Francesca Maniace of SF’s Commonwealth on grüner, Beaujolais and Spanish vermouth

Raised on Long Island, Francesca Maniace moved to Manhattan when she was 17 to attend NYU’s Gallatin School. She worked in photography and at various restaurants in the city, including The Spotted Pig, Morandi and Balthazar, before landing her first sommelier post at Marea. She then headed to Napa to check out the other side of the wine business, spending a vintage working harvest with Dan Petroski at Larkmead. Three years ago she took over the wine program at Commonwealth in San Francisco’s Mission District.

photo by Molly DeCoudreaux

The harmony of grüner

When I’m buying and tasting wine, I like wine that makes me want to eat—when it makes my mouth water, when it’s balanced and pure, when it has a soulful energy, presence and class. It’s how I like my friends—whether they’re quiet or loud, I just want them to have a pure spirit and a glow about them. [Chef Jason Fox’s] food has a lot of different influences, and it’s unlike any other cuisine that I’ve worked with prior. There’s a quiet intensity to it. It’s not showy, but it’s got a delicate energy, so it lends itself better to white wine. The flavors and textures are so balanced that I never want a wine to overpower them.

I learned very quickly that there’s just not enough heat in his food to work with the fruity-slutty rieslings with acid that I like. [It’s great] when I can find a wine that adds another flavor element, like another ingredient in the dish, but acts symphonically—you don’t hear the clarinet louder, the violin louder, you don’t taste the potato more, it just goes in the mix and elevates it further. I find that German and Austrian wines, specifically grüner and riesling, given their brightness, do those things with his food, whether from the Mosel where the wines are a bit more sharp and bright or from Baden where’s it’s more sunny and ripe.

I’ve made an effort to add more German and Austrian wines and chenins from the Loire because of their flexibility and approachability. Now, thankfully, there are some California producers within that style. We’ve had the Tatomer grüner and rieslings [from Santa Barbara] to pair with the food because the alcohol’s not there and some of the dishes need a little more fruit, so it just happens that those are great varieties whether it’s New World or Old World.

With the Alzinger [Frauenweingarten Federspiel], they pick their fruit very clean. It’s a much more linear, mineral-driven, crisp wine. Gobelsburg [the Steinsetz] employs a bit of oak and so it has a perceived textural richness to it. Then there’s the Bründlmayer, and when you taste those wines, that’s grüner veltliner! It’s crystalline and beautiful; it’s so expressive and complete. Terry Theise is the one who illuminated for me that grüner encompasses these three things: minerality, fruit and spice. It’s not the most noble white grape, but I think those elements play really well with our food, and it has this beautiful accent.

Crus, villages and pork cheeks

The crus Beaujolais will always be the core of the red wines from France. They’re affordable, and they’re worth every penny and more. Whether it’s a masculine or a feminine one, a Moulin-à-Vent or a Régnié, you’ll find something in that range that won’t kill the food. We have one by the glass now, the Jean-Paul Dubost—that’s a Beaujolais-Villages. It’s delicious, well-made, and a natural wine that’s not too stinky. I thought because people saw that it’s Beaujolais-Villages, they weren’t going to order it, though I feel strongly that if someone sees gamay and they can say it, they’re going to buy it. It’s also an $11 glass of wine that’s worth more because it’s delicious. We have this braised pork cheeks dish on the menu with acorn polenta and jamón chips, and we tasted it with Chianti and something that was big and luscious, and the Beaujolais-Village was the winner. [The dish] just brings out this juicy, jovial, fresh spirit in the wine, which complements the lusciousness of the pork cheek. It’s something that I never thought would work.

Foie with…vermouth?

For one of our holiday menus we had foie, and I said: ‘I guess I can go get Sauternes.’ But the chef was like: “Nope!” We tried a bunch of stuff, and in the back of my mind I knew that we had this vermouth from Spain [Priorat Natur Vermut]. It has a richness and sweetness to it. It tastes almost like Christmas—not like red Christmas, but golden. It’s not dried fruitcake or winter spice, but golden fruits and cinnamon and other spices. It’s warming, but not caramel-warming. It gives the liver this added sweetness, not to take away from it, but like condimenti to it. I like that I work at a place where the chef and owners don’t necessarily want a safe pairing—they’re curious and excited about new things.

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