Shelley Lindgren is the owner and wine director of A16, a pizza-focused restaurant with locations in San Francisco and Oakland. Her innovative wine lists at A16 and SPQR, another restaurant that Lindgren co-founded and ran until 2019, have earned her a reputation as a go-to expert on Italian wines, particularly those from off-the-beaten-path regions, producers and grape varieties. She co-authored A16 Food + Wine with Kate Leahy (2008, Ten Speed Press) and is under contract with Leahy for The New Italian Wine, due out in Spring of 2022.
“We’re kind of just rolling with it,” says Lindgren. “Any time we’ve been given a green light to make the next pivot, we have.” She implemented a takeout and delivery program as soon as the mayors of Oakland and San Francisco allowed it, and that paid for healthcare for all of her employees until September. “We felt great about that as a team, that we were working for that. You gotta get creative, and you want the team to feel good. It can feel heavy to be at work when you have a whole other set of rules and guidelines, but I’m always going to be the person who’s responsible for everyone, and I know they’re all trying to stay safe and stay positive.” Parklets, or curbside dining, were allowed to open in June, and A16 was the first one on their street. “I went on Thumbtack [an app for services] and found this Irish guy who came out and built our parklet in a couple of days. Once it’s done, you’re like, I guess we’re open. And he was so charming that a lot of people would stop and talk to him. He’d never done these before, and now he’s done like 100. You know, we’re all just trying to figure it out.”
During parklet service, a popular choice for diners was Ciro Picariello’s Fiano di Avellino, both by the glass and by the bottle. “We have a focus on Campania, and we always have a fiano by the glass because it goes so well with our food. If you’ve never had a fiano we want you to love it, so it has to be an excellent fiano. We’ve been pouring the Ciro a lot in the last few years, when we can get it. We love the acidity in that wine, the minerality. It’s a great wine to offer guests because if you like Chablis or Sancerre, this is a wine that will appeal to a lot of people.”
In the spirit of figuring things out on the fly, Lindgren opened a retail shop right before the holidays, turning the wine bar area into shelves of bottles available for sale. “We never did retail sales before, but I always wanted to. It’s hard, because retail markup is different from restaurant markup. We had everything for sale, but priced lower than in the restaurant. Our team is pretty small so it hasn’t been a fast-moving thing for us, and the level of service that we can give is also limited, but that’s kind of expected.” Lindgren came up with whimsical themes for the retail store, like $46 California wine sets for the inauguration of our 46th President, and Cupid’s Picks for Valentine’s Day, with wines tied to the corny phrases on candy hearts, like “Heartbreaker” (Cerbaia Brunello di Montalcino). Drink the Zodiac is a set of wines paired to each astrological sign. “They’re made-up matches, but they make sense,” says Lindgren, who paired Damiano Ciolli’s Cesanese Silene (number ten on A16’s top-selling bottles) with Libra, aligning that sign’s innate sense of fairness and diplomacy with the ideals of the storied Roman senate.
Despite juggling multiple initiatives to keep her restaurants running and employees working, Lindgren is still finding ways to give back to her community. “People reach out to us almost daily to ask about helping fund their schools, and we can only say yes to so many,” she says. When some winemaker friends called to ask how they could work with her, they came up with a plan together. Edaphos winery would sell their Sonoma County Madhavan Vineyard Barbera to A16 at cost and Lindgren would offer it at a markup to customers, who could designate that the profit would go to their local school. “We’re trying to use wine to benefit the community, because everybody needs help. I think because what we do is fun and looks busy and bustling, people think you have a lot to give, but that’s not the reality of the business. Some places are probably doing okay, but most are pretty flattened.”
Lindgren also offered the Edaphos Barbera as part of Bottle in a Box—a pizza and a bottle of barbera for $25. “That flew out the door, with some people ordering three or four at a time. A few of our customers said we should raise that price, and now it’s about $30. I wanted there to be something that people could look forward to, that guests would say, ‘That’s really cool.’” A16 ended up selling out of their whole production, and not surprisingly, Edaphos Barbera was the restaurant’s top-selling wine and biggest new success.
Yet another initiative was the A16 New Italian Wine Club, a monthly offering of three wines for $79. The club mirrors the theme of Lindgren’s forthcoming book, The New Italian Wine, highlighting each of Italy’s 20 wine regions alphabetically. “We started it in May as a way to connect with our guests, to let them take the journey with us,” says Lindgren. “It’s kept us tasting wine, talking about it, and writing stories, and I’ve tried to split up who I buy from, so I can put in orders from different people.” They started with Abruzzo and are now on Liguria, with a selection that includes a pigato, a rossese and a lumassina. “It’s a lot of wines that most people haven’t had but that are great food wines, for people who like to explore new things. Sometimes there are things that I think people might not like and they go nuts for it, like gragnano [a frizzante red from Campania]. Frizzante wines are essentially pet-nats; I had never thought of them that way, but now I understand the delight of having them and it’s fun for me to see people responding to them. It’s an energetic wine, so there’s something interesting happening in the bottles. It’s not fully sparkling, it’s more easygoing. I find them very enjoyable and fun to sell.”
Outdoor dining was shut down in December, but was due to reopen on January 29th, the day after Lindgren and I spoke. Lindgren wasn’t sure what to expect, but she was floored by the response of her customer base, which has now become multi-generational during their 16 years of service. “The announcement to reopen was Monday at noon, and when we opened up the books on Open Table it was full in 30 minutes. It’s cold and rainy right now, I have a guy coming out to put a tarp over the parklet, but people are ready to get out, and they want to support the neighborhood businesses.”
At this moment, with the reopening of the parklet, Lindgren’s outlook is optimistic. “I’m putting in my mind that we won’t have to go into shutdown again. I’m starting to think of the future in a different way. We have a lot to fix and restructure, and restaurants will not be the same as we knew them. There’s plenty that’s broken about how restaurants worked, so we need to really figure out our labor issues, and how we still offer a great experience despite the growing costs of living in cities. Everything became so bare bones, but we still limped by, we made it.” Despite those challenges, Lindgren is still thinking of ways to prop up others. “A friend of mine who is a chef might do a popup in our restaurant on the days we’re closed. I haven’t told my team yet, but of course we’ll try to do it. This is just one of those times where you have to be doing everything in your power to make things better for everybody.”
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