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Photo Credit: Jon Deshler

Matthew Straus
Wilshire Restaurant
2454 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90403
(310) 586-1707

Wine Tips »

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.

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Matthew Straus

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.

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Interview Cont'd
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
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 previously?
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? Awards won?
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 about that.

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 Factory.

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.

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   Published: May 2006