post by Fatemeh Khatibloo-McClure
“A lot of people are passionate about wine on different levels. For me, wine is a way of life.”
Shelley Lindgren is one of a new breed in the wine trade. She’s a young, down-to-earth, urbanite, female sommelier. Add to that the fact that she’s a co-owner of one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants and that she was named one of Wine & Spirits’ Best New Sommeliers of 2004, and you have the makings of one Wine’s Life that has its course set for the stratosphere.
Lindgren grew up in the North Bay area and has been working in local restaurants since she was 15 years old. She’s always been most comfortable in the front of the house, even though she earned a Culinary Certificate from Tante Marie. She worked her way across some of the finest establishments in the Bay Area, from Left Bank to Boulevard, before finding her place at Fleur de Lys.
It was there that Lindgren started thinking about a profession in wine. Working at the restaurant 5 nights a week while studying full time at the University of San Francisco didn’t leave her much free time, but what she did have she spent at wine shops, looking and listening and learning. Most of her papers as an English Writing major focused on references to wine in literature from Shakespeare to Horace, and she realized that wine was everywhere, as long as you were looking for it.
When Lindgren started seriously toying with the idea of becoming a sommelier, there were only just a few in San Francisco, and most of her friends didn’t even know the term. What gave her the much-needed push to take the leap? The realization that people were buying wine for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it was on the sole basis of price. Sometimes, they just weren’t given much of a chance to get excited about something new or unique.
“I’d go to moderately-priced restaurants,” she says, “and I’d struggle to find a wine that I wanted to have with dinner. Not that the lists were bad, there just wasn’t a lot of excitement there.”
After building a strong base in French wine at mainly French restaurants, she was ready to expand her knowledge, and she headed to Bacar to learn Austrian wines. Even then though, she (and, she jokingly confides, the rest of the staff) knew Italian wines were her passion.
So when she became a partner in a restaurant venture, it was a natural opportunity for her to build a wine list that reflects both her passion and chef Christophe Hille’s southern Italian cuisine. But how does Lindgren get around selling wine to people who can barely pronounce Aglianico or Nerello Mascalese, let alone know what one tastes like?
“Customers are smarter than a lot of people [give them credit for]”, she says of the unusual list. “I try not to be pedantic because, frankly, in the several minutes while I’m talking about a wine, it’s sitting on the table, and my customer could be [forming their own opinions]. I try not to tell people what they should taste in a wine, and I try to keep the descriptions approachable–‘light fruits’ or ‘dark fruits’ instead of ‘blueberry’ or ‘raspberry’.
You can really hear the passion in her voice as she talks about how “romantic” the history of wine is, and her excitement about helping to bring some near-extinct varietals to the dining public. After all these years, though, Shelley Lindgren still doesn’t consider herself an “expert.”
“When wine becomes your life, you’re continually keeping up with tasting groups and meeting people in the industry who are bringing new ideas and old traditions together. I learn something every single day–I don’t think anyone can say that they are truly an ‘expert’ because the industry is always changing and evolving.”
Shelley Lindgren is co-owner and sommelier of A16 restaurant on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of A16.