Ceri Smith is the owner of the swanky Italian enoteca, Biondivino in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district. She is poised to unveil what will certainly be another local favorite when she opens the doors to her cozy-chic, cafe-cum-wine bar Et al. this October. I recently had a chance to chat with her and explore her irrepressible passion for the vine.

(This is the first of a two-part feature)

La differenzia Italiana!

SlaveToTheGrape: You and I met many years ago in the Anderson Valley at Roederer Estate where you were helping out at the domain. How did you land there and what were you doing before that?

 Ceri Smith: Chasing chickens.

My ex has a beautiful ranch there and after living in Vietnam (he was a lawyer for a British firm, I taught pre-school) we came back to California and landed in Anderson Valley.  After you name 38 roosters and hens, teach yourself how to bake and make all your Christmas cards by hand, you look for something to do – so, I was fortunate to be welcomed into Roederer Estate when Michel Salgues was there. He took me under his wings, gave me books to read and taught me the ropes of the winery – when I’d open the doors,  the smell of the winery intoxicated me with intrigue.

STTG: Your roots in the wine industry are deep but your first love seems to be Italian wine. When did you first start paying attention to Italian wines?

CS: With Roederer, I was on the path to studying Champagne and sparkling wine production, I wanted to become a Champagne specialist – learn all that I could.

Then one day, a friend blind tasted me on a glass of Aglianico – this was a long time ago, when there was no A16 or anyone carrying it in shops and it was like a light flashed in my head – !boom! “I’ve got it! I’ll study all the grapes no one has ever heard of!” So, that’s how it started and what better place than Italy. There are 20 regions and 1000+ varieties – even the islands produce wines that are unique to that specific area and not found elsewhere. It’s fascinating and something I can never grow tired of. I still learn something new every day which is wonderful.

STTG: The city’s wine shops offer a diverse selection of the world’s wines including many Italian offerings yet back in 2006 you decided to launch Biondivino, giving San Francisco its first wine shop truly devoted to Italian wines. Were you at all concerned at the time that this would be too limited in scope?

CS : No – I went looking for Aglianico 12-13 years ago, and couldn’t find anything. One person even argued with me that I wanted “Aleatico”  – “a. l. e. a. t. i. c. o.,” he spelled out while pointing to the Oxford Dictionary. I turned the page and pointed to “Aglianico”. He slammed it shut and said “no,” he didn’t have any.

I was working for an Italian distributor here and then moved to Manhattan to work as an Italian specialist for another company and saw that while great restaurants were open to smaller producers and unheard of varieties, (wines that were unique, individual and far from the more commercial offerings), at that time most retailers were a lot less interested or open to something that wasn’t known. “Great wine, too hard to sell,”  I heard one too many times from most retailers. When I had the opportunity to come back to San Francisco, I thought: “so many people go to a restaurant, have a great bottle of wine and then can never find it in retail. Why would I come back and open a shop that carried the same wine as everyone else?”

STTG: You organize a lot of producer/consumer wine tasting events and I noticed recently that you had Maximin Grunhaus’s Dr. Carl von Schubert  from Germany at an in-store tasting. How often do you stray from Italian-only to offer wines and/or feature producers from other countries?

And now…

CS: Well… it is Riesling. I love Riesling! Riesling is beautiful and Riesling is sublime.

 But seriously, on a few occasions, not that often, we have strayed away from Italian here and there.  We have had Slovenian producers, Austrian and German, but the most unusual was from the Republic of Georgia. We even had the Zedashe Ensemble dancers here, performing in our tiny space – that was fun.

I think it is important for there to be a focus on the producer and region when tasting wine. It enables the taster to learn what they like, what they don’t like and take that knowledge and grasp it in a social, engaging and approachable way. Then, maybe the next time they are out and come across something they might not have previously been familiar with on a wine list they can tell the sommelier – “I like this winemaker’s style,” or even better, “I don’t like this style.”

Italy can be confusing for a lot of people with it’s wonderful diversity of grapes, regions and winemaking styles so it is great to see people interacting with the winemakers and even better, when you see someone else’s light bulb go !boom!, and they fall in love.

STTG: Let’s talk about your new venture, Et al. More than a year ago you said that you had your eye on a storefront that you wanted to turn into a neighborhood hangout but you seem adamant about not calling it a wine bar. What type of ambiance are you trying to evoke and if not a wine bar, what category if any would you attribute this new effort to?

CS: Ideally I’d like it to be thought of as a casually elegant place to have a bite of beautifully thought out food (Boulettes Larder is curating our menu) and a place to enjoy any time of the day. The neighborhood is filled with young families and mothers with their little ones. Where can they go to meet a girlfriend for a glass of wine at 3pm? I don’t want to lock ourselves into a ‘bar’ mentality – bars have a certain connotation, but a comfortable little haven that is open throughout the day is different. Ideally, I would love to walk in and see someone who has just come from the gym, rehydrating with a nice Rose, sitting next to someone in a gorgeous evening gown ready for the opera.  And yes, we will have ‘breakfast wine’ for the morning. Why not? …to be continued

Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!

© Mick Cameron 2012

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