Wines they are a-changin’

A new guard of professional wine enthusiasts are shaking up Sacramento

Change is afoot in the Sacramento wine scene, with a new cabal of professional wine geeks shaking things up. From left to right: Michele Hebert, Hugh Weiler, Garrett Pierce and Sandford Wragg convene at Tuli Bistro in Midtown.

Change is afoot in the Sacramento wine scene, with a new cabal of professional wine geeks shaking things up. From left to right: Michele Hebert, Hugh Weiler, Garrett Pierce and Sandford Wragg convene at Tuli Bistro in Midtown.

Photo By Jerome Love

If you drink wine, you may have noticed that the standard California cabs and oaky chards—comfortable as an old pair of slippers—have been joined on local restaurants’ wine lists by some less familiar grapes from exotic locales. Maybe it was a peppery grüner veltliner, which replaced the bland pinot grigio by the glass at your favorite bistro, that first caught your attention? Or perhaps it rankled you when French wines captured more and more territory from California ones on your neighborhood wine shops’ shelves?

One thing is clear: Change is afoot in the Sacramento wine scene. There’s a new cabal of professional wine geeks shaking things up, trying to nudge palates gently away from rough and rustic foothill wines and toward old-world sophistication.

Tuli Bistro’s Sandford Wragg could serve as this group’s ambassador. Prematurely gray with a neat goatee and wardrobe composed entirely of different shades of black, he’s ebullient, enthusiastic and uncompromising. And he’s just one of these Europhile oenophiles. It’s a small but growing group, far from exclusive. They’d love nothing more than for you to join their ranks.

Sandford Wragg, beverage buyer/manager at Tuli Bistro, has been working with wine since 1992, but kicked his education into high gear in Boston before returning to Sacramento two years ago.

You’ve instituted some radical changes at Tuli. How did that come about?

I looked at our wine list and said, “Hey, why isn’t our wine list as unique and as exciting as our food menu?” I want them to both be strong suits. I don’t want the food to pull the wine along, and I don’t want the wine to pull the food along. I want to challenge the chef. … I wanted to bring on some grapes that aren’t popular in town, but that I think are extraordinary and are excellent food grapes. I’m a huge fan of chenin blanc; it’s not a sweet wine—that’s a rumor—[and] it can also be screamin’ dry and amazing. I wanted to bring on mencia. I wanted to work with cabernet franc. I wanted to work with wines that aren’t fruit bombs, that have some acidity, some complexity. I wanted my wines to not be so fined and filtered and tamed … that its unique personality has been stripped away.

Have people been receptive to the change?

Yes. … What I’m finding is a lot of my clients are from foreign countries or from out-of-town larger cities. A lot of the clients are locals who have come back from school in New York or from going to school in other places. … A lot of people told me when I started doing this that I was going to fall on my face, because a lot of people are frustrated: Wine-knowledgeable people are frustrated in Sacramento right now, but I haven’t fallen on my face, and it’s worked out.

I think it takes a lot of personal attention. You have to be a wine person who is going to be on the floor, somebody who is going to talk to people and gain their trust. You have to have a program like we do that’s risk-free: You can taste it. You don’t have to gamble your eight, 12 dollars. It’s not a gamble. You can taste it and be sure that it’s what you want before you get involved.

Michele Hebert, a wine-sales representative, is a Sacramento native who cut her teeth working in a natural-wine shop in Manhattan, N.Y.

Contrast the wine scene in New York and Sacramento.

One immediate contrast is that New Yorkers feel like Europe is local for them. … They’re also more open-minded. I felt like the customers at the store I worked at would take my advice and come to me with things they were making for dinner, and I would recommend something and they would try it and they would either like it or they wouldn’t, but it would be a dialogue and an experiment.

Whereas in Sacramento I feel like there’s a very devoted following of local [wines]. … California pride is a great thing, and I have it. Not everything local is the best. … I think it makes sense to focus on what your region does really well, but also supplement that with the treasures from around the world. So, like a grüner veltliner from Austria might be just the thing with that heirloom tomato that you grew in your backyard in Sacramento. I feel like there’s this sort of blind devotion to local right now, which can be good and bad.

What wine you are excited about right now?

There’s this wine from [the French Alpine region] Jura—it’s a savagnin aged under a veil of yeast. … It’s sort of this sherrylike, oxidized, salty, crazy wine that’s meant to go with a ton of cheeses that come out of Jura.

One of Garrett Pierce’s aspirations with wine: “To help [the Sacramento] community get a little better at understanding wines from Europe.”

Photo By Jerome Love

Kevin Corcoran, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op assistant wine buyer, is an avant percussionist, foodie and self-taught wine obsessive.

What’s your wine philosophy?

I like a pretty hands-off winemaking approach. … There’s a saying in the industry that good wine happens in the vineyard. I definitely believe that. … I like to see winemakers who are using minimal sulfur, indigenous yeasts for fermentation, not inoculated with commercial strains. I don’t have dogma against that stuff, I just find that more interesting wines come from a more hands-off approach. That is, of course, totally old-world tradition, but in California, you are starting to see more people go that direction, and that’s exciting to see.

What do you say to people who are intimidated by wine?

I think the most important thing is to just think of it as part of cuisine. It’s just part of eating. It is intimidating. … The longer I work with wine and the more I read about it, I realize I’ve never heard of that region, I’ve never heard of that varietal. But to me that shouldn’t be an intimidation; it should be an excitement. Education is important for everybody. People don’t want to spend a lot of time in the wine section. They don’t want to sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about beforehand. But you shouldn’t already know what you’re looking for—that’s fine if you don’t. I think more exploration is encouraged.

Hugh Weiler, a wine-sales representative, is passionate about German wines, especially rieslings from the Moselle River area, and started out brewing beer before owning a successful wine bar in Santa Cruz.

What gets you jazzed about Mosel-area wine?

Riesling goes with anything. There’s nothing that you can choose to eat that riesling won’t be happy with and won’t make taste better. It’s like sunshine in a glass. It’s terrific.

What do you say to people who have something against sweet wine?

Get over it! What is the most quintessential American meal? A hamburger, french fries and a Coke. Nobody’s afraid of that. So don’t be afraid of sweet wine. OK, you don’t have to have it every meal, but people have this crazy kick because they think it’s not sophisticated, think because of the whole white zin thing that happened, people decided “that’s for rubes; I don’t want sweet wine.”

Garrett Pierce, a wine-sales representative and wine-bar employee, was previously wine buyer at 58 Degrees & Holding Co. in Midtown. The Davis-based musician sells European wines in Sacramento and works two nights a week at Terroir Natural Wine Merchant & Bar, a cult wine bar in San Francisco.

What are some wine regions that you love?

Well, we talked about Alto Adige; I like all of the Alpine regions … the Jura has higher elevation stuff. I like a lot of those areas. If I had all the money in the world, I’d be drinking Burgundy at least three times a week. … Anything that’s too warm of a climate—like the south of Italy, southern France is really warm, California is really warm—those grapes aren’t my favorite. I kind of like cooler climate stuff. Chablis … even some of the stuff in Alsace and the Mosel in Germany. So that’s my kind of thing.

Aspirations with wine?

To help this community get a little better at understanding wines from Europe, that’s my first goal, and to actually maybe make a little money off doing that. But to me, money’s not as important as living in a place where I can have 10 different options of places to go buy wine for myself. And then, like, with [the] more long-term, you know, I might be involved in importing wines, maybe Italian wines in the future.

Is there a similarity between being a music fan and being into wine?

I can get obsessed with wine like I get obsessed with a band. I hear a song and it stays with me, and I have to go and buy it or it’s gonna drive me crazy. … Same thing with wine. If you show me something special, I’ll go a whole week and I can’t stop thinking about that wine and how interesting it was. And then I’ll go and buy it.