The Divisadero corridor, a pulsing San Francisco neighborhood north of the Panhandle is for those in-the-know a culinary and entertainment hot spot anchored by the eponymously named Nopa, one of the best-loved and most-consistently creative dining spots in the city.
Heading up Nopa’s precision-crafted and highly-expressive wine program is Chris Deegan. I recently spoke with him about his key role in the organization.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: You have been the wine director at Nopa virtually since the opening of the restaurant. What got you excited about this project initially?
Chris Deegan: Nopa opened on April 11th, 2006. I started there in May of 2006, about 3 weeks later. While I was not actually part of the opening team, I was definitely part of the opening process. My initial excitement for the project was based on the people and the opportunity. The owners of Nopa are great people and it was clear from the beginning that the goal was to open an excellent restaurant. I wanted to be a part of that.
STTG: What were you doing prior to this and how much of your current program is influenced by your former experience/s?
CD: Directly prior to working at Nopa I was working at Range, Sociale and Incanto. I spent a little over a year traveling in South America and when I returned I decided I wanted to run a wine program. I sought out jobs where I could get close to wine or work with great wine lists. Before leaving for South America I worked at Rose Pistola and helped open A16. There is no doubt that I have been influenced by all of these places. James Atwood at Rose Pistola was a big influence. He was incredibly passionate and had a little streak of genius in him. This was also the first serious wine program I was involved with.
STTG: Your wine list is always creative and I’m sure potentially challenging for some. How do you prepare your team to handle what must be a steady stream of queries about the wines you offer?
CD: We have staff tastings every week and log the tasting notes on the staff page of our website. We also talk a lot about wine at line-ups before service. We do frequent wine trips and always an initial training where I try to make it clear what the personality and expectation of our program is. Knowing the list is crucial, but being service oriented and excited about wine might be even more important. Most of our servers really enjoy wine and can speak about the list quite well. We have recently added a new position that is a sort of support/somm position. This person is on the floor to help with the wine list and general wine program stuff. And finally, to back all of this up, there are always at least 2 managers on the floor who can speak in depth about the wine list. There is a lot of discussion amongst all of us about how to best speak with our guests and how to best figure out which bottle is right for them.
STTG: Would you say that chef Jossel’s food creations predominantly determine your selections for the wine program or do you allow yourself some artistic freedom to offer wines that you love simply because they shine by virtue of their unique profile/story?
CD: I definitely allow myself artistic freedom. I think about our food and the seasonality of it as the list fluctuates throughout the year, but I think more about what makes a really exciting and fun list of wines. The food at Nopa is very well balanced and quite easy to pair with wine. I prefer a style of wine that is less ripe and less extracted in general any way, and those tend to make more versatile food wines. I don’t feel I need to work all that hard at making the wines go with the food at Nopa. Luckily my style of wine goes with our style of food.
STTG: Nopa has a strong commitment to organic and sustainable sourcing in the kitchen. To what degree does this have an impact on your wine program?
CD: Our wine program has the same philosophy. We focus on sustainable and/or organic producers. It is not a mandatory stipulation, but I would say that 70% of the wines are farmed organically and 99% farmed sustainably. I think it is generally accepted that clean farming makes better fruit and better fruit makes better wine. A large percentage of the people making serious wine believe that wine is made in the vineyard, and if you believe this you are probably farming fairly cleanly.
STTG: You group wines in many different ways: sometimes by district or region, sometimes combining diverse areas across countries and sometimes simply by style or grape variety. What is your thought process for this?
CD: That is a tough question. There is a system to it and all of the decisions are thought out, but there are inconsistencies as well. We wanted to give a nod to the homeland of certain grapes. Thus the Loire Valley White, Southern Rhone Red, Northern Rhone Red, Bordeaux Red, etc…to be continued
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