Somms in the City

San Francisco Sommeliers Settle the Score with Robert Parker

The sommelier approaches your table. At least you think it’s the sommelier: She is wearing sneakers and looks barely old enough to drink. You tell her you’re looking for something to go with both your duck confit and your date’s sea urchin salad. She enthusiastically recommends a wine she just discovered, speaking in-depth about the minerality, the complexity, the high-toned acidity, the winemaker’s extensive collection of ceramic Lucky Cats. Nevermind that you’ve never heard of the producer, the varietal or the region in Northern California where the grapes grow. You consider yourself an adventurous, urbane wine drinker. She returns to the table with a wine made from red grapes, labeled “white wine,” the color of Orangina. Your dinner is about to get, if nothing else, a lot more interesting.

As wine lists flirt with esotericism, this thrill-of-discovery scenario is par for the course. No longer content to include the typical technically perfect, fruit-driven wines with high alcohol and plenty of oak — California wines that have long been championed by critics like Robert M. Parker, Jr. — wine directors are looking for unusual varietals, old vineyards and a style of winemaking that is at once traditional and experimental. “California was the birthplace of wine technology,” says Ian Becker, the Wine Director for the Absinthe Group (Absinthe Brasserie and Bar, The Boxing Room, Arlequin Café and Wine Merchant and Comstock Saloon). “Now we are looking back at techniques that are centuries old.”

Becker is among a handful of sommeliers whose enthusiasm for an emerging style of California wines — one that embraces Old-World techniques like whole-cluster fermentation, reduction, carbonic maceration, skin fermentation for white wines and exclusive use of native yeast, to the point that the wines are often imperfect, bordering (some would argue) on being flawed — is creating greater demand for these wines.

Abe Schoener, who once expressed “banishing all fruit flavor” as his goal for a wine, was considered a renegade when he first started The Scholium Project a decade ago. “When one person is successful,” — as Schoener has been, thanks in part to increasingly enthusiastic sommeliers — “it opens room for people to take chances,” says Schoener. He wouldn’t be surprised if one of his more obscure (and popular) wines, The Prince in His Caves, wasn’t the only skin-fermented white on lists in a couple of years. In San Francisco, at least, he won’t have to wait that long.

Chris Deegan, the wine director at Nopa, admits that “as people who taste wine all day, the last thing we want to taste is a wine like all the other wines.” But for years, wines that tasted like all the other wines (and not incidentally pleased the palate of one Mr. Parker) were what professional wine buyers and consumers alike looked for. Kim Beto, a Master Sommelier candidate and former Wine Director at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, says he rarely quotes Parker and Wine Spectator scores anymore. He recalls a time he tasted a group of wines that had received the coveted 100 points (a perfect Parker score) from both Napa and Bordeaux. “I turned to the guy tasting next to me and said, ‘All these wine taste the same.’ Parker has a specific palate and some producers make wines to please him rather than wines they believe in.”

“It used to be all about high-priced Napa Cabernet,” says Eric Railsback, a 26-year-old sommelier at RN74. But he sees the role of sommeliers as “turning people on to what we like.”

“If a guest is wine savvy,” affirms Beto, “he is more likely to take the recommendation of the sommelier over a critic’s or a score.”


Ian Becker does not make wine. Nor does he have any desire to do so. In another life, he would probably coach basketball. But, as the wine buyer for four restaurants and a wine store, he sees himself as “part of the winemaking process in a very organic way.” Wine buying, — like winemaking — says Becker, “is a total gamble. We are part of both the risk-taking and, ultimately, the rewards.” He sees his restaurants and wine shop as a platform for up-and-coming winemakers like Chris Brockway from Broc Cellars, whose wines — like the 2010 Carignan, made from 120-year-old dry-farmed vines and fermented carbonically with native yeast — is both fun to drink and affordable. Eric Reidy, Becker’s boss, once asked him why, in their small shop, they had five wines from Broc Cellars. Becker, far from apologetic, replied: “Customers like them and we want to support him.”

We are part of both the risk-taking and, ultimately, the rewards.”Chaylee Priete, of the Charles Phan group (The Slanted Door, Out the Door, Heaven’s Dog), has devoted an entire section of Wo Hing General Store’s list to “Innovative Local” wines. Trousseau Gris and Blaufränkisch (both made by Wind Gap, which was started by Pax Mahle as a place for wines that didn’t fit under his former (and high-scoring) Pax label) make an appearance: Ribolla Gialla shows up twice — once in a blend with other Friulian-natives crafted by legendary vineyard manager Steve Matthiasson and as a skin-fermented interpretation by newcomers Ryme Cellars. If Priete arrives at your table with a stainless steel canteen, don’t be alarmed: that’s the eco-friendly packaging for the Natural Process Alliance’s red Rhone-inspired blend.

One of winemaker Abe Schoener's lucky cats

This fall, 29-year-old Sarah Elliot did not have a single Chardonnay on her list at Commonwealth in the Mission. Elliot believes that unusual varietals from lesser-known regions made in unconventional ways (such as the 2009 Naucratis from The Scholium Project, made from Verdelho grapes grown on the Sacramento River Delta that spent over a year sur lie, or resting on dead yeast cells) provide both a better value and “an extra layer of flavor and texture.” It helps, of course, that Elliot is on the floor, hand-selling nearly every single wine.

When The Boxing Room opened last year with the goal of offering wine on tap as both an environmentally friendly and lower-priced alternative to bottled wine, Becker, unimpressed with the quality of keg wine on the market, instructed his favored local labels: “We have five taps. Go make wine.” In addition to Broc’s Cabernet Franc, from the taps flow a cool-climate unoaked Chardonnay from Lioco, a collaboration between a wine importer and a former sommelier; an Albariño from Verdad, a producer that makes wine exclusively from Spanish varietals; and a Grüner Veltliner from Zocker (which means “gambler” in Austrian — appropriate for a producer of unpopular, difficult-to-grow varietals). “We represent winemakers and vineyards,” says Becker. “If restaurants don’t buy these wines, these wineries are going to fail.”

But wines like these can be baffling, confusing and difficult to pronounce. Elliot likes that her guests are “forced to ask for guidance,” because she believes that even the staunchest Chardonnay drinker can find something new to enjoy. And if there is one thing every sommelier can agree on, if no one buys the wine, all the enthusiasm in the world won’t keep it on the list.

A version of this story first appeared in 7×7 Magazine.