Several years ago, my wife and I and her parents went to dinner at an upscale restaurant with a distinctly regional wine list hand-culled from southwestern France, northeastern Spain, and the Basque country. My father-in-law searched in vain for something in his comfort zone: Bordeaux, Burgundy, big names from California. "This wine list is terrible," he groused; "I don't know a single bottle on it!"
To which I replied, "This wine list is wonderful; I don't know a single bottle on it!"
If Arthur had to navigate the East Bay wine scene these days, he'd probably settle for a beer. At wine bars and wine-oriented restaurants, the offerings are likely to include a good proportion of glasses from places and grape varieties that are anything but the usual suspects: fly-away sections of the former Yugoslavia, parts of Italy many Italians have never heard of, grapes whose names seem only to include consonants and diacritical marks.
Last week, my wife walked into Berkeley's Italian-menued Locanda da Eva, and was asked by her server, "Might I interest you in a glass of Crljenak Kaštelanski?" Which turns out to be the name for Zinfandel in Croatia, where that very California grape originated, and proved quite a tasty experience.
The proliferation of under-exposed wine options is one of the good things about globalization; it's now possible to have any food and any wine in the world on the same table. Vietnamese food and Austrian wine? Sure. One under-the-radar wine region after another has modernized production, built export markets, and delivered great value with fresh, novel, often indigenous grape varieties. At the same time, younger wine professionals and wine consumers snap up new wines, gleefully trying things outside the official Fine Wine Canon. Places like Walnut Creek's Va de Vi and Berkeley's César were on this track several years ago; now everybody's doing it.
Thus the steady influx of Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Monastrell, Refosco, Grillo, and Arneis — to name a few of the best-known entries — not to mention wines from Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estremadura, Alentejo, Dão, Priorato, Savoie, and the Republic of Georgia, where wine was invented. Wines from former Soviet Bloc countries are one driving force in the East Bay these days, largely through the efforts of importer Blue Danube Wine; Iberian wines, including the non-Port wines of Portugal, are another.
Relax: It's just wine. At Oakland's À Côté (see what I mean about diacritical marks, and that's not even the wine list), home to the Bay Area's most militantly eclectic wine list, wine director Jeff Berliner says that for his open-minded customers, the very unfamiliarity of the wines is an advantage, encouraging more interaction between staff and patrons. "Most folks who show up don't know a ton about wine; they come for the adventure," he said.
The tide of global wines has even begun to untie the knot between Italian food, the Bay Area's dominant white tablecloth cuisine, and Italian wine. Oakland's Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar has a largely Italian list, way beyond Chianti and Barolo, but at least a sprinkling of other Old World wines that owner/wine director Elizabeth Frumusa feels go with the food. And Bellanico's list also displays another accelerating trend: identification of wines with sustainable, organic, or biodynamic credentials.
If you want a nice Beringer Merlot, there's a supermarket nearby.