Since March is Women’s History Month I was thinking I should interview and write about women in the wine industry who I especially revere. But then as I ruminated on it, decided that as women make up half the planet (a little less these days but who’s counting), why limit it to a designated 30 day period (and March is almost over anyway). As I made the list, I came down on the side of full equality and found myself adding several men, as is only fair. People are people and if they are worthy of mention, I really don’t care if they go to the restroom sitting down or standing up. However, it only seemed natural, as we are honoring women this month, to begin with one of the San Francisco’s finest, and someone who I think is as good a person as she is a sommelier, Shelley Lindgren, the Wine Director and owner of A16 and SPQR.
I don’t remember the first time I met Shelley Lindgren but can recall the first time she caught my attention. I was having dinner at Bacar, which was near the ballpark with my friend Rich Schlackman (and in case you are wondering, I am referring to the only ball park west of Citi Field that counts, AT&T Park). We ordered a bottle of what I think was Chave Hermitage from Shelley, who was a sommelier/manager. Though I’m not 100% certain it was Chave, it was northern Rhône and I’d bet a year of my cat’s life it was Hermitage. Saying it was Chave makes the story better, even if it might be an embellishment.
This was some time in 2003. What struck me was her genuine warmth. Lots of front of the house people can be superficial but she had the sincerity of a good shrink. She knew what she was talking about but wasn’t trying to one up us, listened and made sure we got the wine we wanted. You will hear people who have worked for Shelley say this all the time and it’s true. She is all about hospitality and making sure her customers have a good experience.
It was when she opened A16 in 2004 that I realized this exquisite knockout, who could be the lovechild of Kate Hudson and Drew Barrymore, was not just kind, but also smart. We became buds and even though life has shortened the Fernet intervals from weeks to years, I still consider her a friend.
Deservedly, Shelley has become a very famous person in wine circles. She made her mark with the Southern Italian, Campania focused wine list at A16 and sealed her place in the Bay Area restaurant history with SPQR, which was originally focused on Roman cuisine. We spoke a couple of times recently about her thoughts on wine and the wine business. Here are a few excerpts:
PSB: How do you choose wines for the lists at your restaurants?
SL: We look at the way a wine is farmed. It doesn’t matter what the name of the grape is. We want to have a range of price, quality and weight. Primarily our wines are really small production.
Caveat here, since A16 and SPQR are A16 and SPQR, they get most of the wines they want, to which Shelley graciously admits, “I feel very spoiled and fortunate.”
PSB: What do you mean when you say you look for the way wine is farmed?
SL: We look for everything that is organic or biodynamic. I can’t think of a wine on our list that isn’t organic. I believe there is a strong connection between farming and health. If you’re using pesticides it’s poison.
Beyond viticulture practices, Shelley and her sommeliers feel pretty strongly that wines should be made with native yeast.
SL: I don’t understand why people don’t use native yeast. I asked Angelo Gaja and he sent me the coolest response. Especially in Europe, yeast is everywhere in the air. Maybe they do it (producers who inoculate) for flavor.
PSB: What’s been the reception to natural wines at A16?
SL: When I ask Italians about natural wine they’re like, “What’s natural wine.” They’re not doing it to be in fashion. They believe in the philosophy. We pair it with food and its magic.
Yet, she admits not everyone is an easy sell.
SL: We had a table last night that ordered a Fiano and they said, “Its too high acid.” We were like, “We love it, we’ll drink it.”
In case you’re wondering, the table ordered a Radio Coteau Pinot Noir and it was a win-win for all.
In an earlier conversation we talked a little about how men and women sommeliers are or are not treated differently and what really stayed with me was what she had to say about body image, “Women get more self conscious about their bodies or the way they appear.” So I brought it up again.
SL: The weight thing is a big deal.
A mother of two who worked on the floor late into pregnancy both times, she felt this most profoundly after childbirth.
SL: You want to look and feel great but all of the sudden when you’re a mom and it’s hard to juggle. The post pregnancy thing was emotional. It’s hard for people because you’re in the public. You do the best you can do and to feel good about yourself and have a good attitude. But it is hard to be scrutinized. I wish I had a few more hours in the day to work on myself. It’s something I think about every day.
As for the self consciousness, she says she “got over it really fast.”
SL: You can’t really worry about so many things. You have to be there for hospitality and service.
PSB: Do you think women are judged on the floor based on what they wear?
SL: I still wear a jacket every day. It’s a habit for me but I also feel more professional. Everybody has their own path in wine and mine came from a more formal background. I’m a modest person and I like to make it about the job.
SL: There’s nothing wrong with a women wanting to feel sexy but you shouldn’t have to feel you have to dress a certain way to make a sale. There’s no dress code. A couple of times women have worn tube tops and we’ve asked them not to wear them for hygiene. We say everyone has their own expression. Today all dress codes are off the table.
And if anyone has a problem with this, let me quote Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, the best in baseball not named Bochy, who said earlier this week about his team’s dress policy, “If you think you look hot, wear it.”
PSB: Do women have to dress a certain way to be taken more seriously?
SL: I think men are taken more seriously a lot of time but I try not to over generalize. I think it’s less and less. It has definitely changed in our generation.
This of course, drew a comparison to the current presidential election.
SL: Nobody really talks about the bad fashion of the male candidates.
PSB: Have you faced gender discrimination, personally?
SL: I remember not getting a job as a sommelier once because they didn’t think I could carry a case of wine.
I’m sure this fool has been kicking himself (or perhaps herself) over the last decade.
SL: I feel like women are having a good moment. I feel like there are more women who are interested in becoming sommeliers. Maybe because I’m a woman there are more women who want to come and work for me.
OK, she’s being modest. Aspiring sommeliers both male and female would off their own mothers to work for her.
Getting back to wine, while Shelley is known for her vast knowledge of Italian wines, she does not limit her drinking or exposure to the regions she carries in her restaurants.
SL: I feel like the quality is up everywhere. It’s more like an artisan product. I think that customers are more savvy and there are more options. I think the generation ahead of us is even more conscientious about the things that they eat. Being able to eat and drink is part of life.
PSB: OK, dream region?
A little hemming and hawing.
PSB: Of course. What advice would you give an aspiring sommelier or someone who wants to get into the industry?
SL:I think to follow your heart and palate, work hard and be open to learning always. There is no clear path on where your are going in the wine business as a sommelier.