A singular approach to a Sonoma wine list
Story by Mort Hochstein Photos courtesy of The Girl and the Fig

It takes chutzpah to open a restaurant offering only Rhône varietals in the heart of California wine country. In Sonoma, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reign, Sondra Bernstein’s The Girl & the Fig offers only Rhône wines and domestic versions, primarily from California with a select few from Oregon, Washington, Spain and Australia. The locals and the tourists have not rebelled.

“We’ve presented a Rhône-Alone list for over 14 years, starting at a time when there weren’t many California Rhône wines available. Living and doing business here in wine country gives us the opportunity to educate our guests about all aspects of wine. We enter into a teaching session, exploring types of wine guests are familiar with, and then we try to introduce them to a wine similar to what they like which will also work well with our food.

“I am not trying to convert guests from one style to another. I want them to see the possibilities. Over the past ten years, Rhône varietal cultivation in has increased tremendously in California and there are some incredible wines. We enjoy sharing our passion and knowledge, knowing that the Rhônes are very food friendly wines. Our menu has a lot of variety that parallels the wine list, so it really just takes a willing guest and a patient, intuitive server to guide them towards a good choice. Not everyone,” she cautions, “becomes a fan especially if they are looking for a heavy over-oaked white wine, but we give it our best shot.”

Asked which wines she prefers, she said: “I particularly love Grenache. I love the big munchy fruit, the layers of balance and intricate flavors It’s such a food friendly wine, second only to Pinot Noir in that respect. I find such an incredible range with this grape and over the last year I have also become more intrigued with Grenache Blanc—knowing that this white has the potential to bridge more food flavors.”

John Toulze, chef and partner with Ms. Bernstein, cited lamb and syrah as a favorite food and Rhône pairing. “Lamb and syrah,” he observed “are classic together. The gamey notes of the syrah bring out the wildness of the lamb. I’m also a fennel freak,” he added, “I love white Rhône blends and grenache with fennel. The grenache and anise flavor are incredible together.

“I’ve always felt it was my job to create food to complement incredible wines. Sondra and I designed our menu that way. One of my favorite pairings is a baby arugula and mango lardo salad with the 2009 André Brunel Les Cailloux Châteuneuf-du-Pape Blanc. The salad is made with shaved and roasted baby fennel, hearts of celery and fresh-picked baby arugula with honeyed Meyer lemon vinaigrette. The creaminess of the lardo mates with the texture and mouth feel of the wine and the wine’s raciness plays well against the vinaigrette.”

Bernstein was in France recently for Découvertes en Vallées du Rhône where she was prospecting recent vintages for her restaurant and renewing friendships with producers. Découvertes, which translates to Discoveries in the Rhône Valley is a huge undertaking, occurring every second year.
Hundreds of people—negotiants, retailers, restaurateurs, importers and others in the wine trade—form an ever-changing caravan originating at the historic city of Vienne, just below Lyon in the North and wending its way slowly to Châteuneuf-du-Pape in the South. The entourage stops two and three times each day at exhibition halls in key Rhône communities.

Bernstein observed that there was a joyous air about this year’s tastings, possibly because of the quality of the wines. She praised 2010 as an excellent vintage, better than ’09, generally ranked as a great year for the Rhône, and much better than ’08. She also observed that some of the best wines from 2010 were not on the table.

“The vintage is superb,” Ms. Bernstein declared, “so much so that some vintners chose not to exhibit, because their yields were small and they did not have much to pour for the masses. Despite smaller yields, I felt a great enthusiasm for the quality of the 2020.”

The trade-only tastings also allowed visitors to sample older vintages. Bernstein enthused over a 2001 Condrieu in magnum from Yves Gangloff. Her other favorites on the Découvertes trail included a Grenache from Domaine de la Barroche, and syrah-based wines from Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage, Yves Gangloff Cote Rotie, and Pierre Gaillard Les Pierres.

Knowledgeable wine buyers, she stressed, realize there is more to the Rhône than its most expensive wines, such as Châteuneuf-du-Pape. “I saw a focus this year on lesser known appellations such as Rasteau, Cornas, Lirac and Ventoux. It seems as if the Rhône is getting bigger as people forage for values from the smaller villages and the young winemakers who bring new skills and technology to these wonderful vineyards.”
Bernstein, a 20-year veteran of the hospitality business, also operates The Fig Café & Wine Bar in Glen Ellen and Estate in Sonoma, acquired in 2008, where she serves country food with an Italian accent. Estate’s extensive grounds now supply much of the produce for her three kitchens. She is the author of “The Girl & the Fig” cookbook, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004 and markets gourmet food products under The Girl & the Fig label.

Mort Hochstein, former editor and producer for NBC News and the Today Show, and former managing editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, writes on wine, food and travel for Wine Business Monthly, Wine Spectator, vineyard and Winery Management, Saveur and other food and wine publications.