multi-page wine list makes the assumption that the reader is familiar with terms that usually only wine collectors or people in the wine trade would have the proper decoder ring to understand,” he says. “It’s just not the most efficient way to make a drinking decision.” When you think about it that way—a wine list as an intimidating, jargon-packed interruption of a real interpersonal experience—it’s surprising that Kaner’s model is the first we’ve encountered, and the first time anyone’s thought to completely replace paperwork with a human touch.

Kaner and his staff aren’t just rattling off reds, whites, and sparkling wines. “I prefer to view myself as a storyteller to any other fancy wine word someone may use to describe what I do for a living,” says Kaner. “I can tell you a story about every wine we carry.” That could be a significant time suck in an industry that thrives on turnover, except Kaner developed a series of questions that help get straight to the point: drink your juice. “We narrow it down to anywhere from two to five wines that might work perfectly for the drinker.” After a small taste of each, plus that story, a choice is made. And this is the way it goes down, night after night.  “We do this approach whether it’s a slow Monday night, or our most busy Friday night.”

Story time at the table works. And the yields aren’t just sales, but an education. “I’ve been working in wine in Los Angeles since 2006, and I feel the knowledge level of wine drinkers is the highest it’s been in my tenure here.” Not that Kaner hasn’t experienced a few hiccups with his method. Ordering becomes a little trickier, as he isn’t buying bulk. “There are always politics to navigate,” he says. “If I buy one case of wine from someone, it costs them more than if I buy two cases. The Tetris act on my part is being able to need multiple things from a distributor/importer/broker to fill holes in our program, while also making it worth their while.” The approach doesn’t impact their bottom line because “we adjusted to buying politics from day one.”

But it’s more than a political balancing act. It’s juggling on a high wire with 150 weekly rotating selections. “For the first two years, we only had one or two wines that made a repeat appearance,” says Kaner. “Over time, I kept the rock star wines on board.” He compares it to a Vegas showcase: people are flying in from all over. They’ll at least want to see Wayne Newton. 

The whole idea of the no-wine-list wine list is circumventing the typical marquee, tired, knee-jerk wine selections. Beyond the conversation itself, and an emphasis on authentic, expressive wines, low price points help lure drinkers to newer pastures. “I want to make sure our wines over-deliver,” says Kaner, who keeps all but his “reserve” program wines in a range of $11 to $15 (reserve wines are closer to $20 to $50). “I want you to feel like you drank the best $12 glass of wine you’ve ever had.”

Kaner isn’t just keeping customers happy—he’s influencing fellow wine professionals, who, incidentally, have made Bar Covell a bit of a clubhouse. “I’ve noticed our approach has created a need for our peers and contemporaries to really know their shit,” says Kaner, not without a hint of well earned pride in his business model, and probably his memory.

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