Top Pair: Pouring Uphill, Italian Wine in California

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 35
May 2013   

Tucked into the tony neighborhood of Rockridge in Oakland, California, you’d expect Oliveto to pour pricey wines in its by-the-glass program. But Sommelier Esteban Brunello maintains an affordable list by doing his homework; he combines skill, knowledge and a deep love of vino Italiano for a soulful wine experience. He learned many a lesson from mentors Shelley Lindgren, Bobby Stuckey, and Charles Stanford, but none more important than keeping the customer first and foremost in mind. “It’s easy to get expensive wines for the list. But a good wine director seeks out values that he can pass along to his guests,” says Brunello.

Selling Italian wine in Northern California isn’t always an easy task, but Brunello enjoys the challenge of turning his guests on to indigenous Italian grapes, and his passion is infectious. He captured our attention with Elvio Cogno’s Nascetta, a Piemontese white grape that pairs beautifully with Chef Jonah Rhodehamel’s antipasto of slow-roasted winter vegetables. An easy-drinking Rosso di Montalcino from Camigliano is a solid match for the Castelmagno tortelloni, with just enough spice and tannin to balance the richness of the cheese. Including the pairings below, Brunello keeps all his glass pours well below $20. The success of his wine program is solid evidence that customers will keep coming back for a sweet mix of value and quality.

  • Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant
  • 5655 College Avenue
  • Oakland, CA 94618
  • (510) 547-5356
Sommelier Esteban Brunello

Esteban Brunello’s interest in hospitality began in his native Argentina, where he held positions at hotels before moving to the United States. Choosing San Francisco as his ideal North American destination, Brunello's first serving position at Alegrias awoke his passion for wine and spirits. After a few stints bartending, Brunello began his quest to become a sommelier after moving to Colorado, where he attended classes at the International Sommelier Guild at the Metropolitan State College of Denver and the Court of Master Sommeliers, all while working as a sommelier at Alba Ristorante in Boulder.

Returning to San Francisco, Brunello was hired as a sommelier and front of the house manager at SPQR, where he continued his wine education with mentor and 2010 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Shelley Lindgren. In 2012, Brunello took the reins of the wine program at Oliveto Restaurant and Café. Applying his years of experience, love for Italian wines, and enthusiasm for Italian wine varietals, Brunello pours interesting and reasonably priced wines alongside Chef Jonah Rhodehamel’s exquisite cuisine and has earned a 2013 StarChefs Rising Star Sommelier Award for his work.

Fiano di Avellino, I Favati, Pietramara, Campania, 2009
Rosemary Pappardelle with Rabbit in Bianco
Pairing Note
Aromatic sofrito blankets delicate pasta in this classic Tuscan dish. Garlic, anchovy, capers, and rabbit brodo dance around the braised rabbit legs for a rich finish with no hint of heaviness. Rhodehamel’s buttery Castelvetrano olives are from Sicily, but “they work well here because they are soft and don’t overpower the rabbit, and add a nice creamy texture,” says Rhodehamel.

The body of the Fiano di Avellino is a good match for the body of the dish—big but not heavy. The refreshing acidity plays off the slight gamey-ness of the rabbit. “Volcanic minerality adds a savory note,” explains Brunello. “And the smoky flavors vary in different vintages. 2007 was super smoky, but this 2009 is just right, and drinking well right now.”

Sagrantino di Montefalco, Colpetrone, Umbria, 2007
Potato-wrapped Quail Stuffed with Pigeon, Farro, Wild Mushrooms, and Truffle Sugo
Pairing Note
“These Paine Farms pigeons and Wolfe Ranch quail are the best I’ve ever had,” says Rhodehamel. So why choose between the two, when you could serve one stuffed inside the other! The slow-cooked farro and onion crema anchor the plate, and the earth notes continue with bluefoot and hedgehog mushrooms (stuffed in the quail, alongside the pigeon). Perigord truffles and pigeon sugo intensify and unify the other components, whose execution is a prime example of referencing historical cooking while applying modern technique.

The variety and number of earth notes in the dish lend themselves to a big wine, so Brunello brought two. The first, a Santenay Gravieres from Paul Chapelle (2005), is an “outstanding wine at a good price, with light cherries, raspberries, some floral notes, and a little bit of licorice." Not the big wine we were anticipating, but Brunello explained that the Santenay has good earth notes with a subtle gamey quality that pulled together the mushroom and game flavor of the pigeon.

To exemplify a more classic pairing, Brunello poured a Sagrantino because, “people expect a denser, heavier wine with gamey flavors.” The wine matched the complexity of the dish with less fruit and more earth tones. “This particular Sagrantino is not so tannic as others,” explained our sommelier, “so it’s perfect for someone who wants a heavier wine, because more tannins would overwhelm the dish.”

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