Q & A With Lou Amdur: On Selling His Wine Bar, Software Insomnia + Drunks in the Parking Lot
When Squid Ink was born back in 2009, Lou Amdur, owner of the wine bar LOU, was one of the first experts we turned to. No matter the question -- be it of terroir or amphorae or why wine geeks use puzzling descriptors -- he never made us feel dumb for asking it. His answers took us near (Wine Expo on Santa Monica Boulevard and its excellent selection of grower Champagne) and far (the Campania region in the south of Italy) and we will never forget his rule of thumb when it comes to making Sangria: While apples, oranges and lemons belong in the fruity, Spanish-style punch, "Wine plus lime equals vomit."
Anne Fishbein Lou Amdur at LOU
Recently, it was announced that Amdur had sold his atmospherically lit, clubby 6-year-old establishment and was moving on. Does this mean the end of our rambling conversations with him? No, it does not. But as a way of closing this particular chapter, we decided it was time for an official exit interview. Though we touched on many topics, we began with the basics -- "Lou! You're selling your wine bar? WTF, dude?" Only we phrased it a little more politely. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Recently, you posted on your blog that you have sold your wine bar, LOU. Backstory please.
Lou Amdur: My lease was up in the fall and I had to make a decision if I wanted to stay another six years. I decided that I wanted to continue in the wine business but I want to do something more expansive. I did a lot of thinking. Could I re-engineer my space so I could do more wine stuff? There's really no way to do that without losing precious seats. We're already so small. There's no room to grow in the strip mall. The laundromat is a cash cow -- they're not going anywhere. Neither is the salon next door. That was the motivation. I wrote about this in my farewell letter. I could have very easily decided that wine sucks or that it's just not for me. But it's actually been quite the reverse. So how do you grow your passions? That sounds kind of sexual. [laughs] I mean how are you true to where your heart is? My heart is, "Jeez, I've really fallen for wine much more than I ever did for software. How do I make [wine] even more part of my life?" I just didn't know how I could do that in my space.
LA: In my wine bar, I get to work with 30 wines at a time. I want to work with 300 wines at a time. There's just no way to do that in my space.
SI: What happens next?
LA: What happens next is shepherding [the wine bar's buyer, Troy Stevens] as he makes a graceful transition to the new restaurant and to give him some hand-holding, to making sure it's a good hand-off. I do this not out of goodwill but good faith, so that it will be what I represented it to be. That's my immediate goal.
SI: A bit of Troy Stevens' history please.
LA: He had a prior career as a very successful real estate developer in Utah. He was done with that and, like many of us, was trying to decide what to do with the next 25 years of his life. I can't speak for him, but I know he loves wine and he's excited about the idea of taking over a turnkey wine bar. His intention is to keep the décor, the menu and the staff as is. But I am sure over time there will be some tweaking. He will make it his own place.
SI: One of the first ways that you distinguished yourself was for serving salty-sweet pig candy, or sustainably raised bacon that you baked with lots of brown sugar. What do you have to say to the lovers of this dish?
LA: To be honest, if I had to do it over again, I would not have put pig candy on the menu. We make our own bacon and it is beautiful. [Pig candy] is not really doing honor to the pigs. I'm down with making our own bacon -- I just wish we had a better way of showcasing it. But we are happy to share the recipe.
SI: As Grub Street L.A. put it, "Ground-breaking Hollywood wine bar Lou is being sold by its owner and everyone is having a total cow about it."
LA: Well people have asked me if I'm moving out of L.A. Where did they get that idea from? I'm an Angeleno. I've lived here almost 15 years. I am staying here and will continue in the wine business but will do something that is more, better.
SI: Where will that more, better thing that is yet to be described going to be?
LA: Further east.
SI: And, again, the wine bar will continue?
LA: The restaurant will continue but operate under a new name. I didn't sell my name. I just thought it would be too weird to have a place called LOU that I was not involved with. The sign will remain up for a little while, but then he will change it. I don't know what he is planning on calling it.
SI: Do you have an official day of transition?
LA: Sometime during the week of April 16 but, again, the restaurant is not closing. There will not be one minute of downtime. You know those ugly yellow rectangular posters that people put in the front of their restaurants that show change of ownership or change of license? That's posted so people have the opportunity to protest in case the business is unruly. But I don't think there's going to be any protest.
SI: When did the meter start ticking?
LA: The meter started ticking on the 13th of March. The 13th of April will mark the 30-day period. Then the ABC has to be informed that the 30 days is over. Then a couple of days later they issue a new license. At that point I will actually not be able to sell wine anymore. I can't be behind the bar anymore.
SI: What has been the reaction from regulars?
LA: Some people are surprised. Some people are upset and then, when I explain my plans to them that I am growing my love for wine -- again, that sounds like a sexual metaphor -- I think people are happy for me.
SI: And why not? They are people who had fun at a place you created from where once stood, if we remember correctly, a completely bedraggled Thai restaurant with downright frightening, dark stains on the acoustic tile ceiling.
Anne Fishbein interior of LOU
LA: It seems like every night since it's been announced, people have been coming in. It's fun. The human brain has only a finite capacity to process things. I start to realize when you're open for six years, a lot of people have walked through the door and there are actually a rather large group of people who are regulars. Some are more regular than others, but they're all coming in. That's been a surprise to me. It's been like, "Oh! These are people who like my place." That's exciting to me. It indicates that in Los Angeles there's a growing audience for traditionally made wines. Maybe I'm delusional thinking that. I feel kind of uncomfortable about being the guy where they go, "If you're going to sell a wacky wine, go to LOU." That's not true. Just because a wine is strange doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. I really really really like traditionally made wines, wines made with wild yeast and indigenous grape varieties and are sometimes grown by only a handful of people. I'm certainly not the only venue to find those in L.A., but I think I might be the only venue that strictly focuses on those wines. And it's gratifying to see people enjoying wines that I find strange and compelling and they actually ask for it by name.
SI: Why are you leaving out the part about you, your charming staff and the always welcoming vibe at LOU?
LA: As someone who is really, really shy and has a thing about accepting affirmation and stroking from other people...
SI: A joke about sexual allusions definitely deserves to go here, but please continue.
LA: ...It's not something that comes easy to me so it feels really good to get the affirmation. When you run a business and you're the sole proprietor, your nose is to the grindstone all the time. You don't really have a sense that you mean something to other people. I guess one of my takeaways from this transition in my life is that my business meant a lot to a lot of people, and that feels good. I'm glad that people dig the same wines that I do and enjoy my company. There has been a little bit of crying, a little bit of "When were you planning on telling me?" I had a couple of other fairly serious people who had looked at the space. I didn't want to say anything becaus,e if the deal fell through, then I'd be left with nothing. That's why I hesitated to say a word. EaterLA outed me in a way that was kind of unpleasant.
SI: Outed? How?