Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma County
So I’m sure you’ve seen them – the little fake leatherette bound booklets with the very predictable and limited wine selections that are common place in small mom-and-pop Italian restaurants and little Chinese or Thai places – Moon Palace next the firehouse on Cermak at the gateway entrance to Chicago’s Chinatown is an exception.
Or maybe you’ve been dazzled by the wonderfully curated wine list with hundreds of bottles at Chicago’s Italian Village or been truly overwhelmed at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa where the list draws from a cellar of a half million bottles and features 150 wines by the glass – the list is chained to the table.
Some recent dining experiences had peaked my interest in discovering how restaurants create and manage their wine lists in the heart of wine country and I was most pleased to discover that hard work and training are at the forefront.
Oh, and of course my promised review of a Burger King and a Chili’s attempt at a fried chicken sandwich, attempt is key word here and some fun facts along with a couple of good recipes, please enjoy.
I should mention that this is a rather long Whine but the other member of the tasting panel says it pretty good so you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee or a nice glass of Zinfandel and here we go.
While Rosso Pizza and Wine bar in Santa Rosa may be the smallest size wise of the establishments on our tour of wine lists, but its unique menu and very complementary wine list offer a big reason to go back on a regular basis. We discovered Rosso’s on one of our many trips to Northern California prior to relocating and in fact it was the first place we ate when we arrived.
Kevin Cronin (no not REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin) opened his Pizzeria + Wine bar in 2007 after more than 25 years in the restaurant business. He was a founding partner of and opened the world-famous Mustards Grill in Napa as well as the Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena. He’s run corporate restaurants and been a partner in an olive oil company and a winery.
Rosso’s rather unique menu features fresh Burrata and really delicious meatballs; simple yet, delicious salads with entrées topping out with a fried chicken plate for $24 and oddly enough only six wood oven fired pizzas and but not just your cheese and sausage.
“Restaurants and food and wine are a passion for me and I’ve been around food and wine for most of my life”, Cronin animatedly stated. “I wanted our pizzeria and wine bar to be a reflection of the Italian countryside, where food is created from scratch from local and seasonal ingredients. I wanted it to be super comfortable, reasonably priced, and we wanted fresh and lively, not fancy but just another level up, understated but over performing – that’s what we work for every day.”
“You can eat on the cheap, you can drink on the cheap, but where do you go to find an eight dollar glass of wine that isn’t some Kendall Jackson crap?” Cronin states empathically. “We offer a South African Sauvignon Blanc that is fresh and clean and has high acid and has great body that you might find elsewhere at triple the price. And the way we do it is to taste, taste, taste and taste. Our purveyors offer us choices on the low-end as well as the high-end wines, you just have to look. I think it’s important that people have a choice when they’re thinking about wine.”
In response to carry out only during early Covid limitations, he adjusted the wine list and found wines from all over that he could sell for twenty dollars, still make a buck and people could purchase to go with carry out food (they were pretty good by the way), “You have to dig around to find good ones,” he says.
The current list features about 35 wines with a good 15 or so by the glass ranging from $8 to $15. Bottle prices begin at $32 and very gently top out at $98 for a French Burgundy, a classic Chardonnay. “We’re making sure that our customers have a choice”.
“We don’t have Cabernet because it doesn’t work with our food”, he states. “When someone gripes about it, I get them to try a couple of the wines on the list that I think will go with their food and the next thing you know he’s my best buddy.”
Kevin lovingly refers to his servers as “kids” and holds training sessions so they know the wines and what they taste good with and how to present them to customers.
“Our job is to help people not be afraid to order food and wine in a restaurant and for them to have the confidence in the people who are waiting on them”, he states directly, “When I interview them for the job I want to make sure that they have the passion for food and wine and are opened to the fact that we can teach them even more.
For example Cronin tells me every “kid’ who works for him has to learn how to make fresh mozzarella, “Because how are you going to sell it if you haven’t pulled or touched it and tasted the simplicity of adding good olive oil and salt and pepper that makes it like magic. They’ll never know that or how to share that experience with the client until they created it for themselves.”
Cronin concludes, “I’m passionate about food and wine and I’m in this business because it’s about flavor and flavor is about people, passion and product”.
The midsize destination of our wine list tour is a landmark, third generation restaurant located in the northern heart of Sonoma County between the hills of Dry Creek and Cabernet- intense Alexander Valley.
Catelli’s was originally opened around 1936 by Italian immigrants Santi and Virginia Catelli. Third generation Catellis and siblings, Domenica and Nicholas Catelli, are now co-owners.
Located in the one street town of Geyserville, the menu highlights ingredients from local and organic farmers as well as over 50 exclusively local wines. Domenica Catelli is the executive chef and big buddies with another Sonoma original, Food Networks Guy Fieri. Nick Catelli is general manager and wine director.
The interior of the restaurant is very well appointed and comfortable with a huge dark stained back bar but you really must visit the courtyard with its huge circular marble tile floor and custom cabanas installed as the result of Covid restrictions for outside only dining, truly a lovely experience and where in fact the genesis of my wine list article began.
The menu as you might imagine is fairly Italian centric and on the upscale side and the quality is very high. Pastas range from $18-$25 with a house ground burger priced at $19 and an aged ribeye at $40. There is a very nice list of starters that we have often have used for a tapas lunch and don’t miss the truffled fries or their famous meatball sliders.
The 55 bottle wine list features 24 wines by the glass all different from the full bottle list – rather rare and immediately caught my eye. I had a brief, yet informative conversation with Nick Catelli during our lunch but unfortunately and despite several attempts, I never was able to meet with nor conduct a full interview with him.
Catelli’s is a first-class operation located in the gateway to Alexander Valley and big red wine country, their local customer base is winemakers and owners of higher end wine properties throughout the region as well as wine country destination tourists. The wine list is quite focused on wines of the region.
Catelli said he works very closely with his wholesalers to find wine that are not so well known that allows him to introduce customers to something they’re not familiar with. He mentioned that it’s difficult to find wines at a value price faced with the high end producers of the region so he looks for values from nearby Mendocino County as well as other parts of Sonoma. That search results an $8.50 starting point on the by the glass list that ranges up to $16. In my opinion the pricing is reasonable for the value received as well as the non-cookie-cutter selections and no KJ.
The bottle list starts at $30 for Russian River Sauvignon Blanc, has a midway point of $150 for a Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, not unreasonable for a wine of that pedigree and ends at $310 for a 2008 vintage Cabernet blend from Peter Michael in Knights Valley, wine that frankly I’m not familiar with.
I must say I’m a tad surprised that there aren’t at least one or two Italian wines on the list for such an Italian centric menu but I didn’t have the chance to ask that question. From our experience the wines are top-notch and work quite well with the foods that we have sampled. The staff tends to be a little older and well experienced with the restaurants food and wine list.
Catelli’s is truly a diamond in the rough with an excellent menu and a very interesting wine list.
The largest and most upscale of my wine list restaurants, The Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol states on their website that they serve both familiar and creative dishes… and “Proudly partners with local farms, ranches, wineries and breweries… it’s a perfect venue for sampling Sonoma County’s ample bounty of food and drink.”
The restaurant features a large and very comfortable outdoor patio that we first discovered at a wine tasting event in 2017 not long after the restaurant opened and we first arrived in the area. Owen Barrett is the general manager and runs the restaurant along with two partners one of them being classically trained Chef Bob Simontacchi.
Barrett has been in the industry since 2003 and has been associated with his wine consultant Chris Sawyer for over 10 years having worked together at several other area restaurants.
“People come here for new experiences all the time so we don’t want to be just for cookie-cutter users”, Barrett stated, “I’ve always worked with great chefs and I’m always looking for new food sources and that’s how I think about the wine list and how we design it – always looking for something new, you just can’t be the same old same old”
The 70 some bottle wine list starts at $30 and quickly slides upwards to the heading of “Elegant & Expressive Pinot Noirs” and a top bottle price for a 2015 Halleck Pinot Noir at $225.
“We are becoming a destination for local and well-known winemakers and of course we want to include their wines on our list”, Barrett explained, “We’re also looking to develop a following for Sonoma wine tourism and want to let people know that not only is our food well matched with wine but we have a list that supports our West County region”.
Barrett shared; “A somms job is to find ways to complement the food with the wine list, it’s not about what I like or what the Wine Spectator says is the best”.
“I’m always tasting the new dishes and thinking about what the perfect pairing may be”, states wine consultant Chris Sawyer who’s been a sommelier, wine writer and tasting judge for over thirty years.
“Sonoma has a unique edge over Napa”, Sawyer points out, “All of the farms and animals are here as well as the seafood from the coast just a few miles away allowing our chef’s to create a menu that really works since all of our ingredients are literally right here”. He offers further, “We want to have a wine list that reflects not only the wines you may drink every day but also wines that you don’t drink all the time too. We’ll probably develop a reserve list in the future for those clients that are looking for something out of the ordinary”.
Sawyer shared, “We have a great and wonderful long-serving staff who is interested in food and wine and we train our staff to learn about their customer by asking them what they like, where they visited today and what kind of wine they’re interested in, that allows us to guide them to a better match with the food from our menu”.
“We want to be a place Sonoma County where you can come to and have an experience with wine and food”, Barrett stated, “And we want to be at the top of that list of places that you’ll want to check out for that experience”.
Burger King recently threw its new chicken sandwich into the nationwide chicken war.
The Ch’King is offered in several versions: regular, Spicy Ch’king and as a Deluxe, which includes lettuce and tomato but no pickle, when will these people read the reviews, pickles are a major component of the bestselling sandwiches, not lettuce and tomato. All feature a hand-breaded chicken filet on a potato bun with a signature sauce.
“Our guests said it best, our hand-breaded Ch’King sandwich is our greatest yet,” said Ellie Doty, chief marketing officer. “We said we would create a delicious hand-breaded chicken sandwich that was worth the wait, we just didn’t anticipate that it would turn out quite this good.” (Or that it would take this long.)
I just recently learned that Burger King and Popeyes are “sisters” from the same “father”- Restaurant Brands International Inc. Seems sort of strange that Burger King would spend all that cash in R&D and marketing just to create competition for a hugely successful co-brand – and not do better. My theory is they aren’t really competing with Popeyes but competing against McDonald’s and the other fast food places that have fielded a chicken sandwich.
My first bite of the regular chicken sandwich with “signature sauce” left me thinking, “Oh another fast food place is trying to market a chicken sandwich without too much success”. The other member of the tasting panel felt that the sauce tasted like a cross between the Thousand Island and tartar sauce. It was not evenly applied so was difficult to enjoy with what was a nicely cooked piece of chicken with no distinct flavor, maybe a touch of pepper in the crust. Taking just a bite of the chicken alone it’s not bad and you would actually enjoy it more than the sandwich but its still is no big deal compared to a Popeyes or KFC which we have both judged as sandwich #1 and #2 previously.
The bun claims to be a potato roll and even though we ate in at the restaurant the toasted bun had already become soft and goopy. Discounting the taste of the bun there were several nicely flavorful pickles.
To our surprise the spicy version of the sandwich was, wait for it, exactly the same as the plain sandwich except it had some sort of mildly spicy sauce that was not very well distributed across the sandwich; okay, three bites in I finally got a dollop of spicy sauce – poor assembly strikes again. “There making spicy for nine-year-olds not adults”, says the other member of the tasting panel. We both commented that the chicken is very well cooked and it’s a very nice size filet. I wouldn’t return for either version and neither KFC nor Popeye’s has anything to worry about.
Chili’s boasted that it was “ready to put all other chicken sandwiches to shame” (I love all the pr. brew ha-ha) as it announced the introduction of the Chili’s Chicken Sandwich, a hand-battered, breaded chicken breast topped with a “secret sauce,” on a buttered and toasted brioche bun. The sandwich is topped with a tomato slice, lettuce, and comes with a side of fries.
It really doesn’t matter whether I liked this chicken sandwich or not as by the time you read this you can’t get one – it was only available for the month of June. Their menu is huge – filled with burgers and other chicken sandwiches so you kind of wonder why they went to all the effort, think friendly competition.
This is the first time I’ve ever ordered weaponized food, the sandwich comes with a huge knife stuck in it, but it looks good, is well constructed and holds up well to the chicken and the toppings. A bite of the chicken alone is crispy as well as juicy and rather tasty but no flavor profile that sticks out, such as spicy or salty. Why aren’t there pickles?
I couldn’t be happier with the bun, it’s a really, really good brioche that holds up well to the chicken, unlike the Burger King Potato roll, but again too many toppings, lettuce, tomato and too much secret sauce that frankly covered some of the tastiness of the chicken.
And as for the secret sauce, it’s sort of like a sweet thousand island without the relish or maybe like mayo and Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, there is a bit of smokiness involved. I don’t know why everyone in restaurant test kitchens seems to think that the sauce is the most important part of a chicken sandwich. Can’t it just be the chicken? And what about the pickles, a natural with a fried chicken sandwich and a sauce that hints of barbecue.
My very friendly and attentive waitress became interested in my note taking and offered that she thinks the sauce is a copy of Chick-fil-A’s sauce. She also offered that she never eaten in a Chili’s until she started working there, and I too can’t remember the last time or whether I have ever eaten at a Chili’s either.
The Chili’s chicken sandwich was much better than most we’ve sampled lately and I might put it in probably fifth-place behind Popeyes and KFC others mainly for the taste of the chicken and the quality of the bun but not so much for the whole sandwich and the secret sauce and that said I doubt I’d make a special trip to have it again.
US tariffs on European wines and spirits were suspended for five years as the US and EU edge closer to ending their 17-year trade war over airplanes.
The dispute started in 2004, when the US filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization about EU subsidies for Airbus and the EU filed a similar complaint about US aid to Boeing. The WTO ruled several times that essentially both sides were in the wrong, but tariffs were not imposed until 2019.
The trade war over airplane subsidies had simmered through two US presidencies before Donald Trump escalated it into a tariff fight.
Don’t expect wine prices to go down, though. Most importers and distributors have been absorbing some of the costs of the tariffs.
Beer is the go-to for barbecue because it acts as a palate cleanser. Drinks like this scrape out richness and fat on your palate with acidity, carbonation and coldness.
Looking for the same effect with wine? Sparkling wine has the same palate-cleansing effect. A great, wallet-friendly sparkler is Cava; it’s like the Spanish equivalent to Champagne and even better sparkling wines like Cava are often cheaper than beer per serving.
That’s my Whine and I could be wrong…
Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, writes, drinks and matches wine and food in Santa Rosa Sonoma County at www.woodythewineguy.com