Sommelier Favorites

You probably wouldn’t blink at the thought of hiring an architect to create the home of your dreams or listening to your personal trainer for the best tips to get in shape, but when it comes to buying wine the recommendations of sommeliers seem to start and end inside the restaurant walls.

Drinking a nice bottle at home is just as important as finding just the right vineyard’s vintage on a fine dining list, which is why we’ve asked a few of the area’s most well-respected sommeliers and wine directors, with roots in Marin, to tell us their top picks for wines for every budget.

The lists they’ve provided are filled with their top choices for bottles to consume with family and friends during the festive season. Although their answers varied, we’ll take note of Cep Vineyards. The label was chosen as a favorite by two of our wine experts. Whether your wallet can handle wine director Dan O’Brien’s $700 splurge or sits nicely with wine shop owner Greg O’Flynn’s $20 cabernet we’ve got your holiday wine list covered.

Shelley Lindgren

Owner, A16 and SPQR
West Marin native Shelley Lindgren is becoming one of the most talked-about women in wine. The restaurateur (A16 and SPQR) was recently honored with a James Beard nomination for the A16 wine program.

A wine you’d suggest for around $20 for holiday parties? Unti Barbera, Dry Creek, 2008, $26. For holiday parties, I think this wine is a great choice—it has flavors such as blackberry and red currant with allspice and eucalyptus.  The texture is round and decadent fruit with not overwhelming tannins making it versatile and festive for the holidays.

Are there any good value second-label wines from winemakers that are typically known for producing expensive cult labels? I love this question because so many of California’s most talented winemakers have created second labels such as Cep from Peay, Maifesto from Jamey Whetstone and Tous Ensemble from Copain!

What “splurge” wine is worth the price? Illuminati “Pieluni”, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 2005, around $70. This bottle is a very robust and complex wine.

What champagne or sparkling wine do you recommend?  Larmandier-Bernier, “Terre de Vertus” Brut, Blancs de Blanc, Premier Cru, around $60. There are so many champagnes that I love but the chalky minerality and lively flavors of Bosc pear, acacia honey and pâte à choux in this one is a great way to celebrate and treat yourself to something nice!

David Lynch

Wine Director/Sommelier, Quince, wine author
After its move to a bigger location, San Francisco’s Quince restaurant also got one of the biggest stars in wine. David Lynch, a James Beard award–winning writer who made a name as the beverage director and manager at Mario Battali’s restaurant Babbo and the coauthor of Vino Italiano and The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, made the move from New York to take the reins as wine director at Quince. The San Anselmo resident has created a wine list of about 700 wines and the new wine vault fits 8,000 bottles, but he’s pared down his selections for our holiday top picks list.

Under $20 bottle: J. Hofstatter Alto Adige Lagrein, Alto Adige, Italy 2007/2008, $18. Inexpensive and interesting to boot. The lagrein grape is a specialty of the area around Bolzano, the capital of Italy’s German-speaking Alto Adige region. This is an inky, smoky, savory red that will warm your cockles without draining your wallet.

Second label wine: Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy, 2007, $25. Rosso di Montalcino is an appellation, not a brand, but it is a “second wine” just the same. Whereas its heftier (and pricier) sibling, Brunello di Montalcino, spends an extended period in barrel and bottle before release, Rosso is released the year after the vintage year—often with little or no contact with oak. Like Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is made from 100 percent sangiovese, but presents it in a lighter, brighter, more unadorned style. You get the Montalcino pedigree without the price tag.

Champagne or sparkling: Ruinart Champagne Brut Rosé NV, Champagne, France, $65. I love rosé champagne all year, but especially around the holidays. For one thing, the color is very festive, but then you sip it and all sorts of wintry flavors hit you: nutmeg, apple, cranberry, cinnamon,…good times.

Splurge wine: Vega-Sicilia “Unico” Ribera del Duero, Spain, 1970, $600. Okay, it doesn’t have to be the 1970 (you’d have to go to an auction to find it), but this is a consistently excellent wine from Spain’s most acclaimed winery. Unico, which is released only in exceptional vintages and typically ages 10-plus years in the winery before it is released, is comprised mostly of tempranillo, but usually also contains some cabernet sauvignon as well as other old-line Bordeaux varieties like malbec. My main reason for recommending it is that it remains a relative value within the “splurge” category, and is therefore conceivably accessible to a mere mortal like myself.

Dan O’Brien

Wine Director, Cavallo Point and its restaurant, Murray Circle
Sausalito’s Cavallo Point wine director Dan O’Brien started his wine career on the East Coast working as a sommelier at the famed Grill 23 and Bar. His passion is to find hard-to-get bottles from around the world.

Best wine around $20: Kunin Wines, Pape Star, Central Coast, 2007, $25. Originally a wine director like myself, tired of the restaurant grind, Seth Kunin started his own label a few years back. The Pape Star is a blend inspired by the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in France’s Rhône Valley. The blend is 50 percent grenache, 35 percent mourvedre and 15 percent syrah sourced from vines in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. No oak was used, which in turn preserves its natural fruit and spice aromatics. A very versatile wine, perfect to pair with holiday fare. It’s also our house red in the Cavallo Point Cooking School.

Favorite second label: Cep Vineyards, $25. French for root vine, Cep is the second label to Peay Vineyards. Brothers Nick and Andy farm an amazing site a few miles from our sister Sea Ranch property way up the Sonoma Coast. Having an estate vineyard can sometimes result in excess fruit or barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the estate wine. The Cep label is a terrific value offering sauvignon blanc, rosé, pinot noir and syrah.  

Champagne: Pierre Peters, Extra Cuvée de Réserve, Blanc de Blancs, Mesnil-sur-Oger, $38. The Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs has got to be my favorite champagne right now. Priced less than the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, this wine delivers on both style and price.

Splurge wine: Giacomo Conterno, Monfortino Riserva, Barolo, 1990, $700. This is always a hard question to answer. Most sommeliers will tell you Burgundy or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but Italy has always been deeply rooted in both my upbringing and my education in wine. Nebbiolo, the grape expressed in Barolo, has always captured me as evocative and hedonistic. Its aromatics and flavors are so layered, the usual fruit and spice description won’t suffice. Giacomo Conterno is a blueprint for how classic Barolo should be crafted. The Monfortino Riserva is arguably the most important wine made in Italy. In other words, this bottle is a life changer.

Greg O’Flynn

Owner, California Wine Merchant
Kentfield’s Greg O’Flynn has owned the lively California Wine Merchant in San Francisco for over two decades. The wine bar and shop has a large by-the-glass list that changes weekly and walls filled with cult wines from producers like Maya, Harlan and Dalla Valle as well as a large selection of bottles with prices that won’t wipe out your kid’s college fund.

Best wine under $20: Roots Run Deep “Educated Guess,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, $20. This has been a runaway success at the California Wine Merchant and is a fantastic value. It’s a high-quality Napa Valley cab from a great vintage!

Second-label wine: Luli, Santa Lucia Highlands, Pinot Noir, $25. This pinot noir made by Jeff Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards, which is a very cultlike pinot noir producer, tastes like it should cost twice the price.

Splurge wine: Kelly Fleming, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, $95. This wine is a good bet on the splurge.  It’s a small-production, no-expense-spared great vineyard near Araujo’s vineyard in Calistoga. Kelly and her husband, Paul, come from the restaurant business and started P. F. Chang’s and Fleming’s Steak Houses, among others.

Sparkling: J Vineyards Cuvée 20 Brut, $27.95. This J nonvintage brut gracefully opens up with crisp lemon peel, honeysuckle and delicate yeast aromas. Upon entry, these notes follow through to a mix of Fuji apple and grapefruit interlaced with toast, caramel and almond flavors on the palate.