Ceri Smith has just returned to San Francisco from a three week trip to Italy, traveling and researching for a forthcoming book on Italian wine, which is certainly something to get excited about. But there is so much more to celebrate. In the past year, Ceri was named one of Food & Wine‘s Sommeliers of the Year, rang in the eighth anniversary of her Russian Hill wine shop, Biondivino, and signed on as co-wine director of the newly updated and re-imagined Tosca Cafe.
The shelves of Biondivino are filled with Italian classics and some more esoteric offerings, as well as champagne—a direct reflection of both where Ceri began her career and where she ended up.
Smith took her first wine job at the California branch of Champagne Louis Roederer in the Anderson Valley and immersed herself in the study of sparkling wine. But when she discovered the regional wines of Italy she fell fast and hard. After working with Italian importers and distributors in San Francisco she eventually landed a job that took her to New York. But a chance phone call from a friend about a storefront space opening up in San Francisco brought her back to the Bay Area for good. Biondivino’s doors opened in 2006 and the rest, as they say, is wine history.
Another important phone call last year brought a different opportunity her way. That call came from the iconoclastic California winemaker Randall Grahm, asking Ceri if she would like to work with him on the wine list for Tosca Cafe, a San Francisco institution newly updated by New York restaurant royalty Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield. She “got off the phone with him and was literally bouncing up and down the street.” For Ceri, the position working alongside Grahm has been a true partnership: “We always say, ‘the two of us together make one brain’.”
When Ceri is on the floor, she brings with her the “anti-somm somm” belief that, “In the restaurant world, the food is the focus and the star, the wine is simply there to support it and lift it up.” She explains wine’s role as that of a dinner guest that “changes the whole dynamic of the table. If the food and the wine are talking to each other and all the guests are engaged then it’s a great dinner party.”
When asked what five wines Ceri has had to drink in the past week, she responds with “Well, I probably drink too much” and “only 5?” So, basically, she’s our best friend. Here are just five of the wines under $75 that Ceri recently enjoyed and hopes might be your next dinner date.
“I love the soulfulness of the wines from Calabretta—all of them—so it’s hard to narrow it down. The winery takes a unique approach: If certain botti, or an entire vintage, isn’t strong enough to bottle a vintage Etna Rosso, they take that wine and blend together in a multi-vintage blend. Calabretta Cala Cala Bianco ($18) is a blend of four different vintages and the same goes for the Calabretta Cala Cala Rosso ($18) also four vintages; we pour this at Tosca and it is hard to keep in stock. Their 2001 Etna Rosso ($30) and newly released 2004 Etna Rosso ($28), are what I call the “Lopez de Heredia of Etna” or Italian wines. [Like the famed Rioja producer] they hold back and release when they feel the wine is ready to go out into the world, but the true ‘glou-glou’ dangerous wine is the 2011 Calabretta Nerello Cappuccio (not yet in the US). I had it in Italy and it disappeared way too fast, but I can still—almost—taste it.
Le Rocche del Gatto Pigato ‘Spigau’ 2006 | $25
“I love Ligurian wine. This is a white wine from a super small, old-school producer. Fausto describes his wines like a symphony and they truly are—they hit that perfect pitch and go ‘diiiiiinnnnggg’ when you taste them.”
Agnanum Campi Flegrei Falanghina 2012 | $25
Agnanum Campi Flegrei Piedirosso 2012 | $27
“Another small producer, this time from coastal Campania. Old vines all organic it is another one of those wines that you taste and it is closely knit like fine linen.”
Giuseppe Mascarello Dolcetto 2012 | $27
“Simply one of, if not the best dolcetto out there.”
Fekete Béla Juhfark Somloi 2011 | $24
This is just such a fun and honest wine. Blind taste anyone and I bet they’ll never guess “Juhfark.” And after a glass (or three) the jokes come out: Are Jufark-ing kidding me? The puns get even worse. It comes from Somloi a small region in Hungary that was once an underwater volcano. Fekete literally has 80 vintages under his belt and at 90+ years he still makes everything himself.”