Stephen Shafer has worked all departments in the front and back of the house, and has now arrived at a position that is purely about wine. He hopes to never go back. As Beverage Director of Mägo in Oakland, California, he uses their Colombian cuisine as a jumping off point to navigate the exploding South American wine scene. From there, he has the freedom to explore his other passions which include, but are not limited to, the debatable borders of Central Europe, the Canary Islands and the cooler climates of California. —David Rosoff
What do they like to call you around there?
Whatever I feel like being called that day. Let’s say beverage director.
What was your first job in the wine business, and how did you get it?
This is my first full time job in the wine business. I’ve been in restaurant management in the front of the house for over a decade and I was cooking before that. I went to culinary school. But this was my first jump feet-first into doing wine all day, every day.
And you are never going back.
I certainly hope not.
What regions or types of wine are interesting you the most right now?
I would say South America. I think it has a lot of exciting things going on. It’s got a long history and some powerhouses, both the natty side of things and a little bit more classic. You’re seeing this third generation that’s building on the infrastructure that came from the eighties and nineties, but is now moving beyond what that region is known for.
Fully agreed. It’s funny how, in a way, Pipeño, which is such an ancient, rustic wine has led the way for a new wave.
It’s one of those places where it was what they had already been doing forever, but maybe not in the global market. But it was already there and ready to go in a lot of ways. And then you’ve got Pedro Parra pushing things in another direction of experimenting, really digging into their terroir and using these often 200- and 300-year-old vineyards that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. They’re now grafting onto those and producing really, really impeccable wines out of those vineyards.
Hungary has really come onto my personal radar in the last few years where Germany and Austria has always been a thing. Especially the white wines from Hungary, beyond Tokaji, there’s so much going on there that maybe wasn’t available or well known. But the further I dig into it, the more I see that there’s as deep of a culture and history there as anywhere else in Central Europe. I think dry Tokaji is angling at the sort of Chablis, high-end riesling market. Out of vineyards that were historically the top vineyards for sweet wine, you’re starting to see dry wines that are world-class or going to be world-class very soon.
Somló is on the short list of my favorite wine regions in the world, although I don’t want to tell anyone about it because the prices will go up. And then the other category that is starting to become really cool is age-able rosé. Really concentrated rosé, oxidative stuff in the López de Heredia vein. I’ve tasted at least three flor-affected rosés that were unique and interesting this year. I think the challenge that it often has is complexity. And people are finding all these interesting ways to deal with that challenge. There’s a lot of really exciting results. If I had more space, I’d be packing away tons of rosé for ten years from now just to see what happens.
As far as wine sales categories, wine pairings blow by-the-glass and by-the-bottle out of the water by orders of magnitude. It wasn’t what I expected when I took this job. By-the-glass is your prime mover and makes all your money and that’s what drives your ordering. And then I was opening bottles that I normally wouldn’t sell the entire bottle of in a week by the glass. And I’m powering through six bottles of something obscure because the pairing sells so well. So I really had to adjust my expectations in a really fun way where the pairing is totally my creative baby and it changes all the time.
And in these categories that we just mentioned, the broad categories, what sells the best?
For South America, the Altos las Hormigas Meteora Malbec has gotten a surprising amount of traction. I think a lot of people have heard of that, but this takes a different approach to Argentina and malbec that not everyone is expecting. A lot of people take the risk of a slightly pricier bottle of something they think they might like and then are really pleasantly surprised.
What new category or region did you add this year that got the most traction?
It’s my first year, so it’s hard to say compared to other years, but one that surprised me was the Canary Islands. I was looking for wine from volcanic islands. I just wanted that to be something that I had for a number of reasons at this restaurant. I kind of cheated in that it semi-satisfies that Latin American thing for me, where the industry is a product of sorts of Spanish colonization. It was just imposed on these islands. So if you squint, it’s Latin American. How many places are there where grapes and bananas grow next to each other, you know? There’s a lot of tropical fruit on our menu. Being a Colombian restaurant, we deal with coconut, plantain, all kinds of stuff. And so those warmer island wines tend to have a lot of the flavors come up that I’m looking for as far as pairing go.
Is there a category of wine losing ground?
I would say chardonnay from anywhere. People are back to being scared of it in a way that I didn’t experience the last five years.
What was the most exciting bottle for you to sell this year?
The most exciting bottle was the Matías Riccitelli Rio Negro Torrontés from Patagonia, Argentina. I think it encapsulates a lot of what our wine list at Mägo is about, being a South American grape, from South America, from a region that you might not expect it from. And I like unexpected things. So that wine was the perfect fit. I don’t drink or enjoy a lot of torrontés, but this one kind of blew my hair back because it’s more about the minerality than the aromatics and I didn’t know that existed.
Any categories of beverages that are impacting wine sales?
Yeah. Non-alcoholic in a huge way. We just started a non-alcoholic pairing a few months ago with our tasting menu. I would say non-alcoholic sales in the restaurant are up 400 or 500 percent. There’s been nights where we sold equal amounts of alcoholic and non-alcoholic pairings. I’m sure everyone you’re talking to is nervous about that, because that’s how restaurants make money. We all know the formula and the formula is changing. Luckily, it is a collaborative effort across departments. The bartender does a lot of it, but the kitchen is able to do it too because it’s all these juices and the vegetables and fruits the kitchen’s already dealing with. They buy things in volume that they may not have bought otherwise. And that’s what we’re all adapting to. I don’t know if it’s a success story yet, but it’s something that everyone has to embrace or you’re going to get left in the dust.
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