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


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.

Kokkari, a Bit of Greek Wine, and You Have Erotas

It all started on December 16th, 2000. I remember it well because Alice, my S.O. (significant other, to you) must have been impressed that I had scored one of the few coveted booths at Kokkari Estiatorio. She’d been there many times B.A. (before Alan) but never, ever, had she snared one of those large booths in the spacious Greek-Cali restaurant.

That was the beginning with our love affair, both with each other and Kokkari. Every year since, on December 16th, we celebrate our S.O.-ness there. We also go there several times during the year, too, so enamored are we with this huge, comforting restaurant.

So while the Greek used-to-be empire disintegrates yet again, Kokkari (as well as Alice and Alan) have managed to keep it together. That’s because the folks who run Kokkari have come up with a formula that keeps the place flourishing and as relevant as the day it opened.

For me, being the big food lover that I am and an even bigger wine lover, Kokkari has done it for me almost every time. The place is lovely, warm and inviting, and urbane. The food is smashing—enhanced by the open pit on which meats and fish are grilled and roasted. The service is almost always keen and sharp, and the wine program is spot-on.

Not because the wine list is comprised of great world-class bottlings, such as verticals from the great Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ($700 to $6,500); or the magnums of J. Mommessin, Grand Cru, Clos de Tart 2004 ($900); or the Fumé de Pouilly, Buisson Renard ‘04 ($450) from Didier Dagueneau; or the Shafer, Hillside Select, cabernet sauvignon, Stags Leap ‘06 ($1,000). Nay, it’s the Greek wines—19 in all—that attract me.

It’s a dichotomy that while Greece burns, its wines—once considered some of the greatest in the world (during Greek times, one surmises)—is making a comeback after so many millennia (too confounding to count, what with all that B.C. stuff).

With more than 200 grape varieties that are often unpronounceable by us Americans, it’s a cliché to conclude that Greek wine is much more than retsina, that Pine Sol-like liquid that’s the Grecian answer to grappa. If the Greeks had thrown retsina to the Romans and the Romans in turn heaved grappa into the mugs of the Greeks, maybe there’d have been a draw and both empires might have survived.

Most of the wines of Greece are white (about 70 percent), which includes the beautifully opulent yet balanced assyrtiko (pronounced ass-SEER-tee-ko) from Santorini and from one of Greece’s best producers, Sigalas. Served at Kokkari for $11 by the glass, the wine has so much depth and texture that it pairs wonderfully with appetizers such as the restaurant’s rich, creamy, lemony tzatziki that I love so much.

But it was the red Porto Carras, limnio, Côtes de Meliton ‘10 that was a pleasant surprise. Almost like a good Willamette Valley pinot noir, the fruitiness and balance of the limnio (the grape variety) held up and augmented the fried zucchini cakes; the extravagant baked feta with brandy; and even the grilled whole branzino, the latter of which was a serendipitously perfect foil for the red wine.

There was a misstep along the way, as our server, who was a bit obsequious at first, but who knew her food menu, was somewhat in the weeds in regards to the wine. When I told her I was interested in some of the Greek wines, she immediately pointed me toward a merlot-syrah blend, to which I quickly responded that I was interested only in native Greek varieties. When I asked her to explain the differences between the aforementioned Porto Carras and the agiorgitiko from Driopi Tselepos, she didn’t hesitate (to her credit but to my dismay) to admit she didn’t know the wines and would “check my description list.” She was back in a flash and, again in her favor, explained them perfectly and was right on about the limnio, which we ended up ordering.

Later in the evening, our server removed my S.O.’s glass even though it had some wine in it, and there still some liquid left in the bottle. I think she was embarrassed, which resulted in comped desserts. In all my years dining at Kokkari, the wine service and knowledge of the staff have been consistent. I’m guessing our young waitperson was inexperienced in the sometimes obtuse business of wine; but I’m also surmising she’ll fare better next time.

As for Alice, we shared our very first kiss at Kokkari on that night in ‘00, in the elevator going down to the restrooms. Romantic, huh? Or should I say Greekmantic? Better still, it was erotas.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Porto Carras, limnio, Côtes de Meliton 2010 ($40)

So you want a red to go with the many grilled and roasted fish at Kokkari? This is the red for you. Not too heavy; in fact, it could be taken for a robust Oregon pinot noir. From a hillside vineyard in Macedonia—one of the largest in Europe—this limnio has beautiful fresh fruit, wonderful balance, and comes in at a very reasonable 13.5 percent alcohol.