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

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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.

In Tosca’s Next Act, Wines Take a Bow

For years, I kvetched (half-seriously) to Jeannette Etheredge about putting some good wine into her ~TOSCA CAFE~. Taking pulls on her ubiquitous cigarettes, she would wave the blue smoke from my eyes, but I knew it was really meant to dismiss my requests. Jeannette can still occasionally be seen at the end of what, until recently, used to be her North Beach bar, ciggies still in hand. She’s told me she loves the joint maybe more so now than she has in a long while, because of what April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman did to restore and keep the integrity of what is one of the iconic dives in the city. Jeannette, bless her heart, likely doesn’t know much about the wines they’ve laid in.

But I do.

More specifically, the ones that Ceri Smith and Randall Grahm have selected for the wine list. Smith is the owner of the all-Italian Biondivino wine shop off Polk, and Grahm, the owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is the possessor of one of the most iconoclastic and smart minds in the wine biz. Both are not big fans of new-world wines, meaning high-alcohol, overly extracted, oaky wines that are unbalanced and don’t match well with food.

Their charge at Tosca—a San Francisco landmark that Bloomfield and Friedman succeeded in memorializing and catapulting into the new century—was to do much the same with the wines. The list is predominated by Italian selections that are in line with the food. There are but a few California wines, categorized into “old-school” and “new-school” rubrics, which comprise about 15 percent of the list. Among those are two of Grahm’s wines (he also has a cider), including his Le Cigare Volant Red from 2009 (priced at an egalitarian $50). Notable in the Cali litany are a chardonnay from Stony Hill (‘09), an “orange” vermentino from Ryme Cellars called “His,” and two cabernets from the unfairly maligned ‘98 vintage produced by two of Napa Valley’s progenitors of old-world sensibility, Randy Dunn and Bob Travers (Mayacamas).

Another thought-provoking selection is the ‘12 Bisson “Abissi” from Liguria, which is marked with an asterisked “aged in sea,” but is not explained. So I will: The owner of this sparkler ran out of room in his cellar to store and ferment the wine, so he had the most unique idea to sink it (abissi) to the bottom of the sea (enclosed in what became a barnacle-encrusted cage), where it could age in cold temperatures and dangle in the roiling water as though it were being riddled (turned), as is the usual protocol for such wines.

There’s also an ‘09 pinot grigio from Radikon ($89/500 ml), which is a “natural” wine, meaning no inoculated yeast or added sulfur.

The list is heavy with Barbarescos, Barolos, Brunellos, Chianti Classicos, and Sicilians. You’ll even find one Chianti Classico in a fiasco, a 2011 Monteraponi. It’s an old world, straw-wrapped bottle we all grew up with, albeit at a new world $75.

There is a surfeit of wines priced in the $40s, and then the list climbs precipitously to $569 (2000 Krug Brut Champagne) and $659 (‘03 Quintarelli Amarone). The ‘99 Scarpa Tetti Neive Barbaresco ($135) is pricey but still a very good deal, as is the ‘08 Brezza Barolo ($87).

In the end, however, this is really Ceri Smith’s baby. Randall Grahm told me that aside from the opening list, he’s been so busy that his participation at Tosca has been very limited. “It’s all Ceri all the time. She’s a genius; so smart and so scholarly about Italian wines. We occasionally send notes about ampelography (the study of grapevines) at three in the morning. That’s hard-core…. I will try and get more involved but there’s a finite amount of chi in this organism. I can kibitz about it, but it’s her list.”


TO LOOK FOR: BioVio Marené Pigato, Liguria ($14 by the glass/$7.50 for a 3-ounce taste)

This is what is referred to as a “natural” wine, in that only wild yeasts were used and no sulfur was added. It comes from one hectare (2 1/2 acres) on the Italian Riviera near Genoa. Pigato, rarely found here, is the white grape of the region. It is reminiscent of viognier in that there’s a peach-like component, but with more herbal qualities. We had it with roasted Treviso (radicchio), a pork sausage, and a fantastic bowl of clams loaded with bacon.

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