By Thomas Riley
Unless you’ve been on another planet for the past few years, it’s impossible to be unaware of the meteoric growth of the East Bay dining scene. Restaurants of every size and style, as well as gourmet groceries, niche wine shops and trend-setting food trucks, have been popping up like spring mushrooms all along this side of the Bay. One of the more welcome developments has been the increasing number of restaurants that are putting the kind of thought and creativity into their wine lists that has been sorely lacking in too many places for way too long.
I spoke to six sommeliers whose restaurants — À Côté, Encuentro, Pappo, Revival, Speisekammer and Toast — are alike in several ways. They believe in discovery through tasting — that is, helping their guests find a wine that suits them by guiding them through the wine list, a bit of this and a bit of that, until they find what they’re looking for. They are all adamant about keeping wine affordable, operating under the belief that wine is an essential part of the dining experience, and so should not be priced out of reach.
They are all eager to introduce diners to small, relatively unknown, environmentally sound producers, knowing that such special wines will open entirely new regions of the wine world for customers to explore. Finally, they are all great places to pop into any day of the week for a good glass of wine, where one doesn’t have to worry about stuffy pretense or suffocating prices.
5478 College Ave., Oakland
Jeff Berlin, owner/wine buyer
Theme: “The wines chosen are those that are most complimentary to the regional dishes our chef prepares. Like, if he’s doing something inspired from the Ligurian coast, we’ve got wines from that region that pair perfectly with that food,” Berlin said.
“We feel like we’re supporting people that are making wine the way that their family and ancestors and people from that region have made wines for hundreds of years. It’s always evolving, but some small pleasure comes with leaning away from the global beverage market. I like to believe we do our tiny, tiny part in supporting that.”
Hidden value on list: “As you push further into more obscure regions that lack cachet, you’ll always get great value from any of the top producers in the area. On our list we focus on the $30-$50 range, and there are tons of value in that spread. You can get some of the best wines in Europe from unknown areas at a fraction of the cost of the wines from the more well-known areas.”
Suggested pairing: “Our menu changes almost every day, and on staff we all have favorite pairings. Recently, a couple ordered the seared yellowtail jack, and wanted a red wine. So I set them up with an Etna Rosso from Sicily. The food and wine went together splendidly. You’d think it would be too robust for fish, but the jack has a pronounced flavor, and the wine’s minerality gives it a clean elegant finish that went perfectly with it.”
What sets À Côté apart: “Taking all the familiar choices off the list was a gamble; forcing people to select something they had never heard of. Taking away the familiarity has set us apart. They’re coming for the food and they have to drink some wine, so then they come to love the wines that we pair and then, later on, we have an understanding — a trust.”
ENCUENTRO CAFÉ AND WINE BAR
200 2nd St., Oakland
Linda Braz, co-owner/wine buyer
Theme: “I look for primarily small producers using organic, sustainable or biodynamic practices that are interesting and well-valued,” Braz said. “We try to keep prices reasonable so folks are encouraged to come often and have several glasses. I try to find things that you don’t see everywhere and that taste great.”
Hidden value on list: “We have the 2010 Château de Lastours from Corbières in the south of France that is smokey and divine. We also like the super delicious 2009 River Run Negrette from down in Watsonville.”
Favorite wine on the list now: “That is a hard one, as I like so many. In the white category, I love the 2011 Domaine André Vatan Sancerre that we have. It’s crisp and delicious. In the ‘other’ wines category, we have the outstanding Domaine Balivet Bugey Cerdon Methode Ancestrale. It has light alcohol, just the right amount of bubbles, and is perfect for warm weather.”
What sets Encuentro apart: “We really like to introduce new foods and wines to folks who may otherwise be afraid of a vegetarian restaurant. So many people, even the staunchest meat eaters, exclaim that they didn’t know a meal without meat could be so delicious and satisfying. And veg and vegan folks already love us. We are small and intimate, non-threatening, with excellent service. We try to give ‘fine dining’ service in a casual atmosphere that makes folks want to come back again and again.”
For rookies: “We offer an excellent value with a flight for $17. We can find out where your interest lies and put together a delightful tasting that, hopefully, introduces you to things you never would have tried on your own.”
2320 Central Ave., Alameda
John Thiel, owner/chef
Theme: “My goal is to find wines that are balanced, go well with the cuisine here, are seasonally appropriate, and a good value for the money,” Thiel said. “We don’t carry the big names. We like to feature local winemakers, and even have a house label, Thiel Family Wines, that we produce in conjunction with different winemakers.
“When looking for international labels, I look for those on the smaller production scale. I work with smaller importers and distributors, because I want to offer unique wines, things that aren’t going to be found other places nearby.”
Hidden value on list: “Probably the 1998 Château de Bellevue Lussac-Saint-Émilion. Not a lush merlot like in California, but if you have a good piece of lamb — some protein, fat and salt — the acidity in the wine will make a perfect play with that. Also, the 2009 Dehlinger Goldridge Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir for $68 is a steal.”
Favorite wine right now: “Probably the Fubbiano San Gennaro Sangiovese. They are a smaller producer who also does a great Vermentino we carry once in a while. Another favorite is the Roblin Enclos de Maimbray Sancerre we’ve had on the menu since we opened. It’s our workhorse, and one of the best Sauvingon Blancs I’ve had.”
Favorite pairing: “Because we do duck here so often, I probably would steer you to a Pinot Noir. That’s a classic pairing. Salmon also goes well with Pinot. Lots of folks don’t consider a red with a fish. If you’re having the pork chop, order the Nebbiolo by the glass. Our Thiel Family ‘Châteauneuf-du-Pappo’ is a house favorite — very versatile, works with steak, duck, pork or pasta Bolognese. It’s good on its own, too.”
For rookies: “I love the Sancerre so much I would probably start with that, or maybe one of our Italian whites. Something light and crispy, with good acidity. If they were with me on that first step I could guide them further and further all the way into the reds. If those wines are not for them, then probably a California Chardonnay, something bigger and rounder, and maybe more approachable.”
REVIVAL BAR AND KITCHEN
2102 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Patrick Cress, sommelier/wine buyer
Theme: “We focus on small, usually less-than-12,000-case production wineries that are family-owned and interested in sustainability, as well as producing balanced wines,” Cress said. “By ‘balanced’ I’m taking about wines that are less than 14% alcohol and that have acidity that suits a variety of foods. Also, we are excited about the evolution of the California wine business, where we’ve seen in the past two or three years more and more wines like that — more and more wines that have this balance, that accentuate elements like floweriness and earthiness and have balanced fruit and alcohol.”
Favorite wine on list: “I feel like these are all my babies. Each ones of these wines has a story to them. One of my favorites is the Bründlmayer Pinot Noir Zweigelt St. Laurent Brut Rosé from Austria. I think truly it is one of the world’s most fantastic wines. For me, whenever I have this wine it’s a very special occasion, because it’s an almost visceral experience. It’s extremely supple on the palate with bubbles that are delectable. It takes me away on a journey, and there are very few wines that can do that.”
Favorite pairing: “We generally feature a mixed grill, often with a combination of pig and goat. I have one by glass — 2010 Duxoup Charbono, a single vineyard production from Napa. By the bottle I suggest the 2011 Bedrock Kick Ranch Syrah from Sonoma. These are very stylish wines from producers who care about sustainability.”
What sets Revival Bar and Kitchen apart: “In terms of the wine program, we focus on wine for everybody. We have eight wines that are under $30, we have 22 under $40. The idea is that wine doesn’t need to be exclusive; we want to take all the pretense out of wine — there’s plenty of that to go around already. We don’t think people need to spend their life savings to get a very good bottle of wine.”
Hidden value on list: “I am on a never-ending search for these sorts of wines. One of those in that category is the Stolpman ‘La Coppa’ Sangiovese from the Santa Ynez Valley. It is all estate fruit and is on our menu for $34. It’s a wine that, if you blind tasted it, you’d put it in the $50 range. Tom Stolpman hits it out of the park with this bottle. It’s a stylish wine with great texture and vibrant acidity, well-balanced and powerful.”
For rookies: “If they’re open to learning and experimenting — say it’s a couple, and they are having only a glass each — I’d propose each ordering two half glasses so together they can try several things, with and without food. See what that experience is like. The most important thing is to try as much wine as possible. It’s the only real way to learn.”
2424 Lincoln Ave., Alameda
Cindy Kahl, co-owner/wine buyer
Theme: “I try to keep our list mainly German and Austrian, with some California, as well as a few from Washington and Oregon. But with the German wines, I want to cover as many different regions, styles, and ripeness levels as I can,” Kahl said. “This list is, consequently, mostly whites. Of course, the Austrian reds we’ve brought in have been so good that we carry quite a few Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch. I try to cover a whole range from those regions. I would love to do everything; unfortunately, there’s a limit.”
Hidden value on list: “It might be the whole list! All the sales people who come in can’t believe how low my prices are. It’s intentional. I try to get people to try different things. And, to support that goal, I work to keep the prices low.”
Favorite wine right now: “Right now, it’s the Euro reds for really good value. Specifically, the 2008 Glatzer Zweigelt Riedencuvée is so good. Not a huge sell right now because a lot of people don’t know it. And the Rieslings, of course, which we have in a wide range of styles.”
Favorite pairing: “One of my favorites is a tomato-based fish stew we do occasionally as a special. It’s a little bit spicy. Having that with a Spätlese Riesling is perfect. The acid and sweetness with the dish’s spiciness are so good together. They are so complementary to each other.”
What sets Speisekammer apart: “I don’t think there any restaurants in the East Bay with this many German and Austrian wines on their list, but I think the local Asian restaurants should carry more. Over in San Francisco, The Slanted Door probably sells more German whites than anybody around.”
For rookies: “White wine is any easy place to start. I think a Pinot Gris or a Gruner Veltliner are great for beginners. I might also suggest a Hungarian Pinot Gris, which is an excellent value. Hungary has some very nice wines that are worth exploring.”
5900 College Ave., Oakland
Todd O’Leary, manager/wine buyer
Theme: “My focus, first and foremost, is small production wines,” O’Leary said. “One of the first things we ask when tasting with sales reps is what are the production numbers, how much of this wine is produced — we try to keep to producers with wines under 5,000 cases, and definitely no more than 10,000.
“Next, I really want to expose everyone to local winemakers. There is a plethora of great wineries and winemakers in the East Bay so we focus on them. With international labels, we try to focus on things most folks haven’t tried or been exposed to all that much.”
Hidden value on list: “The markups here are generous because I don’t want these wines to be sitting around, I want people to drink them. Voirin-Jumel ‘Grand Cru’ Champagne Blanc de Blancs we have for $70. It’s a ‘grower’ champagne, and I’ve never seen it on a list for less that $100. In the reds, our 2009 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Pinot Noir for $75 is a very good value, as is the 2008 Corino Barolo for $80. Restaurants in San Francisco will charge $125 for that. I’m adamant about not overpricing our wines.”
Favorite wine on list: “I have a few favorites right now. Our Domaine de La Fouquette Rosé is one, along with the Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko from Santorini in Greece. In the reds, I always go for the Shypoke Charbono out of Calistoga, which has been on the list since day one. It’s a very small production wine and our guests just love it.”
Favorite pairing: “We offer glasses by the taste, and let people build their own flights or pairings. It’s a great way for us to expose people to a variety of wines; I can offer half-pours for people and step them through the meal.”
For rookies: “For guests who are new to wine, I like to start with a white like Verdicchio or Torrontés — both really friendly, and that have enough texture and body, with great fruit, that most people would enjoy. I would love for folks to try Palmina’s Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara but it might be too unfamiliar or out of reach for some. So, instead, I’d suggest a Côtes du Rhône or a Pinot Noir, maybe even a Tempranillo. All three are pretty easy to appreciate.”
Raising the dead at Revival Bar & Kitchen (11.14.12)
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