Shelley Lindgren of A16 & SPQR talks Italian Wine & Culture

Shelley Lindgren is a cultural success story: owner of the popular A16 and SPQR restaurants in San Francisco, Oakland and Tokyo, wine director and cookbook author. Lindgren grew up in the North Bay and advocates for interesting Southern Italian wines. She started in French fine dining at Fleur de Lys and La Folie with chefs like Hubert Keller and the late Maurice Rouas as mentors. Then as a sommelier at Bacar under Debbie Zachareas.

I spoke with Shelley about her first trip to Italy, the exquisite food and wine culture she experienced there. She also brought out her favorite Italian wines for us to try.

What is it about Italian wines that excite you?

I think I just love everything Italian. Although they’ve always produced lots of wine, Italy was wholly underrepresented in recent years. If you go to the south of Italy, where Sicily and Puglia are, these regions produce all the top ten wines in the world. As you can imagine, there’s wine in all corners of the 20 regions of Italy.

If you travel to a certain part of Italy, you’ll get a great food and wine experience and it won’t be like in any other region. You really can’t compare it; it’s just one big kind of wonderful. You just embrace the chaos, which I’m used to growing up in a big family. That’s one of the things I love about Italy, you don’t need a lot to have wonderful things. It’s all about simplicity but the quality is just amazing.

My real love for wine came when I first visited Umbria, which has all these different types of mushrooms, pastas and a wine called Sagrantino di Montefalco which means sacrament. My husband and I, being on our honeymoon, were having fun just being there. Not having any real plans. I ordered umbricelli that had these great black truffles; my husband had ordered pasta with the local porcini, which you can find in all regions of Italy too. Then I tasted my first Sagrantino; it was an experience I’ll never forget. That was when I first fell in love with wine and didn’t look back. I also came back from that trip to sign up for cooking school just a few days after that.

Tell us about your first trip to Italy and what that experience was like?

After working in French fine dining for 15 years, I was fascinated for my research not only with Campania (in the 4,000 years they’ve been growing grapes that we know about) but also Sardinia. It’s this isolated island, still definitely a part of Italy, but with a unique history and its indigenous people. I also loved the town of Ferentino. We were on our honeymoon in France, went down to Bordeaux, and took an overnight ferry to Sardinia. We were having seafood and these wonderful sharp cheeses.

I remember our first visit to a winery called Sella & Mosca which is in an old estate now owned by the Campari group. The wine owner looked like Stanley Tucci, which is hilarious because the real Stanley Tucci has a wine show now I think.

What’s your favorite wine at A16?

Definitely the Damiano Ciolli “Silene,” Olevano Romano. It’s only a 3 hectare production in Olevano, a town 30-45 minutes outside of Rome. It goes well with a lot of foods like artichokes, which can be prepared in so many different ways. This wine is just so friendly, spicy… it’s a light red fruit that pairs nicely with olives, tomato sauce, rich foods, seafoods and vegetables.

We pour about 40 wines by the glass and half bottle carafes at A16 and we take what we’re pouring very seriously. For example, because we’re focused on Campania, which is ⅔ white wine, we’d say try one of these Fianos (e.g. Cantine Ciro Picariello) that we like and that represent some of the best Fianos that’s been produced.

Tell us, what should we look for in Italian wines?

Labels do make a difference, it shows the kind of care that goes into a bottle. You see different types of corks or openers. What’s great about Italy is you can get a wonderful wine at a great value price. Sometimes you’ll like to drink ones they have everyday versus ones they save for special occasions.

If you live in Piedmont, Italy and you drink Barolo, it’s one of the great wines of the world. But even in Barolo you don’t just drink Barolo. You drink other types of wine like Dolcetto, Barbera, Grignolino… there are so many local grapes. So I would recommend asking for the local grapes and having the wines in the region. As the saying goes, “if it grows together, it goes together.” You want to experience the culture there.

Do you still discover new things with every trip to Italy?

There’s always something new to discover! Last fall, I went to work for harvest in Valtellina, a region of northern Italy bordering Switzerland, has its own culture. You feel you’re in its own corner of the world. The way they harvested grapes is a labor of love; it’s very steep (in 70% grade), with old stonewalls and these traditions they’ve upheld. Especially coming from California and our wine culture, I absolutely respect what they do. There’s a lot we can learn, enjoy, and have fun with because wine should be enjoyed.

Thank you Shelley!