Soon after opening A Côté in Oakland 15 years ago, Jeff Berlin began accumulating accolades for a wine list that pushed the envelope, featuring wines from obscure grapes and forgotten wine regions, with stories about each that made them accessible and compelling. Since then, the restaurant has become a beacon for anyone interested in discovering the world’s lesser-known wine treasures, whether it’s sumoll from Spain’s Penedes or skin-contact amber wines from Georgia.
Seventy percent of your wine sales are by-the-glass. Why is that number so high?
I wouldn’t want to throw our bar staff under the bus—they are terrific—but we’re just a wine machine: every single table, every night, we have people tasting through multiple glasses of wine. It’s like a juggernaut that keeps rolling. The by-the-glass sales really help; we sell more by the glass than bottle, by far. It’s simply more consonant with the style of our food—we serve it family-style, and tons of plates come out to each table. A parade of flavors equals a parade of glasses. We’ve expanded the quantity of wines we offer by the glass, too, because we sell so much of it—we don’t have to be concerned with having bottles sit, unused. So it’s also the kid-in-the-candy-store effect—they sit down, see 60 wines available to taste; it just draws them in.
How do you manage to sell such incredibly obscure wines?
There’s the customer who just says, ‘I don’t know any of this; screw it. Just surprise me.’ But now I also have people come in and say, ‘I came here because I heard you have wine from former Soviet states—I want to try Georgian wine,’ or Hungarian wine, or whatever. Or they are even more focused: I heard you have a wine from Khakheti and I’d like to try that, or ‘I heard you have wine from western Georgia—I’ve only had them from eastern Georgia.’ It’s mind-blowing. And I’m like: Yes, let’s do it!
How is Georgia doing on the wine list?
This is the first year that a Georgian wine made it into the list of best-selling wines when I ran the numbers for the Poll! That was the [Pheasant’s Tears] Shavkapito: I can’t keep it in stock. That was one of first that came here six or seven years ago; it’s always served as a good intro to skin-contact Georgian wines, because the grape is not as thick-skinned as saperavi. It’s more floral, or at least the way John [Wurdeman, the vintner] makes it, it’s a little more forgiving to Americans. It drinks more like a rustic cabernet franc.
And the Shavnabada [a top by-the-glass pour]—anytime you’re able to say that a wine is made by monks in a monastery, they eat that one up. And it’s not cheap. But it’s a great wine, and also, it has an advantage because the wines have had a few extra years on them. That’s been really important even for me, to be able to see how these wines age. They change so much; they take on new personality and structure. It’s so rare to have the chance to taste older Georgian wines—it’s a combination of the culture, in which each person makes a small amount of wine and they drink it over the course of a year, and recent history; they simply don’t have much older wines to sell. Aging, however, does take the edges off the wine. If we could get more aged skin-contact Georgian wines, they’d blow people away.
What are some of your most exciting finds lately?
The Okros Mtsvane Pétillant-Naturel. It’s the first pétillant from Georgia I ever had, and it’s delicious—flowery, herbal, spicy, white peppercorns…I bought all of it. And sold it all. That, and the Stoka Vitovska sparkling from Slovenia—it has the perfect amount of fizz, all the aromatics of a wild, rustic farm wine, easy-drinking. Pét-nats are very popular; all of us wine nerds are all about it; we try to keep five to six of them on hand all the time. The one challenge is that they are hard to have by the glass; the bubbles fade too quickly.