Ceri Smith is the owner of the swanky Italian enoteca, Biondivino in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district. She recently unveiled what is poised to become another local favorite with her cozy-chic, cafe-cum-wine bar Et al. I had a chance to chat with her and explore her irrepressible passion for the vine.
(This is the second of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: From what I gather, in contrast to Biondivino you
seem to have a much different wine focus for this new venture including a plethora of Rieslings, champagne offerings and even some decades-old Madeiras by the glass – which, for many may seem a bit esoteric. Does this mean that you are a firm subscriber to the “pour it and they will come” philosophy?
Ceri Smith: No. Esoteric to be esoteric, is no longer esoteric. Riesling, for me is one of the most noble, diverse grapes in the world. It also happens to be one of the most misunderstood or stereotyped grapes. Sherry (think grandma), Madeira (think old stodgy man), Rosé – (well unfortunately think white zinfandel) often come to mind… and poor champagne… champagne is often limited to ‘celebratory’ situations.
My mother gave me an ancient cookbook years ago that was used for the King of England. It had suggested menu parings for an 8-course meal with wines – on one side was the classic white through claret through Sauternes, and in a separate box, exactly opposite for all the pairings was another suggested menu listing:
champagne, champagne, champagne…throughout the whole coursing of wine pairings.
And then – there are the Republic of Georgia wines. Georgian wines stole my heart completely last September. They are the oldest wines – the birthplace if you will of wine, and have heart, soul and personality like no other. We will be pouring these magical wines in the glass first so that you can see the color (orange) and then giving you the option of trying them in the Georgian drinking vessel, the piyāla which is made of clay – the same clay that the qvevri are made of. Only 5 artisans are still in existence making these aging vessels that people often confuse with amphorae.
I think it is exciting to try something new.
STTG: The space has table seating with a small bar opposite the entrance. You have partnered with Boulette’s Larder’s Amaryll Schwertzner for the small-plates component. Since all of the food items were selected with wine in mind, could you cite a couple of these items and a style of wine that you will offer that inspired you to go with these dishes?
CS: Amaryll and Lori at Boulettes are truly incredible aesthetes and masterful chefs. Everything they touch is reflected in that. It is such an incredible honor to be working with them. The menu will always be changing, so it will always be an adventure. There will be a core theme running through though due to our space constraints – a lot of dishes in little croquettes, think salt cod brandade and also cassuelas and some more unusual offerings that I can’t tell you about yet… think Spanish and very different which will be so fun with the sherries listed.
STTG: You will also be offering some breakfast items which is fairly unconventional for a (non) wine-bar concept. Do you see any imaging incompatibilities here?
CS: Breakfast wine – what better way to start the day? Kidding of course.
I love good coffee as well as good wine. We have a beautiful machine in Et al. It is a Faema Jubilee 61, it’s like a classic Ferrari, but it makes gorgeous coffee. And the coffee, yum! We are working with one of Italy’s boutique roasters, Gianni Frasi of Giamiacca Caffe. He has continued with the tradition of his uncle, Giovanni Erbisti, who began roasting coffee in his Veronese apartment in 1947.
He still uses his Erbisti’s original roasting machine, making him almost certainly the last torrefacteur (coffee roaster) in the world to roast his beans directly with an open flame. His family philosophy remains the same, eschewing dark roasts in order to preserve even the subtlest aromas of the coffee.
And then there is the tea. I fell in love with Bellocq tea, a tea atelier (workshop) based in New York. Their website images were inspiration for the interior of Et al. and their tea is heaven on earth. I received the samples and could not stop inhaling the beautiful aromas. It was intoxicating.
Amaryll and I discussed the food items for morning, and rather than ‘breakfast’ it is more of a ‘morning’ item list – with an emphasis on savory rather than sweet, something wholesome, satisfying and substantial in flavor rather than sweet.
And yes – there will be a special hangover ‘cure’ listed on the menu and… breakfast wine. And – in the near future, we hope to have a “Modern High~Tea” on the weekends.
STTG: How do you plan to split your time between Biondivino and Et al?
CS: I joke that I am going from one small box to another.
I’ll be at both places; it’s like a mother dividing time between children. One has certain needs for attention different from the other.
STTG: As with an artist’s creation, anyone who develops a concept like this has a specific reaction they are trying to elicit from their audience. What do you hope people will say when they talk about their experience at Et al?
CS: “I’m happy.” “I love it.” “This is fun.”, would make my day and make me feel like I did my job.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!