2016 Restaurant Poll Interview

Ceri Smith of SF’s Tosca Café on defending sangiovese and loving Ligurian wines

Ceri Smith’s first job in wine was for Roederer in Anderson Valley. She then worked for some Italian importers and distributors, and developed a deep interest in wines from the southern reaches of the country. Since 2006, she’s run Biondivino, an Italian-focused retail shop in San Francisco, as well as run the wine program at Tosca Café, where she sells everything from Monteraponi Chianti out of straw-covered fiascos to light, elegant Ligurian rosesse and Etna reds.

Defending sangiovese

Everyone is intimidated by Italy. Out here every housewife has their Level One somm degree, but people don’t know Italian wines. There are 20 regions, 1,000 varieties, and so many different styles. I always feel like the defender of sangiovese; that poor grape has been brutalized. It’s not the boldest or most forward of wines, and it’s not supposed to be too fleshy or ripe. I won’t even touch a Chianti that has five percent international varieties because it masks sangiovese’s character. People won’t understand what it’s supposed to taste like.

On listening to wine

We changed the by-the-glass wines last week, and I poured all of them blind for the staff. Instead of going over all the usual boring information, I said: let’s talk about the wine as if it’s a person or place. I was blown away when I poured the vernaccia and one of the staff described it as standing in a field with a warm summer rain bouncing off the grassy sandstone hills. I said, wow, you just described San Gimignano:  it’s warm, wet, and the grapes grow in sandstone. Two people described the wine as a regal older woman who has lost her looks but is still full of piss and vinegar; they had just described Elisabetta Fagiuoli [of Montenidoli] to a tee. So I remind them to listen to the wine, it’s telling you a story.

On Ligurian wines

I love Ligurian wines, It’s an area that’s often overlooked because the wines are a little more subtle. They’re hard to find here but pair beautifully with such an array of dishes,.A lot of our food has a Ligurian and Tuscan sensibility. Early on I asked [chef] Josh [Even] what kind of cuisine we would have, and he said, I always start with lemon, olive oil, capers and anchovies, and then add to it. My brain immediately went to Liguria.

The salinity and brightness cut through a lot of fat and richness, adding a unique element of salt and sea to the meal. To me the easiest go-to is the [Bisson U Pastine] Bianchetta Genovese—it’s a crowd pleaser that’s light enough to start with, and then you can move to other things. Rossese is such a beautiful red wine. It’s like a ballet toe shoe—light and delicate, but full of structure and elegance and beauty, and stands on its own.

On Tami Nero d’Avola

The price point is good [$42 on the list], and [Arianna Occhipinti] has such a reputation; this isn’t a serious wine but it’s still made organically and without so much manipulation. It’s simple, juicy and bright, and drinks like a forward, medium-bodied wine that’s easy to understand. I consider it a bridge wine—it has an Italian accent but speaks English perfectly. If you’re unfamiliar with Italian wines and normally drink Californian, it’s an easy step into Italy. It’s like the guided tour vs. independent travel.

On Emilia-Romagna’s lesser-known pleasures

I think Emilia-Romagna is an up-and-coming region. I’ve wanted to do an all-Lambrusco by-the-glass list to show that it’s not all plonk. Massimiliano Croci’s wines are focused, balanced and structured, they’re not just fruit and fizz, and they’re fun to pair with food. Orsi Vigneto’s wines from Emilia-Romagna are so cool, they make a sur lie pét-nat that’s so easy to drink, and Ca’ de Noci makes beautifully structured lambruscos and a great malvasia blend. I get the sense that this is a region people will be talking about in the coming months and years.