Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Heirloom Café)

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Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.

He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.

Heirloom’s Neighborly, Visionary, Wine-Centric Owner

Matt Straus, a wine guy who owns the sweet local bôite Heirloom Café in the Mission, sent out an email a couple of months ago, which posited: Why don’t restaurant critics review wine lists too?

I have noticed this obvious omission and have railed for years that wine usually gets the short end. That’s because, as I replied to Straus’s observation/diatribe, most restaurant reviewers know little about wine. As I’ve long contended: Wine people know more about food than food people know about wine.

For people obsessed with wine, food and wine are inextricably linked. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and tomato, or Abbott and Costello. Many folks who love food could give a fig about wine with food.

Matt Straus was onto something with his missive, and got my attention. His email proved to be the inspiration for my “Checking Lists” column. My twice-monthly column will attempt to sort out the sometimes arcane world of restaurant wine. With the exception of Michael Bauer’s Sunday restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, there is scant info about wine in most restaurant reviews. Although I applaud Bauer for the effort, his inclusion of a restaurant’s wine program merits just a sidebar in his weekly review. And that sidebar is more often a litany of the list’s pricing regimen than an actual review of it. Bauer’s efforts often lack a viewpoint of a restaurant’s philosophy of its wines; or an analysis of the offerings as it relates to the restaurant’s raison d’être.

Straus’s email is the reason I went to Heirloom for one of my first columns. I wanted to meet him, soak in his wine list, and eat his food. There is no pretense at the corner of Folsom and 21st, and hardly any indication from the street that there’s a lovely, homey dining room inside. Heirloom has all the warmth that one could wish for in a neighborhood spot; rusticity oozes from the joint. The food is simple, wholesome, and satisfyingly good. There’s a flatiron steak, and a bacon and onion tart that lovingly wrap their richness around your heart. Duck confit salad topped with an egg will remind one of the 4th—or is it the 5th?—arrondissement.

But it is the wine list that raises my heart rate. There are only 21 selections, meant to not overwhelm and confuse the diner, which would be anathema at such an unassuming place. Chiefly comprised of French wines, there’s nary a Bordeaux to be found on the list, but there is one Napa Valley cab. And, ah, what a cabernet it is. Straus presents a 2005 from the small producer Cathy Corison, who is one of the most accomplished winemakers in America. The ‘05, especially, is a revelation, particularly in the annals of Napa cabs. Corison farms her grapes on two small parcels in the heart of Napa Valley. What results is a wine with depth, nuance, and long-lived potential. There are no overwrought encumbrances such as gobs of oak or high alcohol, which can blight the food. At Heirloom, it is $20 by the glass and $80 by the bottle. Had I been flush the night I visited, I would have ordered it. It’s a great price, considering the producer and age of the wine.

Because Straus wants to make sure you have a good experience—with wine and food— he’s keenly observant as to what his guests order. In my case, seeing that I had ordered the duck salad, he sent over a glass of “proper” wine. The 2011 Riesling Quarzit Hexamir ($12/48) from Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg, Germany, arrived unannounced to my table, because Straus knew its citrusy, slightly sweet fruitiness cut right through the fatty richness of that aforementioned duck. It was a perfect foil.

But what endeared me to Straus and his program is his reserve list, if you have the inclination to experience what a knowledgeable and generous wine entrepreneur he is. Scouring the 13-page portfolio made me as excited as the first time I emerged from the tunnel at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field as a schoolboy, awash by the wondrous expanse of the greenest green I’d ever seen. I wanted to eat it, as well as drink it all.

In Straus’s playing field is a 1998 Châteauneuf-du Pape (a red Rhône blend) from the always reliable Beaucastel for only $185 (a damned good price); and the 1996 Chateaux Trotanoy, a right-bank merlot from a good but not great vintage that is priced at $155, which is only about $30 above retail.

But what amazed and thrilled me was a vertical selection (various vintages from one producer) of Hanzell pinot noirs—one of California’s greatest makers of the varietal. Therein resides a 1973 pinot that was the first great wine I’d ever had. That was in 1976 or ‘77, at the iconic Imperial Dynasty. Richard Wing’s restaurant was the first to offer Chinois cuisine, and it was in the unlikely location of Hanford, California. That evening we had the gorgeous Hanzell with an escargot that was stuffed inside a pasta shell and topped with a cashew-butter sauce. What a magnificent pairing.

The atmosphere at Heirloom is assuredly conducive to those that seek a genuine experience without hoopla; and especially for one who is looking to augment and complement a wine culture so true as to give a sense of well-being. To prove the point, Straus will charge you only 10 bucks if you bring a bottle that is older than the 2002 vintage. Now that’s nurturing.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2011 Hexamer Riesling Quarzit, Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg, Nahe, Germany. ($12/48)
This wine from west of Frankfurt is the perfect complement to the menu’s mainstay, the bacon-onion tart. So rich is this dish that the sweetness of the wine cuts through it and cleanses the palate and readies one for the next bite. But don’t be fooled, while the wine has a citrus sweetness in the end, at midpalate it shows layers—minerality, herbal qualities—of a wine to be reckoned with. ($15-$20 retail.)