Lulu McAllister of SF’s NOPA on hometown hits and new favorites - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Lulu McAllister of SF’s NOPA on hometown hits and new favorites

Lulu McAllister has been running the wine program at San Francisco’s Nopa since 2012, seeking wines that fit with the restaurant’s farm-to-table ethos. This past year, she was named one of W&S’s five Best New Sommeliers. Recently she’s also been spending time over at Liholiho Yacht Club, a new restaurant from the partners behind Nopa.

Magnum Mondays at Nopa

It’s a beast I can never subdue at this point! When I first started, I was scraping around for magnums. Reps would say, I think my company has magnums; winemakers would tell me: I’ve been thinking of bottling some magnums. Now winemakers are sometimes specifically bottling magnums for us.

Last week we had Sam Bibro from Idlewild pouring the first vintage of nebbiolo he ever made. He definitely represents a really great direction for Italian varieties in California. We’ve worked with both his reds and his whites at Liholiho and Nopa. He came in two weeks before, when we had the guys from Selection Massale pouring Duplessis [Chablis]. He said: I have magnums too, and I wanna get in on the action. And I said: definitely!

And before that we had had Gideon Bienstock from Clos Saron [in the Sierra Foothills] pouring some of his library wines. He’s so humble. But he was just having so much fun. His 2000 Home Vineyard Pinot Noir…it’s definitely a wine that needs some time, and that wine was amazing, in such a beautiful spot. So I’m very dutifully aging some of them at this point.

What’s driving sales of the 2013 Father John Oehlman Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, your top-selling wine?

People might initially gravitate to it because they’re expecting a richer style of pinot, coming from the Russian River, and then they find it’s much lighter, and it’s a moment of discovery. It seems everyone is trying to convert people from the home team to the Old World, but this is one of those wines where I want to bring it home for people—for guests who say, “I tend to drink Burgundy, but I want to try something local.“

It’s a really fresh pinot noir from an area that has no trouble ripening. The winemaker, Nicholas Maloney, has studied in Burgundy but he’s a Sonoma boy. He spent plenty of time in France, and he’s pretty knowledgeable about other people’s wines in California. And he’s settled on something that has just a wonderful sense of place. People may be used to drinking really extracted, densely colored pinot noir. But this is very pale, very limpid, and with a slight chill on it, it’s wonderful pairing with food. He used to just make this one wine, but he’s been expanding to some other single vineyard sites in central Sonoma and he’s making a rosé now, too. The fact that he’s not in more places surprises me.

On zinfandel

Sometimes I think people just want zin, and they probably just throw a dart at it—and with the exception of Broc [she sells Broc’s Vine Starr zin from Sonoma], they tend to be full-bodied styles.

Younger drinkers are starting to become familiar with Unti, in the same way younger drinkers have embraced Sinskey over in Napa. Unti is the Dry Creek equivalent. Mick [Unti] is working with zin, but also with montepulciano and negroamaro and some of these more far-out Italian grapes, and does both well. Unti’s just fun. Dry Creek Valley is an area that gets plenty of sunshine, but they find a great way to balance that out. You don’t notice its richness, you notice how textural it is and how lively it is. Which is now nice Southern Rhône wine is made, right?

And Green & Red, that’s just a classic zinfandel. I tell people: that was the classic zinfandel for Alice Waters originally. And it’s from Napa, which still has a pull for some people—even though it’s Chiles Valley, and not many people might know exactly where that is.

Favorite wines for chef Ravi Kapur’s Hawaii-influenced food at Liholiho

This year I’ve really loved working with kadarka. It tastes brooding in terms of aromatics and fruit profile, but it’s actually fairly zippy, leaner than the color in the glass would suggest. They call it “bull’s blood,” so sometimes I will explain that to people. It can handle a wider range of flavors than most medium-bodied, thicker, more rugged wines can handle. I can actually pair it with lighter dishes and it can hold its own when heavier dishes come out. I wouldn’t say it’s like pinot noir exactly, but it works in a similar way. Eric Danch [the northern California sales manager] at Blue Danube, is kind of the guy for these funky grapes. His portfolio is one of the most exciting out there right now; he’s going all-in on wines that are really obscure for most people. And if he says, “You’ve got to try this….”

Michael Cruse makes a pet-nat under his Cruse label—and he has this side project, Ultramarine. It’s a Champagne method wine, using Heintz Vineyard fruit [from Green Valley], and the rosé he makes from that fruit is perfect because it has the texture and finesse you’d expect from méthode champenoise, but it’s still really Californian; the sunshine comes though in the fruit and it has these kind of tropical, guava notes that are almost playful and put that slant on what’s a really sensual wines. The labels are great, too. I don’t usually comment on labels, but you see those shimmering fish scales…it’s a very sexy experience. It’s perfect for the menu at Liho: it’s playful, it has bubbles, there’s plenty of fruit but it also has acidity, and it goes with everything on the menu.

My favorite new pinot noir this year was the Les Faverelles Le Fleur Cuvée. It’s a natural wine, with a little more texture, some wild rose but nothing too off-the-charts earthy. It’s just beautiful. They’re based in Vézelay, and Percy Selections brings it in. I know how little of it is made, so if see it on someone else’s list I just automatically get it. They definitely drink for more than the price that they’re set at. Somebody will eventually realize that, but for now they drink amazingly well for a fairly reasonable Burgundy.

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