“A lot of my choices are more than just the wine. It’s the people. What do they inspire in me? And how can I reflect those values?”
Vinny Eng is seated in the hallway of a partially repurposed tile factory in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco, speaking with characteristic earnestness about the wine program he oversees at Tartine Manufactory, which occupies 4,800 airy square feet here. The latest hit from bakers Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson, the Manufactory is a production and retail bakery, ice cream shop, restaurant, coffee joint, and bar all rolled into one. Open from 8 am to 10 pm, the place is busy all day. It’s an ambitious undertaking by icons of San Francisco’s artisan food scene, but until the full liquor license kicks in later this year, the beverage program, except for a handful of beers and shims, is entirely wine driven.
In other words, for now, it’s all on Eng, Tartine Manufactory’s general manager and wine director. How does he match the kitchen’s ambitions and meet the clientele’s high expectations? By thinking beyond glasses and bottles. For Eng, managing a wine program is about building community.
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Get to Know Your Sources
“We have a responsibility as operators not just to grow our business but to grow our space so other people can learn and become successful operators,” Eng says. “When we grow talent and we grow the industry, we grow a more robust and resilient community.”
That sort of stewardship is a reflection of Prueitt and Robertson’s own philosophy. They support other artisans, and they’re supported by them. It’s a very San Francisco approach, and Eng, who worked his way up from his first position, as a busser, at the now-closed Bar Tartine 11 years ago, takes it to heart. The wineries he buys from are bootstraps operations with the same hands-on, integrative approach of Tartine Manufactory. His list is made for a restaurant that gets grain directly from local farmers and mills it fresh on the premises.
“One thing that’s really important here,” says Eng, “is supporting our local producers and grower-producers, emerging purveyors, and emerging talent.” He fills his wine list with such people, and he makes no bones about being “in love with every single producer,” each of whom he describes in glowing and empathetic detail.
On Scott Schultz, the assistant winemaker at Wind Gap, who produces under his own tiny label, Jolie-Laide: “I’ve had the great honor to pour all his wines by the glass in every vintage he’s produced. I’ll make room for him because somewhere along the way, someone gave me a chance. Somewhere along the way, Liz and Chad were given a chance, and they created something like Tartine.”
On Littorai’s Ted Lemon, whose Pinot Eng sells: “He and his wife, Heidi—I will always support them because what they are doing with that estate is profoundly moving. They are in the second stage of making a self-contained ecosystem. This sort of awareness you can taste. There is a wakefulness that makes that wine that much more alive.”
On the Russian River’s Arbe Garbe, which produces a skin-contact Malvasia blend on Eng’s list: “Tartine was founded by a husband-wife team, and I have this romantic notion that I like producers who are partners. Latizia and Enrico Maria Bertoz are exploring their heritage from Friuli through grapes grown in California. This wine is quintessentially Californian because the flavors are so fruit driven, but it harkens to the texture and aromatic romance that Friulian whites have.”
Strive for Gender Parity
Ambitious startups, biodynamic and low-input producers, couples working together on small-production, innovative wines—“I’m looking for intention,” says Eng. His purveyors are a lot like his bosses. And in part because one of his bosses is a woman, he also strives to source half the list from female producers. He ticks off some of them: “Anne-Sophie Dubois in Beaujolais is making beautiful wines. Sarah Morris at Si Vintners in Australia’s Margaret River is a powerful voice. Cathy Corison in Napa is supporting and elevating a new generation. The wines of Marie Courtin speak to the value of single-vineyard wines made with intention, with as few external inputs as possible. Marie Thibault is an incredible farmer.
“I am constantly trying to make sure there is gender parity in my program,” says Eng, and though he insists that it’s “extremely challenging,” by the sound of things, he’s doing a bang-up job.
Still, many customers at Tartine Manufactory might remain unaware of these efforts. Eng’s list doesn’t call attention to any of it, and neither does he. “If you’re here for two hours with someone you haven’t seen in 13 years,” he says, “who am I to take up your time to tell you a story about why I’m in love with this wine?”
Instead, he thinks it’s his job to facilitate a good time and get out of the way. To that end, he strives for a list that’s sophisticated but super friendly, starting with its by-the-glass program, an evolving selection of 14 to 24 wines chosen to help guests explore without leaving their comfort zone.
“The most important thing for me in the glass program is accessibility,” says Eng. “Our guests like to order things that are familiar to them. I’ll give you that, but I want to give you the opportunity to discover something new about it.” Pinot Grigio, but from the Alto Adige; Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains; a Pinot Noir like Scar of the Sea, made in Santa Barbara by longtime cellar rats realizing their dream—wines like these, says Eng, are “like looking at an old friend, discovering a new facet, and falling in love with them all over again.”
Eng doesn’t just stick to safe varietals, though. He also likes to “reward curiosity.” He’ll list something obscure like a rustic, earthy La Grangette Picpoul Noir, for $8 to $10, a low bar for exploration.
What results is a diverse and intriguing list that won’t break the bank: a lemon curd–accented Sémillon blend from Australia’s Si Vintners; Rootdown Trousseau Rosé from Amador County, full of strawberry notes; foot-trod Purity Syrah, a spicy wine from Santa Barbara. Even the most popular order here—sparkling rosé, poured into a Schott Zwiesel flute for its celebratory vibe—can run the gamut from a pale, lithe Château de Brézé Crémant to Domaine Robert Serol Turbullent, a sparkling Gamay with an “intoxicating” purple hue. “Why not?” says Eng. “Drink the rainbow.”
With its something-new-for-everyone inclusivity, the glass list acts as a training tool for Eng’s staff. Though his associate general manager has a Level 1 certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is no dedicated wine team here. Eng tastes the whole floor staff on new wines, and they all become versed in selling them. It’s not difficult to get a Tartine diner to try a glass—or two—when none is more than $20.
By-the-glass pours account for 60 percent of Eng’s sales. But the bottle list, too, meshes innovation and approachability. For the purposes of training and logistics, it’s always fewer than 125 selections. “I try hard to balance my need to have a stable list with my desire to make room for emerging talent,” says Eng. “I have a red-wine cellar, a white-wine fridge, and a little storage area across the street. I’m limited in space and intellectual bandwidth. I’m not going to hand my service staff a 400-page book, because that doesn’t fit the space.”
Eng tweaks and prints his bottle list daily, on double-sided legal-sized cardstock. Under broad headings—sparkling; white; rosé and rosato; ramato, skin-contact whites, and red/white blends; red—each wine appears, varietal first and label in all caps, on a line indented further than the related wine above it. The effect is a series of diagonals representing nested varietal groupings: Pineau D’Aunis, Pinot Noir, Mondeuse, and Nebbiolo in one group; Garnacha, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Montepulciano in another. Designed to maximize readability, this list helps you see each wine clearly.
You also see that only a handful of bottles are more than $100. A 2000 Gitton Pinot Noir from Sancerre for only $85? Eng’s markups are not more than 2.75 times that of wholesale, and if he gets a deal on the wine, he passes that bargain onto his guests. “Here in San Francisco,” says Eng, “we have a tremendously strong retail community. And wine drinkers go to Vivino; they go to Delectable. They look at what people are paying. I want them to feel [that] what I’m providing for them is an experience of value.”
To find those values, Eng buys from many distributors, starting with the local businesses he likes to support: Revel, Selection Massale, Kermit Lynch, Percy Selections. And he travels to wineries to taste new things, particularly from emerging vintners. “It’s important to me when I … meet an assistant winemaker who has dreams of making wine under her own label,” he says, “and she finally takes the risk, and you feel the passion, commitment, and technical expertise.”
That’s not hard to do when you’re located in San Francisco. A quarter or more of Tartine Manufactory’s list hails from California. “I love my local producers,” says Eng. “They’re our neighbors. They come. We support them. We worry about each other and our businesses because it’s an ecosystem. When we individually thrive, we collectively thrive.”
Educate Willing Guests
But his approach to California wine is far from conventional. Perhaps the only thing guests won’t find on the list, save for Cathy Corison’s wines, is Napa Cabernet. And that has much to do with the restaurant’s food. “Everything coming out of my kitchen is bright and fresh and alive,” he says, “and I have to make sure those flavors are flying off the plate. There are certain styles of wine that I love that may not work as well.”
An assortment of globally inspired, locally sourced, full-flavored plates—wild mushroom tartine with ricotta and Parmesan; bone broth with green onion and turmeric; California halibut crudo with kiwi, mint, and cilantro—the food is “an intersection of tradition with modernity and exploration,” says Eng, “and it’s no different with wine.”
To make things easy on staff and clientele, he thinks beyond pairings to wines that work with multiple menu items: “That Arbe Garbe is rich and bold enough to stand the rib eye. That Rootdown Trousseau is assertive enough to go well with any larger-portion protein dish. That Lumia Valdiguié from Jessica Boone is fresh and angular enough to cut through the umami in 95 percent of my dishes.”
They’re not just versatile choices; they’re surprising ones. Eng wants to coax diners to broaden their palates by providing wines that, while outliers, complement the food. “A little trepidatious? Let me pour you a taste,” Eng will offer. But he’s constantly aware of his standard of hospitality: to be welcoming, not challenging.
“It’s really important to me that everything on the menu is a starting point for a conversation,” he says, “but only if the guest invites the conversation.”
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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.