Sommelier Shelley Lindgren Knows Her Way Around the Old World

Photo: Courtesy of A16

Shelley Lindgren, owner of A16 and SPQR, is becoming a known quantity in the world of wine, and among the growing legion of female sommeliers. She was recently honored with a James Beard nomination for her wine program at A16, and also took home the Best Restaurateur honor from StarChefs.com. Grub Street caught up with her to find out how she got into wine, and Italian wine specifically, and why you can always sort of taste the Old World in a glass.

Congratulations on your recent honors. Where did eat while you were in New York for the Beards?
Shelley: It was a quick trip. We arrived on Sunday evening just in time to have a toast with the six of us there from A16 and a few friends at Maiolino before going to the chef’s night out event at SD26. Then we went to Death and Company and Milk and Honey for some delicious drinks.

We had an incredible lunch at Gramercy Tavern. Danny Meyer stopped over to say hello and Joe Bastianich sat for a quick espresso at the end of the meal. These are two people I admire a lot and they made us feel very welcome. We also had lunch at Co. and loved it, stopped over to Northern Spy Food Co. and loved it and then, it was already time to get back to SF. No time for dinner. It was a whirlwind of fun!

Tell us about your first experience with wine, and how you became a sommelier.
I grew up in West Marin and I’ve been in the restaurant industry for twenty-three years. Sommeliers were not as present in the restaurant scene when I started, so, knowing the wine lists and how to discern what a guest was looking for was an important facet of my job as a server. In a sense, I’ve always been a student of wine. There is so much to keep up on and know at all times. While I was a student at USF I worked at Fleur De Lys, and during that time I also took my first level in the CMS. This is a great organization that really helps a sommelier gain a foundation of knowledge and have confidence needed to guide guests through a list. The language of wine is almost something unto itself. I knew I would want to continue learning about wines once I finally finished my degree, and my husband, Greg, helped me with my blind tastings as well as some great friends in our community that would gather in blind tasting groups. Our neighbors used to say they’d see him skateboarding home with a case of wine on his shoulder.

Why Italian wine? What first attracted you to Italy and Italian varietals?
People often ask this… my silly answers are that I went to parochial school for sixteen years and that I have an Italian godfather but, in reality, as American sommeliers study the world of wine, often there is a region or area that draws a person in. For me, it was Italy. I remember thinking that most books and wines available focused primarily on the great wines of Piedmont, Tuscany and the Veneto but there were seventeen other regions that barely got any attention and produce tons of wines. Regions like Sicily and Puglia, in their own right, produce more wine than most wine-producing countries. The first Italian region I visited was Sardinia. It was magic. Incredibly beautiful with wine integrated with the food, everything unique to its history and the styles of wine being produced. Then, when we visited Umbria and I got to taste an umbricelli pasta with Umbrian truffles and a bottle of Sagrantino di Montefalco. A lightbulb went off for me of how memorable the right combination of flavors can be, how ethereal, and this was something I would try to achieve in my service style back home. The romance and passion of Italy don’t hurt either.

I was having this conversation with a friend about how you can usually taste the Old World in a wine, and you can taste France and you can taste Italy, but how would you describe that taste?
It’s hard to describe… I’ll do my best. There’s can be a slight, almost, bitterness in Italian wines — but it’s the best kind of bitterness. Old World wines tend to have a sense of earth that isn’t always as present in New World wines. I am being careful here because there is no good way to generalize when it comes to wine. There are plenty of New World wines that are full of distinct terroir aromas like eucalyptus, slate, clay, etc… but, New World wines tend to be fruit forward and overall higher in alcohol. Again, there are plenty of wines that are vice versa. In recent years, wines of Germany and south of France have seen higher overall alochol as well.

I do get a sense of wine in Italy from a climate and micro-climate perspective. There are just a few regions in Italy that are not close to a sea and where it’s very mountainous. One of the many reasons there are so many historical grape varieties is that they stick to tradition. They figured out a long time ago what grew well where, and if grapes can’t grow someplace without much help, then they don’t grow grapes there. I could geek out for hours just about the wind. The wind! All of the 29 wineries that I visited on this last trip farmed organically, if not biodynamically, with no use of herbicide or pesticide. One thing in common with many of them is that there are specific winds that helped act as a natural ventilators, keeping the grapes dry without some harmful pests or microorganisms damaging the grapes or the vines’ health. The Friuli wind is called the Bora and, in places like Karso, outside of Istria, some trees bend in the direction of the wind because it blows so strong. In Olevano, Lazio, Damiano Ciolli believes the wind is one of the main reasons they have always been successful growing grapes. They are situated in a perfect place to help cool down the vines and maintain the perfect temperature condition.

And in southern Lazio, a town called Cori, they had grape varieties dating back to before Greek colonization and they still stay true to them. Grapes like Bellone. And grapes like Carignano in Sardinia taste unique to southern Sardinia even though that grape arrived during Spanish colonization. There are just too many grapes to say one particular flavor stands out. The thing to remember is not to be afraid to try a wine because the name is unrecognizable. It might be just the flavor you are looking for and that is very Italian.

So you go to Italy twice a year on tasting trips? Tell me about your most recent one. Did you discover anything new that you’re serving already?
We just returned from a few weeks in Italy. The first leg of the trip was an intensive, quick trip in the Lazio region. Greg and I met up with our friend Ray Isle, wine editor from Food & Wine. He was working doing and article on the Lazio region for the October issue and we’re researching for a potential book project. We put the pedal to the metal and absorbed as much information as we could. Along the way, we got to eat and drink some incredible wines and food. We were full but very happy over the dozen bowls of cacio e pepe, grigia and amatriciana we consumed with local wines like Malvasia. The second leg of the trip was visiting wineries in Friuli, Alto Adige, and Valle d’Aosta. We called it border surfing. The influence from neighboring countries was really a great learning experience. We have been on a Valle d’Aosta kick with wines at SPQR

Tell us about some of your favorite and most unusual wines on the list at A16.
Because we have such a focus towards the south and some central regions in Italy, we are able to offer a comprehensive selection from some very progressive and extremely historical areas like Roccamonfina and Gallucio for incredible and small production reds like Vestini Campagnano, Alois and Galardi wines. The Casa d’Ambra ‘Frassitelli’ Biancolella is a wine close to our hearts. It is from the highest vineyard in Ischia and a very important grape for the history of Italian wines. A beautiful place to visit in case you have an Italy trip in the making. They have a wine museum to describe Ischia’s wine trading heritage and how Biancolella was always revered as an important grape and wine for many Mediterranean civilizations dating back to the Phoenicians.

What are some of the best meals you’ve had in the last year or two?
I’ve had recent excellent experiences at Coi, Manresa and Quince in the past year. With two young children, we are overdue to make some rounds because I love the food scene and talent of chefs in San Francisco right now. There’s an embarrassing amount of spots I am dying to get too like Frances, Saison, Prospect, Zaré… It’s a goal for us to take some time to get out and eat. Often on the run, today I just had a great breakfast at Out the Door. There can be no better neighbor than the Phans. We love them and everyone who works for them.

Earlier: Corey Lee Doesn’t Want to Over-Think or Under-Think His Food [Grub Street]
Daniel Patterson: Casual Plum to Have ‘Coi Lineage’ [Grub Street]

Sommelier Shelley Lindgren Knows Her Way Around the Old World