Four Top Sommeliers on Where to Drink Wine in San Diego County
San Diego recently hosted SommCon, the annual conference that brings together the most awarded and knowledgeable wine professionals in the country to discuss, develop, and lead conversations about the business of wine. I took part as a speaker on Italian wines and wine regions, and between sessions, I had the chance to meet some of the best sommeliers in San Diego and ask them about their ideal wine lists and their favorite places in the county to enjoy a glass of wine when they get off-duty.
Meet Rafael Sanchez, Director of Wine & Beverage at Addison
While working as a server assistant at The Raymond Restaurant in Pasadena, a taste of a 1945 Cheval Blanc led him to pursue a career in wine, and he eventually worked his way up to become a certified sommelier and beverage director at the young age of 23. Continuing to cultivate his passion for wine & spirits, Sanchez moved to POP Champagne Bar as manager and sommelier, where he curated a list of over 100 different labels of Grower Champagne and later worked with acclaimed wine critic James Suckling.
Rafael Sanchez is now the Director of Wine & Beverage at Addison Restaurant, which is currently San Diego’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as Southern California’s only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant.
Drinking in San Diego
I enjoy a wine list where the sommelier/wine buyer puts their personality into it. There are plenty of wine lists that have a “cookie-cutter” feel. So, I appreciate when someone takes a chance and offers wines that have a unique story.
At the highest level, a great wine list is full of great options that are from new and exciting regions or producers as well as a wide selection of vintages and producers from all of the classic regions.
I don’t get out very much, but I really like Vino Carta. They have great grower champagne and Rhone reds, which are my favorite. It’s also walking distance to a number of great restaurants and bars in Little Italy.
Go to spot: Vino Carta, Little Italy
Meet Lindsay Pomeroy, Master of Wine and Chief Wine Educator and founder of Wine Smarties
Lindsay Pomeroy started on her path towards a career in wine when she moved to Italy, where she attempted to teach English to Italians. Instead, she ended up making lasting friends with Italians who taught her to appreciate the art of espresso-drinking, chocolate-tasting, and midday wine drinking. Lindsay went on to successfully earn her WSET Diploma, FWS certificate and Certified Wine Educator (CWE).
Her time in Italy planted the seed, but her passion for wine truly blossomed back home in San Diego. Historically more of a beach-and-beer town than a wine-drinker's mecca, Lindsay has helped foster a community of knowledge-thirsty wine drinkers over her 13-year tenure as the Chief Wine Educator and founder of Wine Smarties, a wine education school that provides WSET and French Wine Scholar (FWS) courses.
Drinking in San Diego
My ideal wine list would include an amazing selection of older vintages of German whites (Sylvaner, Riesling, Gruner Veltliners) from Germany and Austria, some affordable Burgundies, both red and white (hey, it's a dream list!), Northern Rhones, and some old school Cabernet Sauvignons built for age (lighter, less extracted, complex aromas that remind you why Cabernet Sauvignon is so popular).
I'd also love to see some aged Australian Shiraz and Margaret River blends, and of course Stellenbosch reds. Also, some domestic newbies on the block to explore not just from California, Oregon and Washington, but also Virginia, New York to explore where the domestic market is going. That would be a fun list!
In reality, a great wine list is one that caters to its customers needs. You need to serve wines that people know, trust and love, while also taking them on a journey to expand their comfort zones as they try new things. So, a combination of domestic well-known producers, top European wines, and some good-valued underdogs would make a solid list.
I teach wine classes at Wine Sellar and Brasserie, and you will definitely find me there fraternizing with my students at the award-winning restaurant and wine bar. If I'm feeling like tasting some cool trendy wines or wines from hard-to-find regions you'd find me at Vino Carta downtown. If I'm looking for some food with my wine, then I love the home-made stuff that they serve at The Rose Wine Bar. It’s a bonus that my friends also happen to work there.
Go to spot: The Rose Wine Bar, South Park
Meet Rafael Peterson, Wine Director for Born and Raised in Little Italy
Before becoming the Wine Director for Born and Raised in Little Italy, Rafael Peterson was the wine director of Bracero Cocina. There he worked with General Manager Woody van Horn to introduce guests to the up-and-coming wine growing region of Valle de Guadalupe. His collaboration in curating the wine list at Bracero Cocina earned them an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator and placement in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 New Restaurants.
Drinking in San Diego
A great wine list needs to mirror the identity of the restaurant or bar in which it exists. It should compliment the cuisine and philosophy of the program, while also showing a character of its own.
The ability for a wine to taste good with the cuisine should be the expectation, but a wine that really makes the food shine and actually taste better, a true pairing, is something special.
Price point is another consideration, you need to offer great options at different ranges.
One of the most important parts of having a great wine list is having a staff in place that can communicate the essence of that list. You can have the coolest, most esoteric, hipster, hard-to-pronounce, and impossible-to-find wines on the planet, but if you don’t have people in place that can connect the consumer to that wine, are you really doing anyone a favor?
Staff education and a strong culture are things that make a list a great, because you give that list personality.
When I go out, I tend to value a place where I can feel very comfortable. 3rd Corner in Ocean Beach has always been that place for me. They have a good variety of selections at competitive retail pricing, the staff is always friendly, and they have a tasty menu that serves late, which is perfect for industry folks.
My other favorite spot is Vino Carta. The crew does a great job at changing the list very frequently, so it’s always a fun spot to go when you want to experience something new.
Go to spot: 3rd Corner, Ocean Beach
Maurice DiMarino has worked in the service industry for 26 years, starting as a host at a local San Diego Mexican Restaurant. His passion for wine was ignited when he moved to San Francisco in early 1994 and had the opportunity to open several landmark restaurants, including Lou’s Pier 47, Foreign Cinema, Alma and Chez Spencer.
Love and family eventually lured him back south to San Diego where he turned his attention to the budding local restaurant industry. He became the Wine Director for Chef Deborah Scott’s new restaurant, Island Prime, which gave him the opportunity to use his extensive experience with wine, travel and culture to create a wine program unique to the San Diego area.
Maurice is now the wine and beverage manager of the Cohn Restaurant Group, overseeing the beverage programs of 27 restaurants.
Drinking in San Diego
If I were to build a wine list of just the wines I like, no one would order from it. The wines would all be of high acid and lean in style. Just taking a wild guess, but the majority of consumers think high acid and lean wines are faulty. They like big, fruity plush-style wines. The goal is to give them a little bit of what they want, while offering alternatives as well.
I think many sommeliers early in their careers are so excited about new regions, grapes and styles that they want to be the first to feature them on their list. They want to set themselves apart from the rest. I used to be like this while working in San Francisco because it was kind of what was expected of restaurants there.
When I moved to San Diego in 2004, consumers here were not ready for that. I learned pretty quickly that the majority of consumers are intimidated by wine and what I found to be important was to make a list that did not come off as being pretentious.
That means the list is not overpriced, but offers a range of prices from affordable to splurge-able. As well as a list that is not made exclusively for sommeliers with wines only somms are familiar with.
Today I manage something like 20 wine lists. Some wine lists are in beer bars, some are in casual dining, and others in fine dining. Each requires a different approach. Let the beer bars pour chardonnay, pinot noir and rose. It's what those guests are looking for.
At the fast casual I try to build the list around the concept. So, if it is French influenced, then I serve a selection of French varieties. If it is Latin, then I may serve South American, Spanish and California wines. The concept needs to match the wine from that region. I include brands many consumers recognize as well as a few other more unfamiliar wines.
In fine dining, I want to make sure that we appease the general public and offer well-known varietals, but I also want to give servers a bag of goodies they can pick from specifically to pair with dishes.
If we have seafood, an Albarino, Txacoli, Gruner, or Riesling are bound to be on the menu. At our steakhouses, you will be sure to find a selection of Cabernets, but also wines from Ribera Del Duero, Tuscany, Australia, Portugal, and even Brazil.
The idea is to turn people on to something they might not know while allowing the servers to pair with the food.
Most of the time, when I go out, I am out with my family, so I have to find a place where I can hang with my kids, which rules out many wine bars. I like to stay in my Mission Hills neighborhood, and the newly opened Fort Oak is great.
Go to spot: Fort Oak, Mission Hills