Joshua Thomas of SF’s Octavia on Budget Wines and Selling the Staff on Nebbiolo - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Joshua Thomas of SF’s Octavia on Budget Wines and Selling the Staff on Nebbiolo

Last spring, Joshua Thomas left Prospect, where he’d been running the wine program since 2012, to team up with chef Melissa Perello at Octavia and Frances. He replaced Paul Einbund, who left to focus on his own new restaurant, The Morris. Thomas spoke with Luke Sykora about changing restaurants and neighborhoods, and making the Octavia program his own.

A different ’hood

One thing I noticed, especially, is how significant the business expense account influence is. At Prospect [near the Embarcadero and Financial District], you needed a page of Napa cab because you’d have business guests from the Midwest on an expense account, and they’d want to go big. Here, you have that occasionally, but it’s more few and far between. Here you don’t have that expense account “I don’t care how much I spend tonight” guest as much.

The low end

Originally, they knew the list at Octavia was going to be bigger—it was going to be a grander list, and it was going to have more money in it—as compared to Frances [chef/owner Melissa Perello’s first restaurant]. Octavia definitely has a bigger cellar.

When I came on, there weren’t many inexpensive wines. But I thought: You should be able to find a nice $40 entry-level bottle of wine that goes with the food, even if it’s a pretty high-end place. Except for things like California pinot, you can do it. Maybe even having something like one aligoté with the white Burgundy.

Something stuck out to me from when I was at Aqua back in the day. Somebody said: “This wine list is astronomical, and there’s nothing I can buy on here.” It was a very luxurious place, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a lower-priced bottle of wine on the list, even if it’s a $75 multicourse meal. There might be cooks that work at restaurants that want to try some of these famous chefs’ food, and maybe they can hardly afford it, but you have to have something for them as well.

A run on sub-$100 Burgundies

Christian Moreau is one of those wine producers who I gravitate toward when those smaller, dorkier Chablis producers are sold out; he’s one of the slightly larger wineries that I rely on. Maybe it’s a name recognition thing, but people gravitate toward [his 2015 Chablis Premier Cru].

Philippe Roty’s Marsannay is one we had by the glass earlier on, and the staff liked it and got behind it. It’s partly price point: It was the least expensive wine on the Burgundy list besides an Irancy for $50—and no one knows what Irancy is. It’s in that more midweek-spending, under $100, “drinking Burgundy” category. And it’s difficult to find that in that region these days; it’s like chasing the dragon.

Two nebbiolos in the top ten at a non-Italian spot

As far as the Cavallotto, I think that’s probably my fault, because I love those wines. We’ve talked about them here; we’ve opened a bottle. You give it to the staff and say: This Lange Nebbiolo is just a declassified Barolo. So you can sell it as: This is basically Barolo for less money. I just went there, and that was one of my favorite visits [in Piemonte]. It’s all estate—they have this one big vineyard. It’s a family, and I tasted with the son. It was just very personal, very humble, and they still make wine in a fairly classical way. The 2014 vintage was difficult there, and they didn’t make any Barolo. They declassified all of their wine to Lange Nebbiolo. That’s just kind of what they do. But generally it’s their younger vines and they treat it a bit differently in the winery.

I find that service staff is either really into wine, or they take a small piece of information you give them and they work on that. The Germano [Angelo Germano 2007 Barolo Trevigneti]—that’s a wine that Paul [Einbund] had on the list, which to me was a little more modern, some newer French oak, and a bit of a riper style coming from 2007. It’s right at $100. I said: You can sell this to people that usually drink cabernet but want to drink Italy tonight. This would be a safe wine for you to go with, because it’s juicy and ripe, not too tannic and austere, but it’s nebbiolo from Piedmont. It’s Barolo. And I heard two of my staff members use that line, and it worked. We don’t have a Super-Tuscan on the list right now, so this became that bridge.

Epic duck panzanella

I really love what Melissa does with duck. There’s one dish that sticks out in my mind: It was right when I got here if not a little bit before. When do ramps come around, in spring? March, April?

Sarah Bonar makes all of our bread in-house (this French levain she’s making for both Frances and Octavia is making me gain weight). So you have all this extra bread, and Melissa is great about utilizing that. There was this panzanella, but done as a hot entrée, with duck breast over the top, and with cherries and ramps and watercress. It was this warm dish but with a salad component. It had this bright acidity, but was rich and delicious. It’s how she thinks about food: very seasonal and smart, and not pretentious.

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