Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Capo's)

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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 Wine List at Capo’s? Fahgettaboudit

A restaurant wine list is supposed to be a living, breathing document. At ~CAPO’S~ in North Beach—the Chicago-style red sauce speakeasy for Tony Gemignani—the wine list swims with the fishes. Which is a pity, because the food—for this genre—is very good, the portions can choke a horse, and even some of the wines are decent. But indulge me for a moment as I riff on Capo’s Chicagoland gangster theme, the moleskin-bound carta dei vini seems to have a garrote wrapped around its throat.

Thus began an odyssey: I proceeded to order a 2009 Li Veli Primonero. The server brought a 2010. It’s always a good idea to order an older wine, especially one from Italy, because many of those wines drink better with some age on them. So I looked for another ‘09, this time the Cantine Barbera Nero d’Avola. The server brought a 2010. I spotted a ‘07 that was a couple of bucks more, but what the hey, it was still in my price range. I asked of the by now embarrassed server if she could bring me the Tenimenti Angelini Tre Rose Nobile di Montepulciano. You guessed it: it was from 2009.

By now, my two lady friends were jonesin’ for a drink. Just then, the server returned with two bottles, both from the 2009 vintage. But both were higher in price than I’d budgeted. I’d like not to think I was being upsold and the gesture was only to satisfy my perceived need to have a 2009 wine. I finally settled for the ‘09 Tenimenti.

When I finally did get it, the wine turned out to be perfectly good (see What to Look For below), and went beautifully with the big-as-a-basketball wood-fired mostaccioli and the Calabrese sausage with spicy bell pepper sauce. We knew what the gig was when we took it, and happily so. I really like Chicago- and New York-style Italian restaurants, what with their larded portions of endless red sauce and garlic. I was sad when Joey & Eddie’s met its untimely demise (I think they went down with concrete fitted to their shoes).

Back at Capo’s, a manager arrived, unsolicited, to peruse the wine list and exclaimed, “The list was just redone. I don’t know why the vintages weren’t updated.” I wished I’d had a pair of brass knuckles (LOL).

It was a “duh” moment for me. After all, vintage dates are the essence of wine lists. Wines are ever-evolving things that don’t translate necessarily from year to year. For the most part, they’re rendered their lifeblood by the capricious whims of the climate. Failure to update the list—especially vintage dates—is a sign of laziness and/or wine distributors having carte blanche to roll the wines into the restaurant, no matter the change of vintage.

There may also exist a kind of hubris, if the management at Capo’s—which has a goodly number of tourists—believes that most folks won’t notice or care that the list isn’t what it says it is. That, and thinking that the cloyingly cutesy subheads—“You Know How to Whistle, Don’t You?” or “Not So Fast, Copper” and “There Are Three Sides to Every Story: Mine, Yours, and the Truth”—take the edge off is just misguided. And what the heck is a “Slinky White” or a “Nefarious Red”? One offering, under the rubric “Off the Truck,” which would connote a steal obtained in a nefarious manner, is in fact a $40 gamay from Michigan that retails for about $16.

Make no mistake, there are worthy and worthwhile wines here. For instance, there are seven on-tap selections and off-the-beaten path varieties such as a pecorino (not the cheese) from Abruzzo, and a grillo and a ribolla gialla. The list, which starts at $30 a bottle, tops out at $245 for the famous flowered Belle Epoque bottle of the 2004 Perrier-Jouët. This Champagne is just beginning to take on a patina of age with wonderful toastiness. There’s also a Napa Valley cabernet from Romeo Vineyards, the 1997 Sempre Vive, which is a good price at $69. There’s also the ‘04 Produttori Barbaresco ($65) from an excellent vintage (ask for a decanter because it needs time to open); and the ‘06 Damilano Barolo ($64), also from an outstanding vintage, with big acidity and dried fruits. Note, however, there should be an asterisk next to every wine at Capo’s, because one needs to be vigilant when it comes to the listed vintages.

Two other caveats: When our Tenimenti finally did arrive, it was way too warm; and credit cards are not accepted, so bring cash. The latter can be a cause of irritation; and may be a deterrent to many.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2009 Tenimenti Angelini Tre Rose Nobile di Montepulciano ($38, about $18 retail)

When the wine finally arrived, it was too warm, which closed in its aromas and flavors; it opened up after spending about 15 minutes on ice at my request. This sangiovese was bright with pretty fruit, some bittersweet chocolate, and was a perfect foil for the rich baked tubes of mostaccioli and with the five house-made spicy sausages. The fruit brought out the sweetness of the marinara sauce over the pasta, and the acidity of the wine held up to the Calabrese salsiccia.

Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.