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

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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.

The Truth That Is Oakland’s Bellanico

Bellanico, in Oakland’s Glenview district, is a near-perfect restaurant. I don’t mean to imply that it is a great restaurant or a three- or four-star restaurant. But if one only looks for those attributes, one would be selling Bellanico short, because it’s one of those rare spots that has everything in place. That is, its ambiance is modern and pleasing (including a reasonable sound level); the food, predominantly in the style of Umbria, Rome, Emilia-Romagna, the Veneto, and Piemonte, is simple and delicious; the service is top notch and attentive; and the prices are reasonable. Oh, and the wine list, under the purview of co-owner Elizabeth Frumusa, is a joy.

The wine program is gratifying because of its breadth, staying mostly in the many regions (some obscure) of Italy, with a few knowing nods to France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Portugal, and California. The prices are excellent, starting at $28 and staying chiefly in the $40-$50 range. There is a very smart flights menu, with selections such as “Wines from the Islands” (Sardinia, Sicilia) and “The Hills of Northern Italy.” These are comprised of three wines, each with three-ounce pours, priced between $11.75 and $15.50. That’s more than a third-of-a-bottle at a very decent tariff, and you get to hopscotch the Italian countryside.

But mostly, and this is the takeaway apropos of Frumusa’s wine program: Her staff is conscientiously well trained. They know the 60 or so selections on the list as well as they know the food coming out of chef Jonathan Luce’s small open kitchen.

It’s a wonder—as Bellanico comes up on its fifth anniversary—how Frumusa has stuck to her old-world wine proclivities. When I was the wine director for a short-lived Italian trattoria, Caffé Centro, which was around for about a minute in the late ’90s-early oughts in Downtown Berkeley, I was charged with putting together an all-Italian list. By the time the place closed five years later, the list was more than 60 percent California wines. It’s what the clientele at the time demanded; and perhaps more telling, I couldn’t succeed in training the staff in the intricacies of Italian wines. Perhaps it was because of the myriad, sometimes difficult-to-pronounce and little-known names of the producers, regions, and varieties of some of those wines. But Frumusa somehow has mastered a way to bring them to life for her guests and her staff.

Frumusa, who is half Sicilian and half Spanish, is a certified wine specialist through the Society of Wine Educators. She tells me she trains her staff on the wine a few times a month—tasting the wines with the food and showing them maps of Italy’s regions—and even periodically quizzes them with written tests.

“I’ve had people who are green [to wine],” she explains, “who’ve turned out to be my little stars.” She, too, had the usual suspects on her list—the cabs, the pinots, the chards—when Bellanico opened in 2008 (she and her husband Chris Shepherd still own Aperto on Potrero Hill). But the list organically migrated to almost all Italian wines, and without apparent complaint from the clientele.

To give you some idea of Bellanico’s high-wire act, try on a 2011 Grillo Centonze from Marsala ($8.50 the glass/$34 the bottle) and match it with Luce’s warm farro antipasti salad ($9) with yellow beets and toasted hazelnuts. The Sicilian grillo (a grape, which is gaining, or should gain, a foothold in the States) is not a sweet Marsala aperitif; it’s dry, bright, and lovely. It comingles with the graininess of the farro and its fruit is elevated by the sweetness of the beets and nuttiness of the nuts.

Or take the organic 2011 Maggiorina ($42), a red wine with which I was not familiar, and pair it with another beet dish: the Casunzei ravioli (a recipe from northeastern Italy) that is stuffed with red beets and ricotta and topped with Grana Padano. This offering is an example of Bellanico’s alacrity. The ravioli, which are gossamer-thin, are offered in two portion sizes, as are many of the dishes. The wine—a blend of nebbiolo and the little-known croatina—is from the obscure Boca area of the Piemonte. Here, the dry nebbiolo marries with the beets, while the croatina’s bite and fruitiness enlivens the cheeses.

This match is emblematic of Bellanico’s cutting-edge wine program, coexisting with and augmenting its food, which at heart is warm, embracing, and satisfying. If one can imagine, situated in the Oakland “village” of Glenview, this is the definition of a neighborhood trattoria. There’s not a hint of blowsy or showy preening. It’s all straightforward, comforting, and true.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2009 Scacciadiavoli, Montefalco, Umbria ($11.50/$46 on the list at Bellanico); $20-$23 retail

This red blend of sangiovese (60 percent), sagrantino (15), and merlot (25) has floral aromas of herbs and licorice and is showing wonderful black cherry on the palate. It’s still a little young, but it will open in time to show what it’s made of. I wish there were more sagrantino, the grape variety of the little hill town of Montefalco, in the mix to show additional uniqueness of the area from which it comes.