Locavore Lists

The Bay Area is one of a handful of urban centers situated in the hub of wine country. But unlike other cities that share this distinction—places like Bordeaux, Vienna, Turin and Florence—its restaurants don’t tend to focus exclusively on their home region’s wines. Order grilled lamb in Bordeaux, and you’ll be hard—pressed to find anything but claret to accompany it. Yet Bay Area lists are beginning to change as the locavore movement spreads beyond the food menu. Part of the reason is the accent on developing a local cuisine—one that tends to focus on bright, fresh, full flavors, gutsier perhaps than most traditional European cuisines. At First Crush, near Union Square, Bruno Baglin took over the all–California list a year ago. “At first, I thought that it was going to be very limiting,„ he says. But he found that the food–largely sourced from nearby farms and fisheries—dovetailed with the local wines. “The menu has a lot of big flavors, and you need a broad–shouldered wine to support that.„ First Crush’s bacon–wrapped wild boar, for example, requires a muscular syrah like Saxon Brown’s Flora Ranch from Chalk Hill or Bonaccorsi ’s Larner Vineyard from the Santa Ynez Valley.
    Some California wines hit a mark that no others can. Mark Bright, the sommelier at Saison, describes his list as French style, explaining that he’s looking for the sort of balance, acidity and minerality associated with Burgundy, Rhône and the Loire. And while that often translates to French wines on his list, he’s found a role for California wines as well. “We have richer dishes, like the brassicas bouillon,” he says, referring to a soup of brassicas, toasted grains and quail egg. He describes it as “a really rich broth” that’s suited to wines with a lot of oak. “And Burgundy with that kind of oak will be too expensive to pour by the glass.” Instead, he reaches for the Scribe Chardonnay from Carneros and Alta Maria Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley, wines that balance their oak richness with the kind of restraint he often seeks from overseas.
    For Paul Einbund at Frances, wine country’s proximity makes it easy for him to respond to seasonal menu changes, as he blends his own house wines at Miraflores Winery in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. “Chef Melissa and I will talk about upcoming dishes, and I’ll go up to the winery with those in mind,” he says. “When the menu starts changing, we’ll change the wine again.” There are more practical advantages as well. Since his house wine is poured by the keg, “we don’t have to label it, cork it or pay for bottles. We just buy a keg,” so there’s also less waste in packaging, shipping and in wine gone bad.
    Einbund finds plenty of other California wines to mix into his tight, far–ranging wine list. While the lighter end of the wine list (“Light Whites, Crisp & Refreshing”) is a little short on local examples, chardonnays from Lioco, Tandem and Ceritas—all from cooler corners of northern California—find a natural place among the Chablis and Puligny that fill the “Full–Bodied Whites” section; pinot noirs from Soliste on the Sonoma Coast and Sinskey in Carneros fit into the “Light, Rustic Reds” alongside Anne Gros Burgundies and nerello mascalese from Passopisciaro.
    What Bright and Einbund are searching for in local wines is, in a word, restraint—something Jonathan Waters at Chez Panisse seeks when matching wines to a dish defined by simple, fresh flavors. “It requires a quiet foil,” he says, “and this is easier to find in cooler climates, like the Loire and Rías Baixas.” But lately he’s finding more local examples of this restrained style. “More young winemakers have sought out cooler vineyards and are bringing forth the flavors of those sites—producers like Evesham Wood, Wind Gap, Lioco and Ghostwriter,” he says.
    Collin Casey, the wine director at Baker & Banker in Pacific Heights, says he is buying more California wines than ever right now. “There’s a new vanguard of producers coming out making cool wines, guys like Lioco, Arnot–Roberts, La Clarine Farm and Wind Gap—and I still love Dashe, Steve Edmunds, Ridge and Matthiasson. These are wines that are not designed to be accessible in their youth or to garner high scores immediately on release. There isn’t a prevalence of new oak in their profile, and they aren’t low acid. You can tell when you taste them that they’re varietally correct.”
    In other words, they are made for the table, just like the European wines local San Francisco sommeliers have long favored.

—Devon Magee