Jeff Berlin of Oakland’s À Côté hunts down Hungarian and Austrian picks

Your wine list definitely leans toward the esoteric: Slovakian riesling, kadarka from Hungary, a cornalin from Switzerland and recently an entire zierfandler flight. How are you able to get away with a list like that?

It works because they’re spectacular wines, they pair excellently with the kind of cuisine that we’re doing, and we have established the reputation of our staff as being knowledgeable and passionate about the wines we sell. I’ve found the best way to achieve that with staff is to open bottles of wine, drink them together and encourage actual love for the wines.

And our clientele has over the years become similarly knowledgeable. Whatever we focus on or emphasize, people come to understand. They learn about Hungary or Slovenia, and then they’re the experts. The Slovakian riesling has become a favorite—people come in asking for it all the time.

In the last few years, Hungary has really become the exiting region for our guests and staff. It’s strange, it’s foreign, but it also has great wines and great value.

What have been some of the more challenging wines you’ve offered this year?
The most recent was sparkling, off-dry, botrytized Tokaji. We added that to the list six months ago. It’s a wine I found on a trip to Hungary and I couldn’t wait to get it in. As soon as we got it in we featured it, and talked about it to all the tables. Each time it’s a five to six minute conversation to explain what it is, what it tastes like, where it comes from, the fact that it’s sparkling but also has botrytis, off dry but still has acidity. It’s probably the most perplexing wine we’ve had on the list in long time, but we sold a lot of it this fall, especially pairing it with things like duck confit, rabbit boudin blanc, pâtés. Those dishes were good catalysts to get people to try that particular kind of crazy wine. Do people ever get turned off by it? Sure, it happens. Usually, we’ll just pour a taste for people at the table and figure it out right then and there.

Another wine like that would be a blaufränkisch rosé ice wine. That involved a similar explanation, and we used it with similar food pairings.

Why don’t I see any of the commonly-known benchmark regions and varieties among your top-selling wines?
Taking away all of the recognizable options from the list has always been my strategy—not maliciously, of course! But if you have even one syrah or nebbiolo on the list, guests won’t see the other options. If it’s all unrecognizable and unheard-of, they’re still going to want wine with dinner. Then it falls back on the staff. There are wines that you’re not going to find in other restaurants. You can truly have a unique experience with our list that you’re not going to have anywhere else. That can be especially eye-opening for the everyday wine drinker, even more so than for the real geeks or the wine professionals.

Any particular regions that have been standouts lately?
I’ve been really loving the whole Austria/Hungary region. Of course, traveling through there helps a lot. I really like the Thermenregion in Austria. We pour a great zierfandler-rotgipfler blend from Spaetrot-Gebeshuber (and it’s an ‘05), tasting flights of different vintages and vineyards of zierfandler from Stadlmann, and an amazing rotgipfler from Johanneshof Reinisch. I’d definitely put them up against some of the great younger-drinking German rieslings, or rieslings from other parts of Austria. I’ve seen consistent quality from all three producers so far, but they’ve only been available to me for a couple of vintages now. I tasted a lot more amazing wine from the region at VieVinum last year and hope that more people will catch on and start importing them, especially neuburger, the local white grape.

And with Hungary, the smaller family wineries are starting to get their legs and get more involved in exporting their wines to the States. There are so many amazing wines coming out of Eger. We’re waiting for the newest shipments to hit the shores, and everybody is going to be blown away, they’re so good. I gotta get back over there!

Your top-selling wine was a 2009 Eszterbauer Kadarka from Szekszárd in Hungary. Tell me about that wine.
They also make a field blend that’s similar to Bull’s Blood, and we’ve used that in the past. Their kadarka is not as full, body-wise, as something like Bull’s Blood. There’s more finesse, something more resembling pinot noir in style. I’ve gone through two vintages of that wine from Eszterbauer now. Ever since I found it in a wine bar in Budapest, it’s been one of our best-selling wines. Elegant, complex aromatics, earthy, floral, just a really exciting wine.

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