“In describing Italian wine, you embrace the chaos,” says Shelley Lindgren. “It’s kind of like understanding a Fellini movie in a lot of ways. Once you go to southern Italy, it just makes sense.”
Lindgren, 44, became enamored with the wild world of southern Italian wine in a roundabout way; she recalls how difficult the wines were to find in the United States even a dozen years ago, when she opened San Francisco's A16. Originally interested in French fine dining, Lindgren got serious about wine as a captain at Hubert Keller’s now-closed California institution Fleur de Lys, and later as a sommelier at Bacar.
But the wine culture of Italy called to Lindgren, and she and her husband wanted to open a pizza-and-wine bar. “You know, we’re on this pizza crawl," her future business partner, Victoria Libin, told Lindgren one day, "and there’s no Neapolitan pizza.” With the seed of an idea planted, A16 was born, and over a decade later, the cuisine of Campania remains its calling card. Lindgren later opened SPQR, and both restaurants hold Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning lists. (There is a second A16 in Oakland now as well.) Lindgren spoke with editorial assistant Sara Heegaard about her go-to pizza-and-wine pairings, the evolution of southern Italy in the greater wine conversation, and what hospitality means to her.
WS: How has the wine program at A16 and the world of southern Italian wines evolved since you first opened?
SL: [The list] started off with about a little less than 100 selections, including our wines by the glass. It was such a different world then, because in 2004, in that first year, we were so excited to find one Etna Rosso—now we have 50 we can pick from. That’s how fast things have been moving in the south of Italy for quality and understanding. Importers [are] moving in and searching out the grapes of forgotten wine regions that have these incredible histories.
In the south of Italy it’s a very humble, hardworking area. There really isn’t a lot of self-promoting going on. When we first opened A16 it was only 2004, but most people coming to Italy did not go south of Rome. It definitely became a hot spot—it was like the new Tuscany. People [wanted] to go somewhere with beautiful beaches in the middle of the Mediterranean, and [there’s] an incredible supply of new grapes, producers and wines every year.
WS: How has the long history of the vine in Italy inspired you?
SL: The Romans planted grapes everywhere they went: Champagne, the Rhône, you name it, and the reasons behind that are tied to the gods, and all these great civilizations that layer each other.
There’s a lot of great history in the glass when you’re drinking wines from the Aeolian Islands, for example—you really feel like you’re in the place where some mythology started.
WS: What are your go-to pizza-and-wine pairings?
SL: I’ve eaten and consumed a lot of pizza and wine over the years [laughs]. Pizza’s funny because—tomato sauce or no tomato sauce? Cheese or no cheese? It makes a huge difference in the wine you put down.
I have a chef friend who came in once, and I poured him a real classic Nero d’Avola from Pachino [in Sicily], Tenuta La Lumia Don Totò, and I paired it with a Margherita pizza. A lot of times if you go to Naples, they just offer two types of pizza, marinara or Margherita—that’s it. A little basil on the Margherita, the mozzarella adds richness, and this particular Nero d’Avola is not too heavy, but it really goes well with the tangy tomato sauce. The tannins are more sun-ripened, and it has a chocolate-covered cherry richness and exotic spices.
Now, if you’re talking about a marinara, of course you want to think of the sparkling Gragnano or Lettere, and that’s just like you’re on the Amalfi Coast. It’s a frizzante red that’s really affordable. It’s one of those things that’s just known to be a great pairing if you’re in Campania.
If you’re having a non–tomato sauce pizza, like a bianca pizza that has cheese or olives and basil, or a salsiccia that has the meat and house-made fennel sausage, we want richer reds—something like an Aglianico del Vulture. And then, when you have something like a Romano, which is cheeseless, tomato sauce with garlic and oregano and black olives, I like a white wine with that myself—something very fresh like a Falanghina.
WS: What do you like to drink on your own time?
SL: I drink a dry crisp white every night after service, because for me it’s refreshing, and just like you have an aperitivo or something, I’ll crave Fiano di Avellino or a high-acid, minerally, crisp, dry white.
WS: What does “hospitality” mean to you personally?
SL: Service has always been a really big factor for me and something that I really love—the people part of being in the restaurant business. A lot of times when you’re in the position of service in hospitality, people think that it’s a temporary job and not a profession, but at this point, being a sommelier, it is a profession, and it’s a passion, just like cooking is. I used to get asked that question a lot: “What else do you do?” And it used to stick with me because I think [being in hospitality] is a really noble profession. We’re providing something for people, [treating] people well, offering them food and wine and nourishment in many ways.
Sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the wine and the company, and that’s sort of the southern Italian way.