Wine’s Rise in the Orange County Dining Scene

Photo courtesy of SoCal Restaurant Show

I’m addicted to the SoCal Restaurant Show that’s aired on Angels Radio Saturday mornings. From 10 a.m. to noon, co-hosts Andy Harris and Slapfish chef Andrew Gruel share food-and-wine news with expert style and humor. Orange County is a mecca of great restaurants and cutting-edge wine shops, and their show brilliantly spotlights the personalities behind these local businesses. Listening makes me feel part of the scene. Harris wrote about the L.A.-area restaurant scene for the Beard Foundation’s e-newsletter, and was curator of the food-and-beverage plan for the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics. Since he seems to know everyone in the Southern California food-and-wine industry, I sought his wisdom on the evolution of wine in Orange County.

You know the local food scene very well. What role does wine play in our dining scene?
The average diner (in all age groups) is more knowledgeable than ever about wine. Research indicates millennials are particularly curious about it. Any dinner house needs to have a viable wine program with a motivated staff that can speak intelligently about their list and their wines by the glass. Wine is made to go with food.

For better restaurants like The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar, The Ranch, Napa Rose, and Five Crowns/SideDoor, the depth of the wine list and the unusual, changing offerings by the glass are attractions to the establishment.

How has the wine industry evolved in O.C. the last decade? And what could be improved?
All retail sales [places] have elevated their game to remain competitive. There are more independent wine stores with highly knowledgeable and customer-friendly staffs. Even the supermarkets have a wider range of both domestic and imported labels. We’ve also seen the rise of neighborhood wine bars that provide great variety as well as sound advice.

The better restaurants have also become far more serious about their programs. Staff training has greatly improved. Servers actually now taste all the wines available by the glass at their establishments, so they can make intelligent pairing recommendations. Some restaurants have even added retail wine programs—sound business.

Photo courtesy of Jay Wennington of Unsplash

Even the multiple-unit establishments have elevated their offerings. A good example is Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse. The general managers have the discretion to carry some wines of their own selection. It’s a big commitment for them.

In the area of improvements—the pricing of by-the-glass selections needs to be carefully monitored. There should be good value. Also, the day of the pretentious sommelier is over. No wine-speak to impress, please. There are still a handful of offenders out there.

If you’re going to sell wine, the staff needs to be properly educated. The days where a server could shamelessly fake it with a guest are long gone. The average restaurant patron is far more sophisticated about wine. Also, lazy restaurants that let their wine sales rep from the mega distributor put their list together right out of that distributor’s book should be ashamed of themselves.

What feedback do listeners give you about wine and your featured pieces?
We get wine-related questions every week. Sometimes there are general wine-pairing questions and often they are follow-up questions to a specific wine segment. We also get inquiries for restaurants that have a serious wine program. Frequently, the most interesting questions become the basis for a future wine segment. A recent example is when a listener asked about what types of wines have aging potential, which became a segment with Wine Exchange’s Kyle Meyer, who is a regular show guest.

The SoCal Restaurant show airs each Saturday on 830 KLAA AM Radio from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Podcasts of past shows and guests for upcoming segments are available at



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