5 Bottles

Courtney Olson Spotlights California Whites at Coi

The wine director at San Francisco’s newest three-star Michelin restaurant on why she promotes wines from her home state

Courtney Olson

In our series 5 Bottles I Sold Last Night, sommeliers and wine directors talk about the bottles that they’re selling, giving tips and context for making the sales.

I’m an unabashed fan of California. I grew up in the San Diego area, and the state’s natural beauty, laid-back lifestyle, and of course, amazing wines feel, in a way, like an extension of my soul. No surprise, then, that I’ve loved promoting California wines throughout my career, which has taken me from Los Angeles to New York and back to the Bay Area, where I also lived a decade ago.

With the recent devastating wildfires in California, I felt compelled to do something, so I decided to change the focus of both our traditional and luxury wine pairings at Coi from France to California. After all, the best way to support the wine industry’s recovery—other than to visit—is to buy and drink the wines. Our five-glass flight of rare wines, The Golden State of Mind, as I named it, is a splurge at $550, but it’s a wonderful opportunity for guests who want to have an extravagant tasting experience focused on the gold standard of Californian wines. I love them all, but one of my favorite reds in the selection is a Marcassin Pinot Noir. Helen Turley is really one of the greatest winemakers in California, and right now we’ve got a 2001 vintage from Marcassin’s Three Sisters vineyard. Of the whites, I always like Sine Qua Non, a cult winery known for its Rhône blends. The wines are highly collectible and have a super-limited production and unique bottling, where each label is a piece of artwork—and what’s in the bottle is, of course, fantastic.

This is just one of the ways in which my job at Coi, which I’m proud to say just earned its third Michelin star, is a dream opportunity. I’ve been here a little over a year. Before Coi, I did a stint at Quince, another standout San Francisco restaurant, and before that, four years at The Modern in New York City. Since I joined Coi, I’ve gradually been transitioning our cellar, which had been heavy on reds under the restaurant’s previous executive chef, Daniel Patterson (who still owns the restaurant), to more whites. I find white to be more layered than red. The greatest white wines don’t unveil themselves right away—you need to spend time with them before they unfold. I now curate a 600-selection list that has a big focus on white wines from California and France, which are a perfect complement for chef Matt Kirkley’s seafood-centric menu.

Here is a closer look at five bottles I sold last night (the prices listed are what we charge at the restaurant).

bottles of wine lined up
Photo courtesy of Courtney Olson.

1. Cobb Vonarburg Vineyard Riesling, Anderson Valley, California 2016; $125

Riesling from California that’s dry—especially from a region like the Anderson Valley, which is perhaps a little less known outside California—is fantastic and exciting. This is the first vintage of Riesling by Ross Cobb, who is known for his Pinot Noirs but has always been passionate about Riesling. This goes great with our loup de mer, a Mediterranean sea bass lightly marinated with lime zest and melon. Some locals came in last night to celebrate one woman’s birthday, and they wanted to drink a California white wine but didn’t want Chardonnay. They knew about Cobb’s Pinots, so I suggested this wine. They were excited to try it, and they loved it.

2. Thomas Pico Chardonnay, Vin de France 2016; $55

Thomas Pico, owner of Domaine Pattes Loup in Chablis, France, is a somm darling—everyone wants his wines. In 2016 he lost more than 80 percent of his harvest due to frost and hail. Some winemaker friends in the Languedoc region got together and gave him some Chardonnay grapes from their vineyards to help him recover some of his losses. When you hear a story like that, you’re reminded that winemaking is farming, after all. Riper than his Chablis wines, this Chardonnay over-delivers for the price. I sold a bottle last night to a couple who were new parents and out for a nice night together while the grandparents took over. They enjoyed an evening all about themselves and were thrilled with this wine.

3. Rhys Horseshoe Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California 2013; $290

It may seem surprising, but for many, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is one of California’s yet to be discovered secrets. This is a tiny appellation where craggy, steep ridgetops are planted with grapes and where some of the vineyards date all the way back to the 1800s. The high elevation, cooling coastal influences, and well-draining rocky soils, along with the thoughtful winemaking at Rhys, result in lightly smoky, mineral-driven, precise wines. Last night, a couple asked for a local wine that would be like a white Burgundy, and this is what I recommended. The delicate use of oak is a style of winemaking employed in France that Rhys excels at (in contrast to the buttery, oaky, lavish style that California Chardonnays are sometimes known for). The Horseshoe Vineyard Chardonnay goes well with everything on our menu, but my favorite dish to pair it with is the butter-poached black bass with finger lime, safari squash, and a light hazelnut crust. The hazelnut pairs well with the delicate oak, and finger lime matches with the tangy acidity.

4. Château Simone Rosé, Palette, Provence, France 2014; $160

I call this the red-wine drinker’s rosé. The hue is a deep, electric pink, and it has vibrant aromas of garigue—which is low-growing vegetation that can feature lavender, thyme, and pine—plus a light textural grip that make the wine one of the most versatile on the list. If guests want to drink a big red, I often direct them to start here—it’s a great jumping-off point for Pinot Noir drinkers before they move onto Cabernet. Then I’ll get them on something big and bold later. It goes great with our charred octopus, which has a creamy richness from the foie gras and a bolt of acidity brought by a pickled turnip. The wine has a wonderful juicy, candied acidity to it that complements the dish perfectly. Last night a group came in wanting to dive into big reds right away, but with our menu it’s great to start out with Champagne or whites, so I steered them to this full-bodied rosé to start off with instead, and everyone was happy.

5. Catherine & Pierre Breton Les Perrières Cabernet Franc, Bourgueil, Loire Valley, France 1992; $185

This is one of my personal favorites. Last night, I sold a bottle to a table, where it turned out that 1992 was the woman’s birth year, and she’d never had a birth-year wine. Because the tannins are so integrated and resolved, it’s a lighter-bodied red wine—with age, it just gets more delicate. It has a touch of funky character, as well as a subtle herbaceous note, and once you hit the warm dishes on our menu, it’s a perfect pairing. The couple loved it, both for the way it tasted and for the experience of drinking something from her “vintage.”

—As told to Blane Bachelor

A native of Southern California, Courtney Olson joined Coi as its wine director in August 2016 after working as a sommelier at Quince in San Francisco and The Modern in New York. She holds a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and a Champagne master-level certification from the Wine Scholar Guild and is certified as a sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She has also been accepted into the Institute of Masters of Wine Study Program.

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