JESS KIEFER – CAFÉ STELLA, Los Angeles

Café Stella on West Sunset Boulevard in the burgeoning neighborhood of Silver lake is a Los Angeles mainstay of French cuisine. classic bistro / brasserie, one can leave Café Stella after a meal of escargots, moules frites, and côte de boeuf fully believing that the next stop for the evening will be the Butte Montmartre. Owner and chef Gareth Kantner, who has been at the helm of “Stella” for over two decades, may be seen as the protector of all things “classique”, but don’t let well-curated appearances fool you.

The list of wines at Café Stella is constructed  around the great wine regions of France, the de rigueur favorites of its Francophile audience of  artists, actors and well-healed regulars – but things aren’t always what they seem.

Enter  sommelier and “disruptor” Jess Kiefer, from Phoenix, by way of a solid stint working cutting-edge New York city wine dens such as Boqueria and iconic wine-bar Terroir, and more than a  few years of  production and broadcast time at Heritage Radio. “I learned about wine on the  streets – I never took a class – never went to get any certification – never wanted to – learned by  talking, tasting and pouring for guests – I feel like I’m a translator: my job is to know what the lists says and listen to what the guest is asking for and find them exactly what they need – and I don’t feel that a class can teach me that.

Kiefer did not set out to become a sommelier. Educated as a broadcast journalist, Jess slid into wine the way so many others have done: by making ends meet working in restaurants. Her training as a journalist led her to ask many questions when she landed her first “serious” restaurant job at the tapas and Spanish wine driven Boqueria. It was the move to Paul Grieco’s wine bar Terroir, and the need to know the short list of wines by the glass, that made the career-altering difference. “I kept tasting and learning every day because I had to swim”. And then the opportunity to also produce a friend’s show at Heritage Radio opened another big door. After a year of working on her friend’s program, the host decided to leave the show which then fell into Kiefer’s lap. She spent five years on the radio interviewing and getting to know many of the big names in food and wine. “And then my partner had an offer to start distributing in California for an importer of organic and biodynamic wines, Zev Rovine.” So Jess decided to make a break from NY and start working in the LA wine scene too. Kiefer remembers: “LA needed me more. The weather is nice here and I wanted to be with people who were excited – LA has a fresh excitement – wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.” As a fan of all types of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines – like the wines in the Rovine portfolio – Kiefer remembers “those are the same kinds of wine I grew up in. I learned about Slovenia, Croatia, Sicily before learning about Burgundy and Bordeaux.”  Things were set to be shaken up by this duo of cuttingedge NY professionals.

Jess’ first position in LA was as a floor sommelier at the meat-driven restaurant and butcher shop Gwen. It wasn’t  long before she got a call from a big collector to whom she had been recommended by Pascaline lepeltier, the well-known maven of biodynamic sommelerie at Rouge Tomate NY. The collector had a friend who was looking to change things up at his classic bistro, and that is how Kiefer  was introduced to Kantner, restaurateur and son of the legendary Paul Kantner of the rock-band Jefferson Airplane. She was offered and took the job of buyer for Café Stella with the goal of reinvigorating the wine program. “There was definitely some push-back”as Jess started listing more sustainable selections for the list. “My idea was to source and find some wild cards – find organic, biodynamic, sustainable stuff. I’ve been dogmatic in that it’s gotta be organic – and I hope made with a pretty hands-off attitude in the cellar.

Within the year the program changes at Café Stella generated by Kiefer have brought in a new clientele, convinced and excited the old guard, and fueled a newly created and highly-popular “apéro” happy-hour from 3-6pm. So what’s next? “I’m open and excited to keep moving forward and experimenting. The end goal is to work on multiple lists.” With Kiefer’s success it appears that Mr Kantner will soon be giving her that opportunity as new projects are already in the works.

Philippe Newlin