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


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.

At La Ciccia, It’s Like Being at Nonna’s.

The owners of ~LA CICCIA~—the little Sardinian gem in the San Francisco nether reaches betwixt Noe Valley and Glen Park—will, in a few months, be opening an enoteca and “lasagnaria” across the street called La Nebbia. That means more wine that chef-owner and wine curator Massimiliano Conti will have to put in his cellar. But wife and manager Lorella Degan says, “Enough vino Massimo.” Not a chance.

While Conti lays in some Champagnes at the new location that he insists will pair perfectly with the lasagna and pizza, the seven-year-old La Ciccia at the top of 30th Street and Church, is ground central for the wines of his native island.

I’ve loved La Ciccia since it opened. Not just for the rustic food, which I can only guess is authentic since I’ve not been to Sardinia, but, just as important, for the always warm, embracing atmosphere created by the owners.

While the wines—about 170 of them—are priced with an average markup of about 2½ times wholesale, you can tell there’s a serious wine person at work because the corkage fee is a hefty $35; which tells me that Conti wants you to pay attention only to his list.

On that long-form document, in 8-point type that one has to squint to read, one will discover the most well-known wines of Sardinia. There are 18 Cannonaus, 14 carignanos (carignans), and three vermentinos. The red Cannonau (can-uh-NOW) di Sardegna is grenache.

The best vermentinos on the island are grown in the north around Gallura and at La Ciccia you’ll find a couple—the lemony Jankara from 2010 and the sparkling Ladas. Both are priced $11 by the glass and $40 by the bottle and are among 22 selections by the glass. There are also three natural, so-called orange whites from the iconoclastic Friuli producer Stanko Radikon and the idiosyncratic Slovenian vintner Josko Gravner. From Radikon, there’s a 2004 ribolla gialla in a 500ml format ($78) and a 2010 chardonnay Slatnik ($68). Both wines are from Venezia as is the ‘03 ribolla gialla from Gravner, which at $152 is the most expensive white on the list.

Additionally, there are wines here from all over Italy that range in price from $33 (2009 Sustantzia Bovale Sardegna Monica) to $560 (2000 Redigaffi Tua Rita Tuscany Merlot). But when in Sardinia, as you are at La Ciccia, I like to stick with the local wines.

The blend I had with a red-sauced baby octopus stew—the 2009 Surrau (see “What to Look For”)—was by itself delicious, but the sweetness was a little much for the dish. However, it went excellently with a pizza that featured radicchio, and most especially with a fresh-as-can-be grilled calamari.

Two high-profile Sardinian reds are listed. One comes from the producer Barrua, which is a joint venture between the iconic Tuscan Sassicaia and Santadi, one of Sardinia’s top properties. The ‘09 cariginano-cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend ($85) can be thought of as a “super-Sardinian.” The other is from Italian superstar and consulting winemaker Riccardo Cotarella, who weighs in with a ‘05 carignano del Sulcis riserva from Sardus Pater ($67).

While Massimo Conti mans the stoves and walks the floor during service, as any fully engaged restaurateur is wont to do, Lorella Degan greets each of her guests with European kisses and, most times, a hug; she makes it her business to visit each table. She, too, knows her wine and is available to offer consultation. She often extends her graciousness with an opening sparkler or, on this night with dessert she offered glasses of Sicilian Marsala—Intorica Superiore S.O.M. Ambra Semisecco—that was reminiscent of a 3 or 4 puttonyos (level of sugar) Hungarian Tokaji. It was sweet and raisin-like with vanilla undertones. But its high acidity offset the sugary goodness of a saffron ricotta cake and three flavors of housemade ice cream.

In the end, La Ciccia satisfies on so many levels. I suppose it’s the hospitality that gets me every time. It makes me walk out onto the streetcar-confluenced hub that is Church and 30th with a sense of well-being. The food is wonderful and unusual (see pasta with shaved tuna heart); and the wines are thought-provoking. Ciccia, loosely interpreted, means “to be on the plump side.” It’s not a bad place to be.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2009 Surrau Cannonau-Muristellu-Carignano ($38) The wine is from a modern producer who grows the grapes in granite soils and stores it in Slovenian oak for a few months. The muristellu is an ancient grape originally grown in northern Spain and is mostly used as a blender, as it is here. There are big berry and black cherry aromas, while on the palate it’s mouth-filling and spicy and finishes with what I can only describe as dusky/dusty notes that are found often in southern European wines. The fruit, however, is very ripe and delicious, but it belies its 13.5 percent listed alcohol, which seems higher.

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