Jeff Berlin has been À Côté‘s wine director ever since the Oakland restaurant opened 12 years ago, starting with a global selection of wines. Today, the list is focused entirely on traditionally made European wines—many of which would be considered esoteric even by the cognoscenti. “I felt people were interested in those wines, but whenever there was something more familiar in the list, they would habitually order it,” he explains. “So we removed the familiarity from the list to force people to try something they’ve never heard of before.” He talked to Luke Sykora about some of his most exciting finds this year.
People continue to be really interested in the wines of Hungary. Toward the end of the year we got in a new favorite—from Somló, sort of this volcanic mountain. The grape is called juhfark. It’s like going into a curio shop and finding something truly crazy and unique. I thought about it like that guy in Gremlins: “You want something really, TRULY unique?” It’s an ancient wine, they’ve been making it forever, but the area never recovered from phylloxera much, so it’s a tiny production. Historically, it’s been know as long as Tokaji has, and traditionally, it’s the wine you drink on your wedding night if you want to conceive a boy. It’s from a steep mountainside: mineral, with great acidity, technically off-dry but because of all the acidity it drinks beautifully, with a bit of a honeyed feel to it.
What do you pair it with?
A pappardelle with bacon, Fontina cream and sage—a really simple pasta that’s kind of rich, and the big fat pieces of lardon are a killer pairing, really like fireworks. Or our duck confit flatbread, or smoked trout salad—it’s really versatile.
What’s exciting about the wines from behind the former Iron Curtain?
It’s old traditions coming back to life—and there are gradually more and more regions and winemakers developing their wineries and winemaking for export, wines that have been a part of the local tradition for hundreds or even thousands of years.
You know, the craziest thing is seeing people coming in and asking for Georgian wines. It wasn’t but two or three years ago that the first of those wines were coming into the US. We’ve been focusing on them so much during the past few years that people have really come to know them. Just the other night, someone walked in and asked if we had any saperavi…
I think maybe the more northern interior region of Croatia near the border of Serbia and Hungary has also evolved for us. We started to get welschriesling from that area a few years ago, nice, light aperitif wines. But recently some much more interesting wines have been coming from interior Croatia. One example is locally called grasevine, a welschriesling where 20 percent or so is late harvest, so they take that simple young wine and add some more complex, botrytized late harvest grapes to it.
It seems like you sold a lot of Italian wine this year. Have any particular regions been a focus for you?
I’d say kind of the central coast on each side of the country. The coastal wines, especially reds, tend to be the most versatile styles for the dinner menu. They express some briny, salty ocean or sea characteristics and lots of really bright acidity and an earthiness from growing around the coast and on certain islands, but typically they’re not too tannic, so they’re great for having a red wine that goes with shellfish or seafood.
Lacrima di morro from the Marche has grown in popularity over the last several years. Now we’re starting to see other unique varieties from there like vernaccia nera. That’s a nice alternative to lacrima—it’s kind of lacrima lite, a bit lighter and less floral.
Since you started doing this, have any noteworthy shifts happened on the importer side?
Many importers focus on the same selection of winemakers—the same players year after year. And I think that’s just kind of limiting when there’s so much going on in the wine world. We want to experiment, see what winemakers are new on the scene. So there are five to six importers and distributors we work with very consistently. I think of them as very pioneering—always looking over the hill for something new yet very traditional, people fighting that good fight, keeping those local traditions alive. Frank Dietrich from Blue Danube, Charles Neal, JD [Dirickson] from ZigZagando, Chris Terrell from Terrell Wines, Oliver McCrum as well—I think of all of them as the real risk-takers, people who really are not looking for wines that are going to have points. They’re the ones that are creating future consumer trends, showing off these amazing wines from obscure places. And on top of that there’s the value that comes with that obscurity—the value’s crazy!