San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn is known for her artful presentations and exacting technique at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Atelier Crenn. But her insistence on culinary precision began in childhood: As a 9-year-old growing up in France, she kicked her father out of the kitchen when his skills didn't meet her standards. She opened Atelier Crenn in 2011 and claimed 2 Michelin stars within two years. Crenn next set her mind to elevating the wine program to the level of her cuisine.
Crenn found in Bay Area native and Michael Mina alumnus Matt Montrose, 28, a fellow advocate for an eco-friendly approach to dining. "What we really want to express is, there is a future in wine that is sustainable," Montrose says. "People are very interested these days in what they're eating. People are avoiding GMOs, they're demanding more organic produce, and that philosophy should be really transferred over to what we drink, too. It's really important to think about wine in the same way we think about food."
Now, Crenn and Montrose are delving even deeper into wine: The Crenn Dining Group that includes Atelier and the more casual Petit Crenn bistro will open a wine bar, Bar Crenn, later this summer. There too, the wine list will include a strong showing of organic and biodynamic wines from sustainably farmed vineyards.
Crenn and Montrose spoke with assistant editor Samantha Falewée about the wines and pairings that excite them now, and the environmental responsibilities of restaurateurs.
Wine Spectator: How do you envision wine's place in the Crenn cuisine?
Dominique Crenn: The way I look at the restaurant is that the food can elevate the wine, but the wine can also elevate the food, so it’s very 50/50. I’m interested in new wine and very old wine. [Montrose] makes me taste wine all the time. I’m probably very easy to please sometimes! I love rosé wine; he always has some bottles of rosé. It doesn’t matter where they come from for me, [but] obviously it needs to be French [laughs].
Matt Montrose: [Crenn's] food is very driven by seafood and shellfish, so a lot of those dishes need wines with balance, acidity, freshness, liveliness. People think those are easy wines to make—making them well I don’t think is as easy as people realize. We do fill a lot of white Burgundy, also Grüner Veltliner from Austria is a very strong selling point, and dry Rieslings. It depends on the menu. I'm extremely interested right now in Austrian red wine, Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, how it can be actually applicable with our food.
WS: There's a strong focus on sustainable ingredients, and natural and biodynamic wines, at Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn. What do you hope to achieve by promoting this approach?
DC: It’s all kind of a platform for me to be able to be in this position where I can learn and also inspire others. We’re not just doing food and we're not just selling wines to sell wine: We're doing it in a way that’s conscious, and it’s thoughtful, and it's also, what difference can [we] make in this world? I’m very interested with climate change and what’s going on on the planet, so everything that’s with food production and winemaking is very much connected to that.
MM: When I look at what I have on the list at Atelier, I never intended to build the program with a focus on artisan producers that practice sustainable, organic, biodynamic farming, but when I reflected on it, I realized these are the people I'm naturally inclined to be working with. I'm looking at artisan producers with great tradition, great knowledge of their land, and technique. Wines from all over the world: people who are great stewards of the land and really care about the ecosystem, their product and the next generation to come.
WS: Do you see this mentality in other restaurants in the nearby area?
MM: Not so much here. With natural wine there's a very big movement in places like Portland or New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo. I can't say that there's a restaurant here or an identity of that kind in San Francisco. So we are aiming to be one of the first to really open up the conversation of, "Look, the future of wine is this."
WS: Have you had any amazing wine-and-food pairings recently?
MM: At the restaurant, one of my favorite dishes we're doing right now is butter-poached sea urchin from Hokkaido, Japan, and we put them on a little paddy of grilled koshihikari, which is a premium Japanese rice. Inside the rice patty, after we grill it, it's also infused with local seaweed, kombu, and it's assembled together in a bowl that is poured with barigoule sauce. [Barigoule] is a traditional French, Provençal broth that we make with grilled oysters, leeks, onions and fennel.
I've been doing a Grüner Veltliner with it, the 2014 vintage of Schloss Gobelsburg, their Kamptal reserve, Ried Renner vineyard. It's all about the bright acids and the really intense savory characteristic of this wine. It's got almost a peanut shell, toasted grain, white pepper, arugula, watercress kind of note to it, and there's all this lees contact which gives this rich creamy texture that will hold up to the sea urchin.
WS: Have you ever had a life-changing wine moment?
MM: It's hard to pinpoint, but I would say that my revelatory "a-ha" moments with wine were the ones when I'm actually in the vineyards and spending time touching the grapes, and feeling the vines, and seeing the sunlight, and listening to the biodiversity around me. It's always those moments when I realize, "We may be drinking this beautiful elixir from a bottle inside of an apartment in a dingy city somewhere, but if you go back to the roots, this is where it comes from." This is what we're working with: God's greatest gift, which is this beautiful world. My most vivid one would be my last trip when I was in Tokaj, up in northern Hungary.