I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.
In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well.
From the moment I perused the wine list I knew I wanted to feature its creator in Wine Talk. It (and they) had me at the Claus Preisinger Zweigelt and the Martha Stouman Nero d’Avola, not to mention the Alfredo Maestro “Amanda.” This small, concise list was put together by someone who cares about what her guests drink with their food.
This was in May, and it was my first visit to Ronan, a restaurant in Los Angeles that is now high on my must-visit list. The meal was something to write home about — read the full review here — and I’ve been back once more since then, and plan to be a frequent diner.
Asking around, I was told that Caitlin Cutler was the woman behind Ronan’s wine program. She also co-owns the restaurant with Daniel Moonman Cutler, her husband and Ronan’s chef. They have a good thing going on Melrose Avenue.
Caitlin runs the front of the house, and her presence is one of calm and confidence. She’s a welcoming person. Her past work experience includes stints in the corporate finance and real estate development worlds, and then she entered the restaurant industry, serving as general manager at two Los Angeles Italian restaurants: Sotto (now closed, it’s where the couple met and fell in love) and Alimento, Zach Pollack’s Italian restaurant in Silver Lake.
The pair opened Ronan in September 2018. During the first year of Ronan’s existence Caitlin was pregnant — they now have two children — and the couple faced the challenges familiar to all mom-and-pop restaurant owners. Reviews were favorable. Bill Addison, of the Los Angeles Times, loved the French Dip-inspired calzone, and Eric Wareheim’s endorsement of the pies brought scores of people in asking for the “Instagram pizza.”
The inevitable dip in traffic came, as the “see and be seen” crowd came and went, but the restaurant’s team labored on and word about the food at Ronan spread. Then came COVID-19. (Jenn Harris has written a wonderful piece on Caitlin and Daniel Cutler’s life the day after Los Angeles ordered all restaurants to cease service. You can read it here.)
It’s been, needless to say, a rough, harrowing time, the days and nights since around March 31, 2020, for restaurants and the rest of the world. The National Restaurant Association, in a study published in September 2020, reported that nearly one in six restaurants (representing nearly 100,000 establishments in the United States) “is either closed permanently or long-term,” resulting in the unemployment of nearly three million individuals. It added that the industry “is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year .”
Ronan survived, about which I am glad, and if you’ve never been to the restaurant, I urge you to book a table. Order the focaccia and the burrata. If you go on Wednesday, all wines made by women are offered at 30 percent off. Try the meatballs, and if the calzone is on the menu, go for it.
Meanwhile, now it’s time to hear more from Caitlin Cutler in Wine Talk.
James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?
Caitlin Cutler: I am able to spend a lot more time at home with my kids. My husband and I co-own Ronan, and prior to COVID, we both worked five to six nights a week. When safer-at-home orders came out, we had to alternate who would come into work, because one of us had to stay home with the kids (no childcare).
It really gave me the personal and professional balance that I was craving, but couldn’t quite allow myself to have, and now I work at the restaurant three nights a week.
JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?
CC: “Bon Jus” Sauvignon Blanc is our skin contact BTG right now, and it just slaps for summertime. I had never had a skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc before this wine, and I’m not particularly partial to the grape in general, but leave it on the skins for 15 days and we’re in business.
The wine is unfiltered, no additives, and you can almost taste the coastal Santa Barbara laidback vibes in the glass. Pairing: Sea bass Zarandeado at Ronan.
The “chilled red” is really having a moment, and I am fully behind it. We have three chilled options on the list at Ronan right now, but the one that has my heart is “Soul Love” from Tessier Winery out of Healdsburg. It’s a blend of Riesling (50 percent), Trousseau (20 percent) and Mourvedre (30 percent), and it just sparkles behind its psychedelic label.
Don’t let the playful nature of the label fool you, this is a fantastic, nuanced bottle. Tessier is run by a husband-and-wife team, and is 30 percent off on “Women in Wine Wednesdays” at Ronan. Pair with the classic Margherita pizza. Do or don’t add anchovies (do).
I just have to close out this list with the “Puszta Libre!,” a biodynamic Zweigelt from Austrian wine producer Claus Preisinger. This wine never sells unless I suggest it to a table, and it is such a missed opportunity for so many guests who want a bold red, but don’t know how to get out of their comfort zone.
I promise you all there are sophisticated reds outside of France, Spain and Italy. Pairing: The pork meatballs at Ronan with a side of some thick focaccia piping hot and dripping in good Sicilian olive oil over the toasted rosemary garnish.
JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.
CC: I like collecting wines from significant years. My husband and I were both born in 1985, and for our wedding we got two magnums of Emidio Pepe 1985 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I would probably get two more from my daughters birth years (2015 and 2019) now, while I can still afford them.
JB: What is your favorite grape variety, and why?
CC: Hands down, Malvasia. This was the first grape that taught me how much depth there was to discovering wine. I have had bottles that are light and floral, I have had bottles that are earthy and, dare I say, masculine. I have had it still and I have had it sparkling. I have loved it every which way and I can’t wait to try many more iterations.
JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day?
CC: I wish I had a good suggestion for this, but I tend to focus on lower cost, newer production on my list. I would say find something sentimental to you and cellar that. Maybe a bottle you had on your first date, or a producer you love from a significant year. Nostalgia can add a lot to your experience years down the road.
JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?
CC: I adore Esters Wine Bar in Santa Monica. The service, the vibe — it’s all so welcoming and yet special at the same time, and you can find really fabulous wines by the glass that you don’t see everywhere else around town.
JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?
CC: It’s not about what the restaurant wants you to drink or what will impress the table next to you. It’s about you. This is your experience, and we are just here to facilitate it. Talk to your server or the person who does the wine list, ask questions and they will lead you to the hidden gems that fit your needs, but make sure you listen to your gut and drink what you want to drink that night.
Sometimes it’s what they suggest, but sometimes it’s a dirty martini or your go-to bottle of Chianti, and that’s A-OK too.
JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
CC: In 2014, it was my boss’s birthday and I went to Silver Lake Wine to buy him a bottle of wine. He was a chef with many years of wine knowledge under his belt, and I was a novice restaurant worker just beginning to scratch the service of my wine studies. I went into Silver Lake Wine and bought him a bottle of Rojac “Royaz” sparkling Refošk.
He opened it for us to share and it knocked his socks off. He put it on the opening list of his trendy new restaurant in Silver Lake and I had never been prouder.
JB: What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career thus far?
CC: I had a friend of a friend (who I didn’t know and had never even met briefly) email me multiple times and repeatedly ask me to waive corkage for his upcoming reservation for a party of six. Ronan was three months old at the time, and we were still paying off our contractors from the years of construction leading up to our recent opening, never mind tackling paying back our investors.
I was so insulted that a stranger thought it was appropriate to bring their own wine in and not expect to pay a fee (mind you, our corkage is VERY reasonable). I am so happy that the pandemic brought to light how hard the financials are from a restaurant perspective, and moments like that seem to be a distant memory.
JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?
CC: Country music is my guilty pleasure, and any time a female musician talks about drinking red wine and plotting revenge on an ex, I can’t help but smile.
For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out his Mise en Place.