Dennis Cantwell of SF’s Nopa on Building a List of Wines That Aren’t So Assertive - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Dennis Cantwell of SF’s Nopa on Building a List of Wines That Aren’t So Assertive

Originally from Philadelphia, Dennis Cantwell studied marketing and finance before deciding he didn’t really want a desk job, and falling into the restaurant world. He moved to San Francisco, worked at Zuni and, for the last four years, has worked as a manager at Nopa. This January, he became the restaurant’s third wine director since it opened in 2006. “I’ve always been a big fan,” he says. “I used to dine there after work, and I admired what [former wine directors] Chris [Deegan] and Lulu [McAllister] were doing.” Now, he runs the list.

Two Southern French reds, Gramenon’s Sierra du Sud and Sang Des Cailloux’s Floureto, made your top-selling list. Why do they work so well for you?

They have a great value for the price—they’re both under $60—and they have versatility with the food we offer. [Guests are] not getting Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Cornas or Côte-Rôtie. The wines that people here really enjoy are wines that will work through the whole meal. We’re not the kind of place where you’re looking for a “food-pairing” wine. It’s more wines that aren’t so assertive, that will work with anything. We don’t sell a lot of Barolo, for example. But these have some of those earthy tones for people who are into more Old World wines, and pinot drinkers who enjoy a more opulent style can find some connection with those wines as well. I think they’re just delicious, well-made wines. I think you’re starting to see a trend toward those reds from the south of France: Languedoc and southern Rhône wines.

Tell me about your top-selling wine, the 2014 Father John Oehlman Vineyard Pinot Noir from Russian River.

He’s a cool character—Nicholas Maloney. He literally just showed up at our door one day and brought us an unopened bottle. He wasn’t really working the market; he specifically sought Nopa out.

I think his first vintage was 2012. He was born and raised in Sonoma, and studied in the Côte de Beaune, and actually buys some fruit from different parts of Burgundy. We haven’t carried any of those yet, but he actually imports them back to States, and sells them under Father John.

He’s just one guy! I went up and tasted some barrel samples a while ago and I asked: How are you doing this by yourself? And he says, as a joke, “Well, my mom sometimes helps…”

He does a really lean pinot noir that’s bright and fun and fairly restrained, low in alcohol, just really nice and balanced. At $75, it’s one of the cheaper domestic pinots that we have, and people love drinking domestic pinot.

If a lot of guests go for domestic pinot, what’s with a pinot noir from the Mosel showing up as one of your top by-the-glass wines?

Pinot noir always does pretty well by the glass for us. That was one of the wines that we brought on in the last couple of months. It’s Vereinigte Hospitien, and I think it’s one of the oldest cellars in Germany, which would make it one of the oldest in the world. It’s a 2011, so it still has some fruit to it, but it’s still a nice mineral-driven pinot noir. I’d never had a Mosel pinot noir when I tried it, but it’s a wine that fits Nopa in a nice way, and we’re still pouring it by the glass right now.

It’s not really that funky of a pinot, to be honest with you. Spätburgunders can sometimes have that mossy, spicy smokiness to them, and this has that with fruit and minerality mixed in. I wouldn’t be surprised for someone tasting it blind to call it out as a German pinot.

But there haven’t been any send-backs with that wine. With by-the-glass wines, there’s always that thing where you’re like: Am I getting too weird with this, or is this just weird enough?

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.