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


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.

JoLē Is Certainly Unique, Throughout.

Whenever I’m in at a restaurant that I intend to write about, I try to be as inconspicuous as possible. But when I sat down at JoLē in Calistoga, it was impossible to remain anonymous, because I was with John and Felicia Tudal, owners of the nearby Tudal Winery. When having dinner in Wine Country with two winery principals, it’s virtually impossible to stay incognito.

That’s why wine director Dan Kaiser plied us with wine—all kinds of wine, wine that wasn’t even on the list. Beautiful wines. Unusual wines. Interesting wines. In the end, the experience was serendipitous because it was a wonderful way to immerse myself in the breadth of JoLē’s wine program. It’s deep, idiosyncratic, and well realized.

Oh, and the food—octopus with brisket (!), clams with chorizo, lamb tongue with watermelon, and chicken-fried quail with roasted peaches—is as innovative and daring as the wine list.

In fact, I think JoLē is the best restaurant to inhabit the Mount View Hotel since Jan Birnbaum’s Catahoula left it almost nine years ago. The chef-owner is Matt Spector, who along with his wife Sonjia (the pastry chef), were at Matyson in Philadelphia. Though the brisket and octopus are prepared so thoughtfully it’s as if they’re the same species, Spector’s Jewish grandmother—who taught him to make brisket—would probably blanch at the thought.

But it was the wines that coalesced the experience at JoLē. For me, without thought-provoking, acid-based wine, a meal—no matter how good the food—feels as if something is missing. Kaiser knows his stuff; he not only curates the wine list, he also puts the right wines on the table with Spector’s food.

It’s always a monumental task putting a wine list together in Wine Country. You have to please all the people all the time. “Why isn’t my wine on the list?” wine industry types query. “You’re gonna charge me corkage!?” “How come you’re selling wines from Sonoma in Napa?”

Kaiser handles it deftly. As I experienced, he made sure to treat the Tudals with care, by bringing out taste after taste. He surprised and amazed us when he brought a white pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, made by Adam Lee of Novy. That is not a typo; the pinot noir was white. Lee pressed the juice off rapidly without allowing the red skin color to leach into the hopper. This was not a rosé, but a fairly full-bodied, unoaked white that was reminiscent of a good chard or roussanne. And it held its own with the octopus-brisket.

Next we tasted a 2011 Recuerdo torrontés from La Rioja in Argentina. Torrontés is the white of Argentina. It comes from a vineyard at 2,600 feet, halfway between Mendoza and Salta. The Recuerdo’s minerality had an affinity with the flavors of the octopus-brisket and clam-chorizo duos.

With the chicken-fried quail, came a ‘10 Rhône-like blend from 2880 in Calistoga, made just blocks from the restaurant. Made from grenache, syrah, and petite sirah, the balanced wine had enough tannins to stand up to the sweetness of the peach and the guts to marry with the chipotle-honey salsa.

I would have loved to taste the Spiegelberg furmint ‘10 from Hungary, but didn’t. Whenever most people even think of Hungarian wine, the sweet Tokajis generally come to mind. This furmint is dry but full-bodied and opulent. Or how about the Plavic Mali Vinrija Dingač ‘10 from Croatia? This is the original zinfandel before it migrated to California via Italy and Massachusetts. These bottles are just more examples of JoLē’s expansive wine list.

Kaiser’s list is categorized into sections: New World, Old World, Our World. Every item is served by the glass, save for the reserve list, and there’s a pichet offering, or jug. It’s a pretentious term for carafe. But that’s about all that is not real about JoLē.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2011 Recuerdo Torrontés, Argentina, $42

Why we don’t see more of this grape here, I’m not sure. It’s affordable, it can be lovely, and it’s a hell of a food wine, what with its minerality and good acid. This torrontés is aromatic with peach and citrus; and has delicious tropical fruit flavors with lemon/lime zest undertones.

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