Sommelier Vinny Eng’s California Winemaker Roll Call
“I believe it's important to support and encourage new voices,” says Vinny Eng, the now-former wine director at San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory, who, as a sommelier, focused his work on propelling up-and-coming winemakers.
Eng’s entry into the wine world was the product of this type of support; he’d been working at Bar Tartine as a server when chef Nick Balla asked him to manage the restaurant and the wine program. “Nick lifted me up, which gave me the opportunity to lift up others along the way,” he says. He started by seeking out winemakers and wines that not only integrated the culinary vision and flavors that were coming out of the kitchen, but that also integrated community values so that “these were embraced, supported, celebrated and affirmed every time you spent $10 on a glass of wine.”
For Eng, this pursuit goes beyond supporting California businesses simply because they’re local. It stems from an understanding of pure economics: these businesses need cash flow from the very beginning in order to keep buying fruit and making wine. By pouring their bottles by the glass in his humming Mission district restaurant, he was able to help with that necessary infusion. The list features 18 to 22 different by-the-glass wines, many of which are from California.
“They're buying fruit,” says Eng, acknowledging that there’s a substantial barrier to entry for new winemaker upstarts to buy land in California. And for the most part, those upstarts are buying off-the-beaten-path grapes like Carignan and Valdiguie and Touriga Nacional, because those varieties are far more affordable than Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay. “In a strange way, this community of winemakers is telling the story of modern-day immigration to California, because the winemakers are working with the original varieties that were brought over by the European immigrants who came to California to participate in the Gold Rush,” says Eng.
At Tartine, Eng became a nurturer of the next wave of talent, keeping an eye on the people working with his most beloved winemakers and encouraging them to branch out on their own, too. Two great examples of this are Jaimee Motley, the assistant at Pax winery and Martha Stoumen, the assistant winemaker for Broc Cellars. When the two launched their own respective projects, Eng was one of the first to put their wines on his list. “They’ve been in the industry for over a decade and have earned and accomplished so much in the service of their mentors, so when they launch out on their own, it’s a celebration,” he says.
Since leaving Tartine Manufactory, Eng has become involved in local politics. He joined the campaign for Suzy Loftus, a progressive, community-based leader, for District Attorney of San Francisco. “I met Suzy in 2012 while doing mental health advocacy and police reform work in San Francisco. Suzy called me up earlier this year and asked me to join her race as Organizing Director and I said yes,” says Eng. Eng continues to promote emerging winemakers by hosting local wine events, but until November, his focus is on the campaign.
Here are six more producers that found their way onto Eng’s by-the-glass list— the future of California, if you will:
Erin Pooley, Little Frances
Best known for her Semillon bottlings, Aussie Erin Pooley is now expanding to work with some other varieties, including Chenin Blanc and Merlot from Contra Costa winery.
Wine to try: 2016 Little Frances Merlot ($21)
Claire Hill, Claire Hill Wines
After working in California wineries, like Unti and Rhys as well as with Éric Texier in the Rhône, and a stint in the wine department at San Francisco’s exceptional BiRite market, Claire Hill struck out on her own. She’s working with mourvèdre grapes from Contra Costa County to make what Eng calls “the most delicious thing.” Mourvèdre can often be coarse and robust, but Eng loves Hill’s style for its smooth, elegant texture.
Wine to try: 2017 Claire Hill Del Barba Vineyard Mourvèdre ($27)
Chad Hinds, Methode Sauvage
For the past six years, Hinds has focused on sourcing the best Chenin Blanc and Trousseau fruit he can from around the state. “His wines are activating in a way that just made me want to find out why. They’re so electric and pulsing,” says Eng. Last spring, Hinds planted a vineyard in northern reaches of California’s Siskiyou County, with plans to work with Alpine varieties.
Wine to try: 2017 Methode Sauvage Rorick Heritage Trousseau ($32)
Kenny Likitprakong, Hobo Wine Company
“Kenny and his wife Lynn have an amazing shared winemaking facility in Santa Rosa, where they created a vertical business model with different points of entry.” There’s Ghost Rider on the high end and then his more affordable lines, called Hobo Wine Co. and Folk Machine. “His wines are so diverse, so alive and so fresh,” says Eng.
Wine to try: Hobo Wine Co. Branham Rockpile Zinfandel ($30)
Noel Diaz, Purity Wine
Operating out of a shared winemaking facility in the East Bay’s city of Richmond, Noel Diaz works with grapes from the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara. “He’s another amazing paradigm-shifting producer in California that's trying to make really vibrant, lighter-style expressions that still have weight and body and intensity,” says Eng.
Wine to try: Purity Wine Co. Oakstone Vineyard Grenache ($18)
Evan Lewandowski, Ruth Lewandowski Wines
Since 2012, Evan Lewandowski has been making wine in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, trucking in grapes from various parts of California. He’s always had a clear vision of how he wants his grapes to be farmed and, this year, he’s finally getting closer to the source: He’s picking up his winery operations and moving to California to work on a vineyard project called Wild Ruth Ranch with winemaker Jake Bilbro of Idlewild Wines.
Wine to try: Ruth Lewandowski Fox Hill Vineyard Rosé ($25)
See the full list of the 2019 Sommeliers of the Year.