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Drinkers Without Borders

Wine country restaurants are (finally!) taking their wine lists way, way beyond Napa and Sonoma.


It sounds like blasphemy, but it’s true: Finding an adventurous wine list in wine country is shockingly difficult. Laboring under the misapprehension that regional wines alone are of interest to their customers, Napa and Sonoma restaurants all too often stick to the usual suspects—mega-production “local” wines easily available from their distributor. But while it makes sense to relish impeccably fresh local produce, wine (with rare exception) is far from a local, seasonal beverage. Some of the newest places to dine in wine country are embracing this paradox by following the example of Petaluma’s Central Market, liberally sprinkling their lists with old-world wines while still telling the story of Northern California’s vineyards. Eating locally sourced food remains a priority for them—but drinking is becoming a decidedly global pursuit.

La Taberna
Located on the same Napa block as its older sibling, ZuZu, La Taberna has a menu whose specials—pickled fried smelt, hamachi collars, pig’s head—require a broad selection of wines. in response, the restaurant’s wine list gives roughly equal space to bottles from Spain, Portugal, France, and California, offering a significant assortment of sherry, vermouth, Madeira, and port. “La Taberna’s concept is an approximation of the many great pintxo and tapas bars in northern Spain and Portugal, with our own twist,” says wine and beverage program manager Shawn La Sage, adding that the recent “resurrection of sherry’s popularity” was also an influence. One of his favorite Portuguese bottles is the 2012 Filipa Pato from Bairrada: Made with baga grapes, it’s a tannic, high-acid wine with a pleasant earthiness that holds its own against the restaurant’s most flavorful dishes. But California has not been lost in the Iberian shuffle: the list includes local producers that “reflect our interest in sustainability, quality, and balance,” says La Sage.

Cadet Wine + Beer Bar
When Aubrey Bailey and Colleen Fleming opened Cadet Wine + Beer Bar in Downtown Napa last July, they did so with the intention of celebrating California wine, and their list leaned heavily on local bottles. But they soon noticed that the winemakers and locals who frequented the bar gravitated toward their international wines—and wanted more. So the pair acquiesced with some 40 international bottles, including a 2013 Hans Wirsching Estate Iphöfer Kronsberg Scheurebe once described by wine importer Terry Theise as “riesling’s evil, horny twin”—a fun wine that’s bigger and bolder than its relative but retains its linear profile.

When consulting wine director Courtney Humiston began selecting wines for Dustin Valette’s eponymous new Healdsburg restaurant, she surveyed local winemakers to discover the wines that inspire them. “We make a lot of pinot here, so Burgundy is our benchmark,” she says. Valette’s list can be seen as a conversation between winemakers across oceans. Humiston points out the 2012 Nicolas Rossignol Volnay Rouge, a premier cru from Burgundy, sitting alongside a bottle of 2012 La Pitchoune Sonoma Coast pinot noir. “I know both of these winemakers personally,” she says. “they are relatively young men, and they are not afraid to take risks. I think their wines reflect not only the terroir but also their courage and confidence in the cellar.” 

Central Market
“There is no good reason to limit your pleasures to just two counties,” declares Central Market chef-owner Tony Najiola at the top of his wine list. The Petaluma restaurant’s outgoing beverage director, Loren Ettinger, also views the list’s scope in practical terms. “It’s incredibly important that the wines be accessible,” he says, noting that a high-quality varietal from Italy or France costs much less than the North Coast version. “We want to pour the best wine for that varietal at that price point, and it’s hard to do that with all North Coast wines, if not impossible.” Ettinger is a fan of the 2013 Boeri Barbera d’Asti: its freshness, red fruit, and acidity offer great versatility, and its price—$32 on the restaurant’s list—is a tremendous value.

Calistoga’s evangeline took a very evenhanded approach to its wine list, splitting it literally down the middle between Old World and New—you’ll find a village Burgundy sitting across from a Peay pinot, and Pouilly-Fuissé cheek by jowl with Stony Hill chardonnay. Although it just opened in early February, the bistro feels broken in and offers an appealing environment in which to explore its wines, which General Manager Sasan Nayeri describes as “lively yet intimate.” To kick off your exploration of Evangeline’s global wanderings, Nayeri recommends the 2013 Henri Bourgeois les Baronnes—a classic example of Sancerre from one of the region’s top producers that pairs nicely with the restaurant’s light, fresh fare.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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