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 second of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: 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?
Chris Deegan: 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. Sometimes this did not make sense – either because there was really only one grape to the region so listing the region instead of the grape seemed silly or because the grape had become distinct enough and important enough in California to merit a heading that was not French labeled. So we use the grape for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Gamay. We also tried to group some wines together that might drink alike. That is why Austrian reds are grouped with Loire Valley Reds. They remind me of one another – so if you are in the market for a Loire Valley red, I would like you to see some Austrian reds as well. You might like them. This is why south of France whites, Rhone whites and Spanish whites are all grouped together. Of course there are huge variances here – but the south of France uses a lot of the same grapes as the Rhone Valley and certain parts of the Roussillon might as well be Spain – so it makes sense to me. Then you have regions like the Jura, which are just so special that they deserve a unique heading. I guess this could be made simpler, but the fact is that I am often times really turned off by wine list headings. The whole ‘Light and Fresh’ or ‘Weighty and Serious” thing doesn’t do it for me. The system we are using seems to have a solid method to me. Perhaps it is just madness though.
STTG: What stands out as one or two of the most in demand categories currently dominating your wine sales?
CD: Right now I’m excited to say that it is a 2010 Chablis that is dominating by the glass sales. A Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet is also selling very well by the glass. We have also been selling a lot of Langeudoc-Roussillon over the past month.
STTG: Of the very exciting components of your wine program your Wines From the Vault segment has some real gems. Is there a philosophical approach to how this section of your list is assembled?
CD: There are a couple philosophies as work. I wanted to carry some of the really great wines of the world but I also wanted to keep the personality of the wine list a certain way. If you start peppering your wine list with Comtes Lafon and DRC it is going to change the personality and perception of it. So I pulled those out and listed them on the back. But I didn’t want it just to be expensive wines on the Vault List– so we also list rare or exemplary wines that are not super expensive. I want it to be a small list of extremely exciting wines. I think that we as a culture tend to think that every wine we drink has to be the best, biggest, most life altering wine ever. Sometimes you just want good wine – not life altering, mental state changing, supernatural juice. But sometimes you do want that truly great wine. The Vault List is supposed to be a short list of truly great wines.
STTG: In the Journal section of your website you currently feature Mas Daumas Gassac, a storied winery from the south of France. This is a truly unique, educational segment from a wine director. What goes into your choice of subject?
CD: I am trying to create a unique, interesting, educational wine experience. I think about what would really excite me if I walked into a place. Before I had ever tried Mas de Daumas Gassac I had read about it and heard about. Eventually I tried one of the reds. Later on I got to try a white. I got to thinking that I would have been really excited to walk into a place and get to try them all side by side. So I decided to do it. I try to run wines by the glass that you normally would not see, either because they are just too rare or too expensive. The mark-ups on these wines are usually very small as well. Again, it’s about creating this memorable wine experience. For example, we are currently running four Smaragd wines from Alzinger. We have 6 bottles of each total. They would normally be somewhere near $140 on the bottle list. We are running them for $25 a glass. It certainly is not a cheap glass of wine – but it’s definitely the cheapest price in the country – if anyone else in the country is even offering it by the glass. We did the same thing with Vouette & Sorbee Champagnes a while back. We offered all three of their wines by the glass at less than retail markup. I am certain that we turned at least 50 people onto these amazing wines, and that is the point – turning people on to really cool wine. Other times I want to draw attention to a producer who is making a range of really great wines. We offered the full range of the Peay Estate wines one year. We offered five vintages of Calera Mills Pinot Noir. We just recently featured a number of Languedoc wines that represented incredible value and showcased what the region has to offer. There are no rules as to what the feature is about – rather just a place to do something interesting and fun within the wine list.
STTG: Do you currently have a favorite food and wine pairing duo in your by the glass program? If so, what makes this combination shine?
CD: Riesling and the Pork Chop. Sweet, salty, grilled pork with high acid, minerally white wine – a bonus if it is summer time and we have grilled stone fruit with the Pork Chop. The Riesling can be dry or off-dry, both work great.
STTG: In the spirit of a window into your wine soul, if you had to land on one style or alternately pick a region that inspires you what would that be?
CD: High acid. I love electricity in wine. Acidity is energy. I love tannin and fruit too – but acidity trumps them. Tannin is like muscle – you need just so much before it gets in the way. Fruit is like emotion – you absolutely must have it, but if you exude raw emotion all of the time you become sappy and intolerable. But acidity is energy – and more is better.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!