Restaurants

A Los Angeles Restaurant’s Wine Guru Shares His Best Stories & Drink Picks — Highly Likely’s José Bejarano Keeps It Real

We're Talking Grapes

BY // 09.05.23

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 and share their enthusiasm for life. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Life is full of serendipity. Several weeks ago I was invited to attend a dinner designed to showcase the wines of Kathy Joseph, a pioneering winemaker I had not seen in person since before the pandemic. She founded Fiddlehead Cellars in 1989 to, as she tells it, “capture the pure essence of two distinguished grape varietals — sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.” She has captured that, and more.

I’ve tasted and enjoyed many of her wines and vintages, and have never been disappointed. What she’s been doing in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto for more than three decades is remarkable. I gladly accepted the dinner invitation.

Here’s where the serendipity comes in. The venue for the event was Highly Likely, an all-day restaurant/coffee bar/wine bar in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles to which I had not previously been. Simply put, the food was stellar, and I met the subject of this Wine Talk feature. His name is José Bejarano, and on that evening he made an immediate and favorable impression on me.

Highly Likely, where one finds chicken liver mousse – among other great things on the food menu — good coffee, and a commendable selection of wines.
Highly Likely, where one finds chicken liver mousse – among other great things on the food menu — good coffee, and a commendable selection of wines.

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Bejarano is the general manager of Highly Likely and he oversees the beverage program at the restaurant (which, by the way, is in the midst of opening a second location in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles). Kat Turner is the chef and owner at Highly Likely, and you should check this place out when you are next in Los Angeles. (Look for a review of the restaurant on PaperCity soon.)

“I’m in charge of anything wet here that goes into your mouth,” Bejarano told me during a conversation about the restaurant’s wine list. Think lots of “natural” and biodynamic selections from, among other places, California, Spain, Italy and France. Seeing a bottle from Philippe Badéa on a shelf at the restaurant made me happy.

Highly Likely has a retail license, and any wine sold there can be consumed with your meal for $8 in addition to the retail price, a good deal.

A grenache noir from Philippe Badéa.
A grenache noir from Philippe Badéa.

 

José Bejarano and Geena Davis.
José Bejarano and Geena Davis.

There were or 15 or 20 additional guests, all of us seated at a large table, there to taste Joseph’s wines. The table was crowded, we were eating family style and there wasn’t much space to maneuver plates and glasses and cutlery and platters and bowls. Bejarano and a  colleague took care of their guests, and our dinner, with much more than aplomb.

Casual and prompt, professional and friendly, pouring wines and making room for the dishes we were served. It was good, a good impression.

Chef and owner Kat Turner is behind the food at Highly Likely, including this silky and rich chicken liver mousse and prune mostarda and, below, roasted chicken.
Chef and owner Kat Turner is behind the food at Highly Likely, including this silky and rich chicken liver mousse and prune mostarda and, below, roasted chicken.

I talked a bit more with Bejarano about food and wine, and at some point in the evening decided he’d be a good subject for Wine Talk. Here he is.

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?

José Bejarano: First, the 2022 Las Jaras Big Beautiful Buff. This super-crisp albariño is such a winner. The aggressive minerality and beautiful acid are the perfect pair for a seafood tower or a whole mess of oysters. (Order it from the producer for $32.)

Big Beautiful Buff from Las Jaras Wines.
Big Beautiful Buff from Las Jaras Wines.

Next, the 2020 Antonio Camillo Procanico. Skin-contact trebbianos are almost always a home run for me, and this is one of my favorites. Pack that puppy on some ice and enjoy it with a Lady & Larder charcuterie board at your favorite park with your hottest homies. (This one will cost you around $30.)

Finally, the 2022 Tenuta de Melis Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Barasce. This red — drink chilled — is the textbook definition of a porch pounder. The pairing possibilities are endless, but I feel like it would sing with Thai or quality sushi. (Look for this wine for around $27.)

How did COVID-19 change your life, both personally and professionally?

JB: Holy shit. Where do I even begin? I was working for an underwear company in 2020. When COVID hit, they axed my entire department. I took a full year off, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done for myself. I was able to spend time with my incredible pup Geena Davis.

After a year of rest and relaxation, my old boss asked me to come run his restaurant. I did my best to resist jumping back into the hospitality game, but a meeting with Chef Kat Turner changed my mind immediately. I went from selling underwear to being the beverage director of a fledgling restaurant group.

If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why?

JB: If Jesus was real and he really did turn water into wine, then I have to try this wine. What grape did He choose? Was it a red or a white? How tannic was this puppy? Were there added sulfites? The people need to know.

What is your favorite grape, and why?

JB: I’m such an absolute slut for muscat. It’s so delicate and feminine and floral (but not too floral) and juicy and complex and every other great wine adjective that you can think of. I’m especially into it if it’s skin contact.

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? 

My favorite natural winemaker is Scotty-Boy (Scott Sampler is the man who makes these wines.) Most of Sampler’s wines are meant to be consumed while they’re young. His more serious label, the Central Coast Group Project, produces wines that thrive as they age.

I’ve got a bottle of his 2014 Purple Pyramid Syrah that I’m saving for a special occasion. I lost my shit when I tasted it this year. I can’t wait to taste this bad boy with some serious age on him.

Scott Sampler at his winemaking facility in Buellton, California.
Scott Sampler at his winemaking facility in Buellton, California.

Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?

JB: Tabula Rasa! Their list is obviously epic, but it’s the hospitality that keeps me coming back. Shoutout to Nicole Dougherty for curating the best wines and best people.

If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

JB: Winemaking is a labor of love. An incredible bottle of wine doesn’t just happen. Be more grateful for the product and the people that make it.

What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

JB: I’m desert trash that consumed mostly Coors Light and Jägermeister in my early drinking days. I knew nothing about wine when I started waiting tables at one of Tucson’s few fancypants restaurants. A table ordered a bottle that was probably around $1,500.

I was so confused that anyone would pay that much for a bottle of wine. Then they invited me to taste it with them. The wine was out-of-control amazing, but tasting it with these kind strangers made the overall experience next level.

What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

JB: In my mid twenties I was serving at a fine-dining spot in Tucson. One of my coworkers found a little pill on the floor in the middle of a shift. She grabbed a bottle of wine and smashed the pill into a fine powder. She then snorted the pill right there on the floor in the middle of a busy service.

I asked her what the pill was. She just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. It was the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen in my life.

What is your favorite wine reference in a work of literature or a film?

JB: Dr. Steve Brule’s wine segment on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is one of my favorite things of all time. John C. Reilly’s ability to commit to a bit is awe inspiring. Then for Eric Wareheim to take said bit even further by turning it into a delicious, thoughtful wine? That’s magic to me.

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out his Mise en Placewebsite.

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