Although I review the wines of Washington, Oregon and Australia, I often look elsewhere when I peruse a restaurant wine list or buy a few bottles for my wine cellar. Mind you, I love and admire wines from the regions I write about, but why pass up a chance to try something else that might be good?
This is the flip side of the “mystery wine lists” I wrote about recently, expressing my irritation at sommeliers and restaurateurs who only give us unfamiliar wines that they can sell at higher markups because people don’t know them. Not all restaurants are out to double-deal us, of course, and several recent experiences have led me to good wines when I recognized very few on the list. In recent blogs I mentioned the wine list at Rivera in Los Angeles, all from Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries, and Cotogna’s short list in San Francisco of wines priced at $40 from off-the-path corners of Italy.
Last week my wife and I dined with friends at La Ciccia, a restaurant that serves Sardinian cuisine that just happened to be halfway between their home and ours. I hadn’t been there since shortly after it opened about five years ago because the food did not impress me much then. But so many people whose Italian palates I respect have said so many nice things about it, and it’s only about a mile from my home.
The food was terrific, especially the baby octopus braised in red wine and their famous spaghetti with bottarga. Nice to have it in the neighborhood.
The wine list, like the food, reflects Sardinia, a mountainous Italian island out in the middle of the Mediterranean. There was a time when I reviewed Italian wine, but it’s been a while, and Sardinia was not much known then. Lately it has started to cause some blips on the radar of perceptive American wine drinkers. But I admit, I know virtually nothing about the wines, except for some pleasantly crisp Vermentino I have had by the glass.
So I lobbed a softball at the waiter. Knowing that a crisp, citrusy white wine would be just right with our first courses of seafood salad, spaghetti with bottarga and a plate of burrata, I asked him to recommend a Vermentino for us that had those characteristics. He pursed his lips and pointed at Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna 2009. It was one of the less expensive white wines ($28 on the list), a good sign that he wasn’t just trying to upsell us.
The wine was perfect. Bright, light, teeming with lemon, lime and floral flavors. It zinged with minerality and sheer joy.
Our guy did so well with that one that I left it to him to pick a red wine for our pasta with lamb and pan-roasted pork cutlets with saffron onions. I warned him that I was not overly fond of gamy flavors, and he came back with another winner, Santadi Carignano-Shiraz Valli di Porto Pino Shardana 2005. It was supple, brimming with plum and berry fruit, and nicely reined in, finishing with grace.
That’s what can happen when things go right, when someone proves trusworthy. They can lead us to something new and worth knowing about.
What discoveries have you made recently, taking a chance on a recommendation your gut said to trust?
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — January 18, 2011 1:36pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 18, 2011 4:33pm ET
Brian Smith — Washington DC — January 19, 2011 8:38pm ET
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