Since opening LaSalette on the town square of Sonoma in 1998, Manuel Azevedo has become an ambassador for the wines and foods of Portugal. A native of the Azores, he has expanded the reach of his Cozinha Nova Portuguesa to three sites in Sonoma, including Tasca Tasca, opened in 2016. A tasca is the Portuguese version of a tapas bar, in this case, offering a list of 26 wines, all Portuguese, a few beers and ciders, and small bites, from noon until midnight, seven days a week. Josh Greene caught up with Azevedo and his beverage director, Jason Santos, who also runs the business side of all three restaurants. They described what it’s like to sell Portuguese wine in Sonoma.
You sell two-thirds of your wine by the glass, including half-glasses. How often are people trying half glasses before launching into full glasses?
Manuel Azevedo: When we opened our flagship restaurant, LaSalette, there were only two Portuguese wines I could get from Southern Wine & Spirits at the time. I wanted to educate people on the cuisine of Portugal, and also the wines. So it was a natural progression to offer half glasses. Personally, I like to drink a half glass. It gives people an opportunity to try a lot of different things. It’s why we offer tapas: I wanted people to try tripe, sardine pâté, blood sausage, but people are hesitant to spend $12 or $15 on a starter they don’t know. If you present it in a format where you’re only out $5, you can explore; you’re not out a lot of money if you don’t like it.
One of the biggest surprises I’ve had since opening the restaurant is that the people most interested in Portuguese wines are the wine-industry people—from the cellar rats to millionaire winery owners. They appreciate the value and they like trying something different. We had one winemaker who brought two bottles of Barca Velha 2008, back to back, within a week.
Jason Santos: There’s two guests, the local and the visitor. Sometimes the tourists come in and are kind of confused and ask, ‘Why don’t you serve local wines?’ They came from states away to be in wine country and don’t understand why they’re not getting local wine. Talking to the locals, they really like having the other stuff. The average local in Sonoma is pretty wine savvy; the wine industry permeates through all walks of life here. If they were looking to drink a pinot noir, they could drink it out of their own cellar.
We put a Colares on the list and industry people came in and said, ‘Oh, my god, I’ve only ever read about this, I want to taste it.’ The restaurant has always been geared toward the wine industry. That’s why we’re open until midnight. So after a shift at the winery you can come in and have a glass of wine and a couple tapas for $22 and feel satisfied.
What is it about the Docil Vinho Verde from Niepoort that takes it to the number one best seller? You list another Vinho Verde as your biggest new success, the Raza 2016 for $32 a bottle. Is there a reason to choose that over Docil?
Santos: The Vinho Verde, as a section, sells well because that’s what people know. If someone has heard of Portuguese wine, they’ll ask for Vinho Verde. Docil is not effervescent and made from a single variety. Raza is more traditional—it has the spritz and it’s a blend—azal, trajadura and arinto—a crisp, light white wine. Guests come in and say, “I don’t want any wine. I’ve been tasting chardonnay in Carneros all day.” Then you give them a glass of Raza and it’s light, high acid, refreshing.
What are the dishes you serve that people are ordering with Vinho Verde?
Azevedo: Vinho Verde is a great lunchtime wine: its low alcohol content makes it enjoyable, and you can still have some wine with dinner. A lot of the food we have, ceviche, sardine pâté, oysters, kale salad, deep fried cod cakes—those are great with Vinho Verde.
Santos: I like Vinho Verde with caldo verde. It’s a potato-thickened beef soup with shredded collards and linguiça. The acid in the wine cuts through the weight of the potato and it works really nicely. In that instance, I would recommend the Docil: less spritz would be better with caldo verde.
And what would you serve with the Roquette e Cazes Douro Red, as opposed to the two Alentejo reds (Adega de Borba Reserva 2013, or Herdade de Penedo Gordo 2015)?
Azevedo: For me, I will usually ask what style wines you like. If you’re a zinfandel or a pinot person, Alentejo. For a cabernet person, Douro.
Santos: At our other restaurants, with a composed meal, the wine pairings can be food driven. But at Tasca Tasca, you might have one wine with everything from raw oysters to goat stew. So pairing to the guest is more important than pairing to the food. If someone wants something massive and tannic, we give that to them. If they want something more palate-friendly, we can do that as well.
If you were going to eat at Tasca Tasca tonight, what would you order and what would you drink with it?
Azevedo: There’s a nip in the air, and I would probably start with the kale salad with chouriço, and a glass of sparkling—the Luis Pato sparkling Bairrada. Then I would order the cod cakes—they’re fried and served with cilantro aioli. One of my favorite wines is the Soalheiro [VInho Verde]. For our holiday party, I grabbed a bottle and won’t say I drank it all, but drank a lot of it. That’s what I would have with the cod cakes. And then the tripe, Porto style, with white beans, a little chicken and presunto. It’s based on a classic northern Portuguese tripe dish. With that, I would have the Periquita Reserva—I love that wine. The alcohol is nice and low. I rarely drink cabernet or chardonnay, or anything over 13.5 percent alcohol. A lot of these Portuguese reds are around 13 to 13.5 percent. I like those wines because I can have three glasses of wine with a nice meal and still be able to walk.