Twelve years ago, lightning struck the Los Angeles retail scene when Silverlake Wine opened in the heart of Silver Lake, a hilly, Eastside neighborhood. Within two years, it was the spot to shop for boutique, esoteric and affordable wines from hidden corners of California, France and beyond.
Silverlake Wine, owned by Randy and April Clement along with George Cossette, has grown to include Everson Royce Wine & Spirits in Pasadena, which opened in 2012 and was named after the Clements’ twin sons. In 2015, the three partners opened an additional Silverlake Wine and the Everson Royce Bar in the Arts District.
This year they plan to double the size of the original store and launch a restaurant, pizzeria and wine shop in a building they bought in Highland Park.
Silverlake’s selection is rooted in the time that both Clement and Cossette spent at legendary Los Angeles eatery Campanile, where Manfred Krankl built a list of wines not typically associated with California restaurants of the 1990s, before going off to start his Sine Qua Non label.
“I inherited an adventurous wine list [at Campanile],” said Cossette. “Because of that job, we were very familiar with what was out there and what was new. A lot of the things we take for granted now just weren’t available back then. That’s what we wanted to do with our store.”
“You could be young and dumb. There were a lot of people doing really interesting things.”
When Clement was hired at Campanile, it was on his 21st birthday in 1998, and Campanile was then the epicenter of the SoCal culinary world. He rose to assistant wine director alongside future winemaker Manfred Krankl and star chefs Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton.
“Campanile was not governed by viticultural dogma,” says Clement. “We brought that ethos here. It was a little ‘Rage Against the Machine.’ ” Plus, he had plenty of resources to explore. Clement recalls earning $1,000 a night. “I would blow it on food and wine.”
After a period living in the eclectic beachside community of Venice, the Clements’ moved to Chinatown in East Los Angeles. They’d shop at the Gelson’s in Silver Lake, which he found diverse and progressive long before it became a trendy place to live.
“It was completely different,” says Clement. “It was firmly before this era.”
That the real estate was cheap didn’t hurt, either.
“You could be young and dumb,” he recalls. “There were a lot of people doing really interesting things.”
On separate days, both Randy Clement and Cossette noticed that the Rockaway Records store was looking to lease out space. “If we opened a wine store, at least everyone knew where Rockaway Records is,” says Clement. They went for it.
“It was a little shitty video store,” he says. “Our bathrooms are where the porn used to be.” He joked that they almost decided to put their “adult wines” (i.e., the more expensive ones) in that room.
The Early Days
It was a rough start. “On some days, no people would come in,” says Clement. “Not a soul.” So he started to walk between cars in traffic right next to the guys selling coconuts and oranges, and he’d hand out Silverlake Wine cards.
They rejected the mantra that Californians only wanted big, fruity Cabs and oaky Chardonnays. “We discovered early on that, if you gave people a choice, there were not quite so close-minded as you might think,” said Cossette.
“When we opened up the store, we were always gonna treat the kids like kings. They’re not infected with that ‘you don’t know who I think I am’ virus.”
But they did debate whether it would be “too weird” to sell Gewürztraminer, something they themselves loved but worried the public might reject. “The first day the store opened, the first guy who walked through the door said, ‘Do you guys have any Gewürztraminer?’” recalled Cossette. “That was just a message to us that we should stick with what we wanted to do.”
Neither Cossette nor the Clement had ever run a wine store, but they were motivated to root out the ageism they found at some of the more institutional shops and restaurants in town.
Randy says he was criticized twice for his interest in fine wine due to his young age. A restaurant in Marina del Rey would never show him the reserve wine list, despite being a regular, high-tipping customer. Another time, at a large wine store, a steward dressed him down for mispronouncing Gaja. “Kid, that’s pronounced ‘Ga-ya,’” said the steward. “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t buy it.”
They took a different approach at Silverlake Wine. “When we opened up the store, we were always gonna treat the kids like kings,” says Clement. “They’re not infected with that ‘you don’t know who I think I am’ virus.
Power of Tasting
A critical move was to apply for a license to host wine tastings. “We were all about esoteric, boutique, biodynamic, natural wines from the get-go,” Clement says. “But if we were going to have a roomful of stuff that people haven’t heard of, we had to show them what we were talking about.”
The tastings became parties with people of all backgrounds, many of whom had never been into wine. “It just became this thing,” he says.
“By Christmas of 2005, it just hit,” says Clement. “There were tons of drum-machine places selling wine that had no soul, but if everyone likes the same shit, there’s no point to anything.”
Today, based on those early tenets, the store offers a solid selection that blends offerings from Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Georgia with offbeat, small production California wines, often made from lesser known regions and/or grapes of the Central Coast and Sierra Foothills.
“We have our oaky, buttery Chardonnays, and we have our standard old school fruity California Cabs,” said Cossette. “But by and large, people see our store as a place where they can discover.”
Arts District All-In
After the store expanded in 2007, the Clement and Langford’s family did as well, as they welcomed twin boys in 2010. The following year, the group opened a Pasadena store and turned their gaze upon the Arts District as their next gamble.
The design and offerings of the Arts District shop are just like the Silver Lake store. The bar next door, however, was totally new territory. It features food by Matt Molina, formerly of Chi Spacca, who will also spearhead food at the Highland Park project, as well as a wide array of drinks.
Despite more competition among wine shops and bars in Los Angeles these days, the Silverlake Wine empire shows no signs of slowing down.
“We’re interested in being in our own vein and having our own vibe, but we’re not interested in breaking laws and doing dumb shit,” says Clement. “We literally go out and clean the street of the Arts District. ‘Pay it forward’ is real stuff.”