Allegra Angela studied anthropology at Emory and attended the culinary program at the CIA in Hyde Park, then started focusing on wine while working for chef Michelle Bernstein in Miami. She moved to San Francisco in 2014 and now runs the wine program at AQ, one of the James Beard Foundation’s five nominees for Best New Restaurant of 2012.
We do one every season. I think I just dreamt about it. I was not on the floor for a long time—my last job was spirits, spirits, spirits—so I think I had these ideas in my head, and when I got back on the floor I wanted to have a classic list, but then maybe two percent of stuff that’s just super-experimental.
I was sitting on a lot Sherry and Jura wines from TBD [a sister restaurant that closed], and I was like: how can I liquidate some of this inventory? The first infused wine I did was an Amontillado with star anise, a ton of fresh orange peel or grapefruit peel and some brown sugar syrup, to pair with some cheeses on the tasting menu… With the Jura wines, the first infusion I did was with truffle, because late that fall, chef gave me some truffles to play with. You can still taste the wine, and it’s something that pairs well with cheese. I tried chamomile in an older white from Jura but it was just okay… I’ve done some, too, that were awful, just disgusting. But often we’ll stick with Amontillado with fennel or star anise, some sort of licorice-y note. And then truffle and [Jura] yellow wines.
I don’t make a lot of them. But you can add more texture to your list with just a little extra prep. I call them “red flag” wines: you can give someone a taste, and they’ll either love it or they’ll hate it. If people want to go there, they can.
Seasonal features at the top of the wine list
The Musar feature really opened a lot of people to the wines. I’ve sold the ’91s, the ’98s, the 2000s. Maybe once every night or every two days, someone asks about it. People who know Musar know Musar, but those who don’t are fascinated. And it’s a good way to provoke a question. It’s an avenue to make a guest feel comfortable: If you want to geek out or learn this story, you can go there. Or you can just pass over it and choose something you’re more comfortable with. Since 2007, I’ve always had Musar on my programs.
I have to change it soon; it’s been on three and a half months. The next feature will be wines made by wine directors and somms.
Stickies and pairings
I can’t believe how much dessert wine I go through. Because everyone gets a pairing [60 percent of guest order wine pairings rather than bottles], I go through more dessert wine than I ever have in my life. We usually sell 15 to 20 percent [of guests] the tasting menu. But the main thing is the four-course prix fixe, and most people get pairings, because they just want to try different things, and they can’t commit to a bottle. We always open up good stuff, so it’s always a deal. We make up our cost more on our banquets and by the glass.
Top-selling wine: 2013 Garnier Chablis
It’s this riper style of Chablis. People think of Chablis as this steely, lemony, limey high acid wine that’s lacking some texture thing. I love this whole new wave of producers in Sancerre and Chablis that are using more lees, picking a bit later, maybe using a bit more new wood—and they have riper fruit, more of a stone fruit aspect. They’re still Chablis, but they have this aspect that’s more of a fit for an American palate. If someone likes California chardonnay and someone else likes Chablis, you can pour this and both will be happy. It’s still an Old World wine, but it just has a little more stuffing in it. If you go to a wedding and they’re pouring that, everyone’s happy.
Ten years ago, the only Chablis under $14 wholesale was the Fevre Champs Royaux, and now the price level on village-level Chablis is great. You can even get really great premier cru Chablis and sell it at under $80. The value there is so great right now.
Favorite pairings of the year
We did abalone sous vide and then grilled, served with a piccata sauce with blood orange and tomato and capers—very simple Mediterranean flavors. I love seafood with Rioja. This works with either the 2004 La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva or the 2005 Viña Alberdi Riserva.
Also, seared foie gras with cabbage broth and broccoli paired with Vincent Carême’s 2010 Vouvray Les Clos. Off-dry chenin and foie—yum!
photo by Spencer Brown