The outstanding Oakland restaurant Oliveto has started offering a special collection of older Italian wines, even serving some by the glass. The prices, eminently fair for wines from the mid-1990s and before, make it possible to drink 12-, 15-, even 25-year-old Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunellos sometimes for less than current vintages.
Oliveto is one of my favorite Bay Area restaurants. Chef Paul Canales' food has a directness and an honesty. Hell, it's so damn good that I'd be willing to drink water with it. With really good, mature wine? A no brainer.
So I sat down at a corner table with Bob Klein, who has owned Oliveto with his wife, Maggie, since its start in 1988, to talk about his Wine in Time project. At present, it includes about 1,000 bottles, divided among 47 wines, roughly three out of four from Piedmont.
The list includes a few from some celebrated Nebbiolo specialists, such as Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia Soprana 1996 ($235), Paitin Barbaresco Sorì Paitin 1990 ($145) and Produttori del Barbaresco Asili 1988 ($175). It also has some dating from the late 1980s and early 1990s, by wineries that Wine Spectator's critics have seldom rated higher than the mid- to low-80s, such as Castello di Verduno and Giuseppe Mascarello. Others are getting high scores now, but were not even rated before the past 10 years, such as Barale, available in 1982 ($270), 1985 ($300) and 1995 ($155).
The Tuscany section offers 1990 Brunello from Altesino ($400), Caparzo ($315), Pertimali Riserva ($350) and Piccolomini ($355), plus some really old stuff from Badia a Coltibuono (Chianti Classico Riserva 1965, $190) and Castell 'In Villa (Chianti Classico Riserva 1975, $180).
The lack of imprimatur from the big critics for the Piedmont wines he loves doesn't faze Klein.
"I gravitate toward producers who make their wines in a classic style, and that doesn't always get the best ratings from critics looking for wines to drink sooner rather than later," he said. He believes the wines just need time to show what they have, which is why he won't sell them until they have at least 12 years of age.
The Wine in Time project was born out of Klein's frustration that wine drinkers were not paying enough attention to producers who have not jumped on the modern bandwagon. "These are my friends," he said, "and I think they are becoming an endangered species. I go to Piemonte every year and I've gotten to know them. For me, their wines speak of the place, they reflect the people. For me, it's personal."
The wine program reflects the same values that drive the food at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant that has always resisted calling itself Italian. It doesn't try to imitate Italy's famous dishes. Instead, the same impulse that makes great food in Italy—using ingredients close at hand, honoring farmers and others who make products that have a distinct sense of place—drives the cuisine here. All the pigs, steers, lambs and wild boars are made from whole animals, for example, the extra bits turned into marvelous salumi.
The dishes I ate the other night at Oliveto couldn't have been more Italian, but I doubt you will find them on any other menu. The salad, for example, dressed winter radicchio with mashed anchovies, olive oil and lemon juice, tossing the leaves with walnuts and shaved Parmigiano. "The radicchio comes from a guy who gets the sweetest flavor into it," Klein said. Potato gnocchi snuggled with slices of smoked fresh sea scallops, the silk of the scallops playing off the velvet of the gnocchi. The dish was dressed with leeks slow-cooked in Sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur.
Klein also noted that the rabbit for the cacciatore, braised in a tomato-based sauce with unending layers of flavor, and the corn meal for polenta with cavola nera (black cabbage) served with it, came from fanatical growers. The textures and flavors were remarkable.
"I'm looking for the same thing with the wines," he said. "Everything has a story behind it."
The wine project emerged from a totally different effort, however. A former television producer for network-owned stations in the Bay Area, Klein started shooting video of the farmers, food producers and vignerons he met in his travels to Italy. He thought he might compile them into a documentary on people who make food where they have always lived.
Along the way, he noticed that the wineries sometimes had stashes of older wines in their cellars, and he asked if he could get some for his restaurant. Having made the human connection with the producers, they often were willing to sell him a few bottles, even a few cases.
"I couldn't have afforded to buy these wines on release and keep the money tied up in them until they were ready," he said. "But when you compare the price of the older wines today with the new vintages, it makes a lot of sense to buy them when they're already there."
He also found caches of older wines in old family restaurants, such as one five-case lot of 1970 Nebbiolo d'Alba (now sold out). "They couldn't sell 37-year-old Nebbiolo," he said, shaking his head. "But it's not a difficult sell for us. We can tell the story, and it's a new experience for our customers."
I tried three wines from the Wine in Time cellar and, as is often the case with older wines, it was a mixed bag. That Paitin Barbaresco 1990 was gorgeous, a flute solo of lovely red fruit flavors undulating over tannins that had subsided into a velvety bed. As it sat in the glass, it developed hints of animal and tar, and something like sassafras sneaking in around the edges. It evolved in the glass and it tasted great with the rabbit.
I was less enthusiastic about Castello di Verduno Barolo Vigna Massara 1996 ($125). I wished it had more fruit left. It seemed jagged around the edges. Still, it was a solid older wine, and from a very good vintage.
The offering by the glass this week was Felsina Chianti Classico Berardenga Riserva 1994 ($20). Once a 90-point wine, it had lost its suppleness to a sharp thrust of acidity and no longer had the fruit or other flavors to compensate. The food did not make it better, either. Too bad. I am big fan of Felsina, but asking a middling vintage like 1994 to last 14 years might be too much.
Guests can also opt for one of the modern-style wines that occupy about half of the 200 selections on the regular list. Klein and his wine director, Seth Corr, are not in that camp that decries modern winemaking. They just want to preserve what's special about the traditional wines. I have to admire that.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — February 15, 2008 3:18pm ET
Glenn S Lucash — February 15, 2008 5:28pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 19, 2008 1:11am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions