The story of how Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse changed the face of food in America is now the stuff of established culinary folklore. Equally influential, however, is the restaurant’s historic relationship to wine, which has developed a legend of its own.
If we associate most old-school fine-dining wine programs with imperious back-vintages of pricy Burgundy and Bordeaux, then the myth surrounding the operation at Chez Panisse was constructed around a contrary set of values. A major progenitor of some of today’s most progressive wine lists, it dismantled convention, not only with its affordability and relatively small size, but, more critically, with its embrace of the Old-World notion of “table wine.”
According to longtime beverage director Jonathan Waters (no relation to Alice), however, the list emerged largely as a matter of happenstance. “The idea was simply to find the people you liked, or were friends with, and buy their wine,” he explains. “That’s how it all started.”
In 1970s Berkeley, this strategy translated into two core allegiances. True to its pioneering “locavore” creed, Chez Panisse always championed California’s emerging wine scene, bringing early attention to iconic winemakers like Paul Draper and Joseph Phelps, decades before their anointment as industry luminaries. Equally formative in shaping the wine list’s legacy, however, were the lessons that Alice Waters learned during her frequent visits to the south of France, and her lifelong friendship with Berkeley-based importer, Kermit Lynch.
“If there were mentors to the list—people who set it going—then Kermit is absolutely one of them, if not the one,” says Jonathan Waters. Among the first of his generation to introduce Americans to France’s regional wine traditions, Lynch spent the greater part of the decade in search of a new wave of independent, estate-bottled wines that had never been exported to U.S. shores. The influx of these French country wines—the kind served without pretense in the cafés and bistros of their regions of origin—provided a philosophical analogue for Alice Waters’ market-driven perspective on food.
From the start, this basic template, with its embrace of the nascent wines of California coupled with the unsung gems of France, placed Chez Panisse at the vanguard of a budding wine culture, and that’s where it remains to this day. But that’s not to say that the program hasn’t evolved over time.
“The list never expanded all that much in terms of quantity,” Jonathan Waters explains. “But as waves of new importers started bringing very good wines to California… the number of producers and regions we’re working with has multiplied.”
The selection of French wines, for instance, now runs the gamut, highlighting not just Kermit Lynch’s portfolio, but second- and even third-generation importers who have followed in his wake, representing the most recent inheritors of France’s “natural” canon (think the Loire’s Catherine & Pierre Breton, Domaine Gauby in the Roussillon or Burgundy’s Clos des Vignes du Maynes). Similarly, while still bolstered by classic producers like Ridge Vineyards, the California section eagerly reflects the younger generation of Golden State iconoclasts, including Scribe, Forlhorn Hope and Broc Cellars, among others.
In addition, there are plenty of old touchstones. The iconic Tempier rosé, a longtime favorite of Alice Waters, for example, is still available by the glass (at $19). And you’ll still find many Kermit Lynch standard-bearers—often offered with a touch of cellar age—such as Robert Chevillon (2004 Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Vaucrains” for $270), Jean-Louis Chave (1997 Hermitage for $900) and Franços Raveneau (2013 Chablis “Valmur” for $460). The same applies to local wines, like the Ridge “Montebello” ($440 for the 2000 vintage).
But as Jonathan Waters points out, those price tags point to an inescapable paradox: Many of the humble “bistro” or “country” wines of the past, which institutions like Chez Panisse helped to popularize, have since transformed into highly-allocated cult bottlings.
“Many of the wines that were wonderful that we used in the past are now too expensive to use in any great quantity,” Jonathan Waters says, citing not just “blue chip” producers like Raveneau and Chave (former by-the-glass pours, believe it or not), but even Domaine Tempier. “If you want to keep the heart of your list in the $40 to $60 range, you’ve left behind a lot of wines that were once staples, from producers that you truly love.”
We might look back in envy at those romantic days when bottles of Chave Hermitage or Raveneau Chablis could be popped with abandon on a random Tuesday night. Then again, the same cultural factors that have since pushed those bottles out of reach are also responsible for the privilege we enjoy of drinking so widely and so well at Chez Panisse, and its countless successors, today.
Chez Panisse in Five Bottles
Green & Red Vineyards Chez Panisse Zinfandel
“There’s a picture in one of the Chez Panisse books of the crew hanging around mid-1970s, sprawled across [Green & Red winemaker] Jay Heminways’s deck in all the glorious funky garb of those years,” Jonathan Waters says of this organically farmed zinfandel (blended with a touch of syrah), which the restaurant started serving in the late-1990s as its house red. “We go through over 300 cases a year and it is still the favorite of many regular customers.”
- Vintage: 2015
Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé
No wine is more synonymous with 1970s Berkely than the Tempier estate’s legendary Bandol rosé. Since then, it has become a highly-allocated cult wine (and has accordingly climbed in price), but it still remains the archetypal expression of pink wine from Provence. “This is the estate that cemented Kermit Lynch’s and Alice [Waters]’s friendship soon after the restaurant opened,” Jonathan Waters explains. “It’s been poured all year long by the glass since I arrived in 1983.”
- Vintage: 2016
Forlorn Hope Sémillon "Nacré"
Repping the younger generation that is actively redefining the landscape of California winemaking, Matthew Rorick’s Forlorn Hope project was founded with the mission of reclaiming “misfit varieties and old unheralded vineyards,” as Jonathan Waters puts it. “I always age a few cases of this very old-vine semillon,” he explains, describing the wine’s “Hunter Valley style, reminiscent of waxy Chablis” as “a return to lower ABV California wines that we first opened with in the 1970s.”
- Vintage: 2012
Marcel Lapierre Morgon
One of the natural wine movement’s founding fathers, Marcel Lapierre’s canonical expression of gamay from the village of Morgon remains one of the “natural” clan’s benchmark wines. According to Jonathan Waters, it’s also a logical match for the cooking at Chez Panisse. “Once we started highlighting the ingredients,” he explains, “we didn’t have as much sauce to match brawny reds.” A perennial Kermit Lynch favorite, it provided “our introduction to the natural world, albeit a few decades before it became popular.”
- Vintage: 2016
Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon "Montebello"
“This is the current vintage on the list, and Paul Draper’s wines have been with us since we started,” Jonathan Waters says. Although several Ridge wines rotate through the Chez Panisse beverage program at any given moment, the single-vineyard “Montebello” cabernet is “the closest thing to a first growth on this coast.” It doesn’t exactly come cheap, but for those eager to explore the classics it represents a worthy splurge.
- Vintage: 1995