San Francisco's Latest Fiasco: The Chianti Renaissance at Tosca

An interview with Randall Grahm and Ceri Smith.

By Jonathan Kauffman. Photography by Jorge Trelles.

San Francisco's North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood home to City Lights Books and a haunt of the Beats, is filled with storied bars, not to mention bar stories. None are more storied than Tosca Café, which opened two months before Prohibition and has, over the years, attracted both notoriety and star power. In 2013 the bar was taken over by Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, owners of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin in New York City. They restored its burgundy booths and Italianate murals and installed a new kitchen, where chef de cuisine Josh Even prepares hearty food influenced by Italy yet completely at home in California.

No one was shocked to see crowds gather the moment Tosca reopened in October 2013. The wine program, though, was something of a surprise, as Friedman and Bloomfield called on two non-sommeliers to design the wine list: Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard and Ceri Smith, who for the last eight years has run Biondivino, a neighborhood wine shop in San Francisco's Russian Hill specializing in Italian wine, often with a natural or traditionalist bent. Another surprise: Grahm and Smith stacked the wine list with Tuscan wines, particularly Chianti. Jonathan Kauffman, San Francisco editor of Tasting Table, sat down with them to talk about their affinity for the not-exactly-trendy Tuscan reds.

JONATHAN KAUFFMAN: Randall, my understanding of how this all gets started is that Ken Friedman approaches you and asks you to do the wine list for the Italian-leaning restaurant he's opening in this revamped San Francisco bar, Tosca. How'd you find your way to Ceri?

RANDALL GRAHM: Apart from her utterly winning personality, Ceri knows more about Italian wines and grapes than anyone I know in the Bay Area. Since she was already buying Italian wines for her shop, she struck me as someone who is up to speed on what's available in the area. It would have taken me years to even begin to approach her level of familiarity with the wines. I met Ceri years ago before she opened [Biondivino], but got to know her better having visited her shop a number of times. She is the only person I know who reads Italian ampelography books in the wee hours when suffering from insomnia.

JONATHAN: Is there a particular connection between Tosca and Tuscan wines?

CERI SMITH: When Randall contacted me to do the wine with him, after bouncing down the street for about three hours—literally!—I started doing some research on old wine lists, since the restaurant had been around for so long. I thought: Let's see what the wines were back in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s. And everything I came up with was Tuscany, Tuscany, Tuscany, Chianti, Chianti, Chianti...specifi cally Chianti. Being in the heart of North Beach also, it's the campy side of Italy. The original owners of Tosca were three Tuscan men. So Tuscany just seemed to fit. Plus my great-grandfather was Tuscan. He arrived in North Beach in 1906, so I have a loyalty to Tuscany as well. That's kind of home away from home.

RANDALL: Though we should not forget to mention that Tuscan wines go great with April [Bloomfi eld]'s food. April's food is very rich—it's rustic, flavorful, intense. And you need something that's clean and moderate. You don't need over-the-top cabernets to go with her food. You want something refreshing, that can play well with her rich dishes.

JONATHAN: How are guests responding to a wine list with a bunch of Chianti?

CERI: On the floor, we pour it by the glass, so I can bring somebody a little taste, and nine out of ten times everybody loves the Chianti. It's a lot easier in a restaurant situation because we are actually pairing it with a dish, and people like that suggestion. I'm also really pleasantly surprised when people do come in and say, "I want a Chianti. Which one shall I choose?" It's nice to see people reaching out for sangiovese instead of something that's trendier.

JONATHAN: Are there any Chiantis on the menu that you feel are just universal matches with April's food?

CERI: For me, it's Braganti's Monteraponi. It's kind of our standard. This is the fiasco [holding up a straw-covered bottle] that Michele Braganti actually bottled for us. Randall and I were talking about different Chiantis and we went through all of the classics: Montevertine, Le Boncie's Le Trame, Isole e Olena and several others. And Randall says: "God, wouldn't it be fun to have Chianti in fi asco? Is there anybody making good Chianti in fiasco?" So I sent out some emails to friends in Montalcino and also to Michele Braganti at Monteraponi and Martino Manetti at Montevertine and I said, "Hey guys, is there anyone making good Chianti in fiasco?" And they said, "I don't know, I'll go look." Alberto Passeri from La Gerla and Riccardo Campinoti from Le Ragnaie both came back and said, "I think I found one, I think I found one!" And then moments later: "No, no, it's terrible. No, it's awful." Riccardo Campinoti is really good friends with Michele Braganti. He says they always tease each other in a playful, cheeky way. He says: "Go ask Braganti to bottle it in fiasco." So I sent Martino and Michele a message saying, "Hey, would you guys bottle this in fiasco for us? I know it sounds a little crazy, but will you do it?" Immediately both of them said yes. I said: "Oh my god, can you imagine having Montevertine in fiasco?" I mean, that's like an international fiasco right there—it's crazy!

RANDALL: As opposed to an international incident.

CERI: Exactly. So, Michele says, "Yes, I will bottle in fiasco for you and I will have it ready for you by the time Tosca opens." He says, "Martino, he cannot bottle it for you because his family left the Consorzio back in the seventies." And you have to be part of the DOCG to bottle in fiasco. The day that we opened, literally, I was waiting and waiting and waiting, going: "Where are these wines?" Sure enough, the morning that Tosca was scheduled to open, three cases of fiasco arrive via UPS from Tuscany that he had airfreighted over specifically for us. It was like: "Ah, this is good, this is going to work! This is the good luck charm."

RANDALL: Needless to say, Tosca has a sort of—maybe retro isn't exactly the word, maybe it is—but, there's a historic aspect to it. There's nothing more retro than a fiasco: candles in the bottle and everything that was cheesy and wonderful about the fifties and sixties is embodied in the fiasco. Some people think it's been continuous; they don't realize that it's stopped for like thirty years.

JONATHAN: What kinds of movements and producers particularly excite you in Chianti and Tuscany in general?

RANDALL: Ceri knows far better than I do. For me, the Montevertine is just in a class by itself. I don't think there's anything quite like it. If we want to answer the question negatively: One thing that Ceri and I both agree on is our abhorrence of the Super-Tuscan category.

CERI: I always say there's nothing super or Tuscan about them.

RANDALL: It's kind of what's wrong with the wine business—where you feel you have to hype something, be something that you're not. Tuscany decided that it needed to be Bordeaux for a while. It needed to be taken seriously and it needed to make "important" wines. I think that sort of self-consciousness really adversely impacts the integrity of the wines and they become this caricature. CERI: After the emergence of the Super-Tuscans, Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino fell to the wayside in a sense. Producers started saying: We could blend these [international] grapes to make it fleshier, or throw a lot of oak on it and make this bold expression. It's like wearing a lot of makeup. You lose the expression of what sangiovese is, even with five percent merlot. I personally don't work with any Chianti that has even five percent of an international grape variety blended in. It masks the flavor and it masks the intention of what Chianti should be. Sangiovese is a light red grape, it's brick in color, it's translucent. It's not blue, it's not dark, it's not heavy, it's not bold. It's elegant, it's got acidity to it, it's fresh, it's supposed to be paired with food. It's got meatiness, saltiness; it's got all of those characters that you want. When you start manipulating it to try to change the character, you lose what sangiovese is.

There are really good Brunello producers making beautiful expressions of sangiovese; they are just hard to find. To me Poggio di Sotto is among the top three to five Brunello producers out there. I think the majority of people in Italy would agree, though it's lesser known outside of wine circles there. Poggio di Sotto has this beautiful, dusty expression of sangiovese and it's pure. All his wines that I have tasted have that elegance, structure and balance, like a pair of shoes, perfectly tied, nice and tight. You know you can run without tripping. —Ceri Smith

RANDALL: Funny story—I was in Tuscany at a winery. The consultant shows up in his fast car, spends five minutes, writes down some orders, takes off. Half an hour later another consultant shows up, countermands the orders and writes another set of orders. It's "my consultant can beat up your consultant." You can't spend enough money to be successful enough. There's no such thing as successful enough or famous enough or winning enough. You must destroy all of your competitors at any cost—whatever it takes.

We are victims of our success. When wineries have too much money to spend, they spend it frivolously. These new barrels are God's way of saying you've got too muc money as a seller, as a winemaker. More wines are ruined, I think, by new barrels, than are improved.

CERI: I agree. Everybody has food allergies nowadays—I always say I have a wood allergy. But a lot of producers are going away from that homogenized, modernistic flavor profile. A lot of people are going back to cement vessels for fermentation and botti grandi [large wooden casks], and going away from barrique [small barrels]. Part of it is the economic crisis, too. Barriques are expensive; botti grandi you can use and use and use.

RANDALL: Wines that are aged in botti develop much more slowly than wines in barrique. They are often more backward. They can be in some sense not exactly simpler, but their charms are not as evident. And there's really a kind of a cultural gap between those who use large and small cooperage. It's like the difference between people who need other people to love or like them and people who don't care so much, who don't need people to love them or like them. When you age a wine in barrique, it's like a sandpaper, it polishes the wine. In my opinion it often polishes the wine too greatly. It polishes out even the real soul of the wine, so it is very flashy and has a beautiful exterior. For me, botti make the more soulful wines, but often require a little more explanation or introduction.

Tuscans and Tuscan wines now have a greater sense of their own identity, more self-confidence. They can be themselves. —Randall Grahm

JONATHAN: When you look at what you're getting excited about in Tuscany, is it a matter of new producers who are rediscovering old ways or are there a lot of producers who have quietly existed on the fringes for the past thirty or forty years?

CERI: It's all of the above. There are classic producers who have always been there and maintained the quality and structure and elegance of their wines. There's also a ne wave of people coming in—in Montalcino, Riccardo Campinoti [of Le Ragnaie] is a really good example of that. He's an unknown winemaker, he's young, and what he's done is really looked at the land and separated out his vineyard sites. He's at one of the highest elevations in Montalcino. He makes a classic blend of the three different [Brunello] vineyard sites that he has. He's also separating out the vineyard sites and making separate bottlings. He has one vineyard planted in the south, the Fornace vineyard. And another that's higher elevation, more in the north—Vigne Vecchia. He's approaching Montalcino the way that a lot of the Barolo producers have approached Piedmont. You can actually see the difference of the land and how the weather and the soil affect the grapes. There's another movement with Maurizio Castelli, a consulting enologist who makes beautiful wine when he's allowed to. He and a group of winemakers are trying to create a territory map of soil types and elevations— trying to re-create the designation zones of Chianti, specifically. It's really fascinating—it's right on the cusp of what's happening.

RANDALL: Then you have people like Paolo De Marchi [of Isole e Olena] who have been steady over the last thirty years and just perfect at what they do.

CERI: Yeah, and like Monteraponi. Michele Braganti is a big Burgundy lover. So rather than trying to emulate the style of Bordeaux, people are looking at sangiovese as a lighter, more structured grape variety. Rather than trying to extract the beast out of the grape, they're trying to extract the finesse and elegance and creating something ethereal and beautiful.

I should disclose that Michele and his girlfriend, Alessandra, are very dear friends. I fell in love with them because they have a beautiful wine. It was one of the few Chiantis that I had tasted that captures you. You smell the nose of the wine and there's something different, and it makes you stop and think. And, you're like: "Ah, that's sangiovese!" It's got that bright sage and saltiness and meatiness and elegance that is so hard to come by. It's not masked by any other flavors; it's the true expression of sangiovese. He's a younger winemaker. His family has this tenth-century hamlet and it's also situated on the highest elevation of Radda in Chianti. To me, there are different degrees of cherry through the communes. You can almost taste it. If you line up Chiantis from the different areas—Castellina and Castelnuovo Berardenga, Radda, Gaiole and Panzano—you should be able to taste where that wine was produced. It's almost like a sliding scale. The bright red cherries that first come into season—that's Castellina. The classic cherry in the height of its growing season is Castelnuovo Berardenga. Then, you get into the darker, blacker Bing cherries with the lower elevation of Gaiole and Panzano. Then, you have that dusty, earthy, beautiful, rare cherry that makes you go: "Where is this from?" And that's Radda. Radda's like my heart and soul. It's this sliding scale of cherryism.

The straw comes from one specific village and was used for transport at the time because fiasco bottles are round at the base. The straw was used to protect the wines in transport. Normally there were much larger bottles that they would have in a large basket that were used to go from town to town in the carriages or horse and cart. —Ceri Smith

RANDALL: It's very esoteric, Ceri. It's beautiful, but it's very esoteric. I love it! A lot of those questions have to do with the pH of the wine. The higher elevations are cooler and tend to be higher in acid. The chemistry, the pH and the acidity, has a bearing on what kind of fruit esters are formed as well.

CERI: And the soil types as well. Sangiovese likes high elevations. It doesn't like to go down low—300 meters above sea level, at least. In Chianti, what happened with the production levels going so high is that people stopped looking at the land and they were planting vineyards that were probably not appropriate. People are going back today and looking at the soil types and the situations.

JONATHAN: When you were looking back through old wine lists to inspire the Tosca selections, did you find a particular connection between San Francisco and Tuscan wines?

RANDALL: Chianti was the drink in the sixties and the seventies. People didn't drink Barbaresco and Barolo; they drank Chianti.

CERI: It was probably one of the larger export areas for Italy. And there was a large contingent of Lucchese—northern Tuscan—immigrants that came over, especially to San Francisco, due to the Gold Rush. My greatgrandfather was one of them. There were a lot of people from his area—the Massa Cararra area, near Lucca—especially in North Beach.

RANDALL: I think of beatniks and fiaschi in the fifties. If you wanted to seduce a girl you just had to have a fiasco with a candle in it. Don't think about any other method—that is the method of choice. █

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, April 2014.