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


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 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.

Duende: A Spanish Emporium That Breathes New Life into Sherry

The ancient wine, sherry, is new again; and it’s hot, hot, hot. That’s why it’s fortuitous for Paul Canales to just have opened his intriguing, handsome, and on-fire ~DUENDE~ in the überchic Uptown conclave of Oakland. Whether or not Duende is driving the sherry revival or if it has simply come on the scene on the cusp of the wine’s reemergence doesn’t matter. Sherry, as presented here, is decidedly not your grandfather’s or even your father’s understanding of the wine; and its ascendency to modernity comes at a time when everything old seems new again.

Duende, which was inspired by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, characterizes itself as a “cocina de la claridad y la oscuridad.” I’m not entirely certain how that philosophical expression pertains to its wine program, but allow me to make my own interpretation: If you’re not enamored of Duende’s sherries—of which there are more than 20 (including a flight of three)—you’re still in the dark.

Especially after tasting Canales’ food with one particular sherry, which sent me to a place that has always attracted me to such disparate things as a beautiful woman, a great catch in the outfield, a bite of food, and a magnificent wine. At Duende, it was a tapas of croquetas de brandada and a sherry so deep in color and rich of flavor that, together, stands among my pantheon of great things in the world.

The lightly fried fingers of salt cod and potato (even without the superfluous caper-mayonnaise sauce) were as good as anything I’d had in almost three weeks in Catalunya in September. Croquettes might be a cliché, but they can be delicious. Here they’re elevated to ethereal heights, especially when paired with the earthly González Byass Leonor palo cortado sherry. The name of the wine is a mouthful I know, but that’s precisely the feeling you’ll have in your mouth (see below for more details), particularly after a bite of the brandada.

Palo cortado refers to the style of the sherry that came about as an accident. Before winemakers in Jerez de la Frontera—the sherry zone of Spain—deemed it good enough to sell, they consumed it themselves. Not unlike how hanger steak was known as the “butcher’s cut” before it became hip with a new generation of consumers.

Thus, palo cortados have now become rare and relatively expensive; they’ve emerged as the Audi 8s of sherries. At Duende, there is a quartet of palos, ranging in price from $51 for the aforementioned González Leonor to a whopping $225 for the Añada 1982 by the same producer.

Duende’s wine program is put together by Gerard Maristany, who also sells all the wines on the list from the restaurant’s “bodega”—at a 35 percent discount. In addition to the sherries, Maristany has mined the breadth of the Spanish landscape, including wines from more obscure wine regions such as Catalunya, the Canary Islands, Mallorca, and Toro. Here too are five rosados, a large number for Bay Area restaurants, but why not? Rosés, like sherry, are wines whose time has finally come. Also, you’ll find godellos, mencias, a dichotomous old-vine grenache that has been aged in French oak, and a Cali zin that is described as being oxidized; not unlike, I’m guessing, a sherry.

The list is vast, idiosyncratic, and exciting; the prices are not cheap, but they’re fair. Our server seemed to know his sherries (a prerequisite for employment, I’m sure) and came back a couple of times to engage us in the vagaries of palo cortado, even correcting himself after proclaiming proudly that the sherry was made “by accident,” as was the tradition, to explaining that it is now actually being produced with intention.

There’s even a good bargain at Duende. If you’re a large group, go for the Señorío de Peciña tempranillo blend. That’s because it’s from the great Rioja vintage of 2001 and comes in a magnum—a two-bottle equivalent—and it’s only 129 bucks. Forget that peciña means “sludge” or that I don’t know if the wine, as listed, is a grand reserva, reserva, or crianza (indicators of time spent in barrel) but that it’s a 12-year-old wine from a coveted year.

I do know that Duende has a helluva thing going, particularly its wine program, which is on the cutting edge in one of the more exciting parts of the U.S. It’s time to consider Uptown Oakland in the same conversation as the “new” Brooklyn, Portland, Silver Lake, and the Mission.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: González Byass Leonor palo cortado sherry, NV ($9 by the glass/$51 by the bottle) ($32 in Duende’s bodega, about $20 retail elsewhere)

On the list it’s described as “a bigger kind of sherry” and indeed it is. The copper-amber color is a tell to the desired oxidation that sherry makers seek. The solera process—which transfers the wine from barrel to barrel over the years where it takes on air-infused reductive qualities—lends the wine (from the palomino grape) its complex nutty-honey aromas and flavors. But it finishes dry. It’s big and fruity, and if it were tasted blind, some would take it for a nuanced, dry rosé.