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Devising a New Wine List With Alisha Blackwell-Calvert

To complement Madrina’s Italian-American cuisine, Alisha Blackwell-Calvert pairs unique Italian selections with their U.S. counterparts—and sells everything for an affordable price

An interior photograph of Madrina juxtaposed alongside a headshot of Alisha Blackwell-Calvert.
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert (right), the wine director of Madrina (left), composed the restaurant’s wine list from scratch. Photos courtesy of Jasper Paul PR.

Over the past decade, Alisha Blackwell-Calvert has become one of the best-known sommeliers in St. Louis and beyond, gaining national recognition for her work as a beverage director and wine judge and earning her advanced sommelier certificate with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

But despite working at local spots like Reeds American Table, Elaia, Olio, and most recently Cinder House, located in the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, Blackwell-Calvert has never written a wine list from scratch until now. She is currently the wine director of Madrina, which opened in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, in November 2023. The restaurant’s beverage program is “my first baby,” Blackwell-Calvert jokes, created to complement Madrina’s Italian-American cuisine.

The 116-bottle wine list is almost entirely comprised of bottles from Italy and the U.S., and for each Italian option, there is a similarly styled American wine listed alongside. “It’s very user-friendly,” says Blackwell-Calvert. “You know what you’re getting yourself into.” The concept for the menu came from one of Madrina’s co-owners, Stanley Browne, a certified sommelier who also takes an accessible approach to structuring the list at his wine bar, Robust.

This method of “pairing” domestic and Italian wines gives guests a frame of reference when exploring the Italian selection—they can look for an American bottle they might gravitate toward and feel comfortable ordering its Italian counterpart. Or if they would rather stick with something familiar, there are plenty of excellent U.S. wines to choose from. Most guests opt for Italian wine, says Blackwell-Calvert. “We’re blessed to have a clientele that’s up for trying something new and different, and the setup makes that easy for guests to pick something they might not be as familiar with,” she says. Most of the bottles sit at accessible prices as well; many are under $70, and few are over $100.

Blackwell-Calvert tries to diversify her offerings and cover much of both countries. “I wanted to make sure I could reach as many regions as possible,” says Blackwell-Calvert. She tries to feature as many of Italy’s subregions as she can, and likes to highlight bottles from many wine states—even her home state of Missouri.

There are a few bottles that fall outside Madrina’s Italian-American scope, however; these are denoted as “Alisha’s Global Wines” on the menu. “I negotiated to have a little section of things I carry everywhere I go,” says Blackwell-Calvert. Having a white and red Burgundy adds something the list might be missing otherwise, she says, and she can carry bottles from favorite countries like Portugal and Greece.

Through her list, Blackwell-Calvert is able to regularly introduce Madrina’s guests to wines they may never have heard of—one of her favorite parts of the job. She told SevenFifty Daily about five of the most recent bottles she sold. (Listed are bottle prices at Madrina.)

From left to right: Jorche Primitivo di Manduria Riserva, Dal Forno Romano Amarone della Valpolicella, Keenan Merlot, Bucci Verdicchio Classico Superiore dei Castelli di Jesi, and La Caccia di San Giovanni Rosso Toscana.
From left to right: Jorche Primitivo di Manduria Riserva, Dal Forno Romano Amarone della Valpolicella, Keenan Merlot, Bucci Verdicchio Classico Superiore dei Castelli di Jesi, and La Caccia di San Giovanni Rosso Toscana.

1. Jorche Primitivo di Manduria Riserva 2019, Puglia, Italy; $65

When Blackwell-Calvert worked as a sales rep for a local importer and distributor over a decade ago, she attended Vinitaly with her team and tasted the wines of Jorche. “We fell in love with their Primitivos,” she says, and started importing them to Missouri. 

Now, Blackwell-Calvert gets to carry Jorche’s riserva Primitivo and introduce it to new guests—in this case, a table that wanted Zinfandel, which is genetically identical to Primitivo. “Because this is a riserva, it has some warm, toasty notes to back up all that plummy fruit,” says Blackwell-Calvert. “They’ve been back twice, and they always get it.”

2. Dal Forno Romano Amarone della Valpolicella 2017, Veneto, Italy; $750

Though most bottles on Madrina’s list are under $100, Blackwell-Calvert does include some worthwhile splurges, like this Amarone della Valpolicella from an iconic producer. An Amarone-loving four-top asked her for her opinion on another bottle from the region, priced at $88. “I said, ‘I love it, it’s delicious, but if you want to treat yourself, I have the Dal Forno,’” recalls Blackwell-Calvert. “It’s the Napa Valley of Amarone—full-bodied, robust, dense, chocolatey. It’s a beautiful, luxurious wine.” 

The table loved the Dal Forno Amarone so much they bought a second bottle, and it reminded Blackwell-Calvert that upselling can provide value to the guest as well as the restaurant. “I think the challenge there was stepping out of my comfort zone and not thinking about what’s in my wallet,” she says. “I could shoot for what they want—not what I can afford.”

3. Keenan Merlot 2019, Napa Valley, California; $105

“As much as I like to focus on Italian wine, I like to give people a shock when they tell me they don’t like something,” says Blackwell-Calvert. In this case, a table told her that they like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but not Merlot, prompting her to challenge their assumptions about the grape. 

“This Merlot is a Cab drinker’s Merlot—high elevation where it’s cooler, so you get smaller berries and higher tannins but a silky smoothness,” she says. They were hooked on this bottle from Keenan Winery in the Spring Mountain District, which sources the majority of its fruit from estate vines planted in rocky soils. “They said, ‘We didn’t know Merlot could be so good!’”

4. Bucci Verdicchio Classico Superiore dei Castelli di Jesi 2022, Marche, Italy; $70

“One of the fun things about working on the floor is introducing something that might be out of the ordinary,” says Blackwell-Calvert. She recommended the Bucci Verdicchio, an organic wine aged in old, large barrels for up to eight months, to a table looking for Sauvignon Blanc. “Verdicchio is a little peppery and a little spicy,” she says. “They loved it.”

5. La Caccia di San Giovanni Rosso Toscana 2020, Tuscany, Italy; $150

Though the Super Tuscan category is broad, it’s also popular among consumers, which is why Blackwell-Calvert definitely wanted to carry one on her list. She calls the La Caccia di San Giovanni Rosso Toscana a “can’t miss and never fail” option that also supports a good friend and colleague—St. Louis native Michael Kennedy, who is a managing partner of the Tuscan estate and the founder of Fraîche Wine

“I definitely want to stay on theme but support local at the same time,” says Blackwell-Calvert. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Petit Verdot is her go-to for tables who want a fruit-forward, powerful wine.


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Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the editor-in-chief for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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