Berkeley restaurants

Winemaker Stephen Singer bucks the trend

TIM CARL

Stephen Singer does not make normal wines. However, like the quirky high school kid who becomes a hugely influential independent filmmaker, the wines he produces have the potential to shake things up.

Grown in its Sonoma County vineyard, Singer’s Syrah and Viognier craftsmanship display a wonderfully different precision, angularity and expression compared to similar wines from the region.

“Over the past two decades we have learned and refined the vineyard and our approach to winemaking,” he said. “We only produce a small amount of wine, and that’s not a style for everyone, but we’ve found a great following for the wines we produce, which is rewarding and encourages me to keep going. “

Emblems of taste

When Singer was growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s, his family found success in the pipe business, supplying equipment to the booming oil industry. Economic success translated into greater discernment and appreciation of wine and food.

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“My father’s experience in World War II reinforced his belief in the importance of global culture,” he said, “and wine, art, and food were all expressions of that. view of the world A good bottle of Bordeaux or even an Argentinian Cabernet at dinner was a normal and welcome activity with us.

What Singer came to believe was that food, art, and wine could represent “emblems of taste” and that beyond mere vehicles of self-expression, everyone could play a role. in redefining cultural norms and values.

To the west

In the 1970s, Singer moved to the Bay Area to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in critical theory from UC Berkeley. In the 1980s he was working as an artist, but he also continued his involvement in wine and food.

“The whole region was going through a taste revolution at that time,” he said. “It was exciting to be a part of this energy – a wonderful blend of art, food and wine.”

And while art and wine were aspects of the revolution, growing and making food became a political act. At the center of this revolution was a small restaurant in Berkeley called Chez Panisse. Owned by Alice Waters, the restaurant was at the very heart of the discussion about how eating could become a transformative act.

Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and by the 1980s had pioneered what came to be known as California cuisine – a farm-to-table philosophy that boasted of serving fresh, organic produce that showcased the region’s ability to grow diverse, delicious and nutritious. food.

By this time, Singer was working with other Bay Area artists, including Stephen Thomas, who would eventually co-found The Oxbow School in Napa. Thomas’ wife, Patricia Curtan, worked with Waters as an illustrator for his cookbooks and also in the kitchen as a sous chef. When Thomas and Curtan introduced Singer to Waters, the duo immediately hit it off. In 1983 they married and had a daughter, Fanny.

Singer eventually became the wine director of Chez Panisse and also opened his own wine retail store in San Francisco called Singer & Foy Wines. Influenced by Bay Area wine importer Kermit Lynch, Singer traveled the region and the world in search of high-quality wines that reflected his worldview.

Eventually, opened a few years back in the early 1990s, it had its own restaurant in Napa Valley. Called Table 29 – located in the space that is now hosted by Bistro Don Giovanni – the restaurant attempted to serve local farm-to-table dishes with wines from around the world.

Through all of these experiences, Singer had become convinced that wine could act as a “propelling and uplifting force” on every table – not only because of its ability to be delicious but also because of its ability to reflect its intimate relationship with the land – where it was grown and the people who nurtured it into existence. He also had the ability to broaden horizons and offer other points of view in an ever-changing world.

“The table is a sacred space for me,” Singer said. “Wine, food and good conversation are part of this experience and have the power to inform and transform.”

Today, Singer’s passion for food and wine is represented in both his wines and the olive oil he produces. Like his often angular and geometric art, wine and oil express a precision and an intentionality that give them a lively specificity.

Wine

Singer’s wine labels feature his own paintings which often have distinct geometric shapes. Along with her longtime winemaker, Greg Adams, Singer makes only a tiny amount of wine that often sells out quickly to members of her wine list. Although he’s no longer with Waters, Singer is collaborating with Fanny, who is a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of design brand Permanent Collection. Her role in the wine industry is to provide design advice and participate in events.

Grown at his Baker Lane vineyard, the 2019 Syrah ($95 a bottle and 150 cases made) shimmers ruby ​​in the glass with aromas of dried cherry, Peking duck and jaggery. It’s a lively wine with a vibrant acidic backbone and flavors of black olive, malt and dark fruit. Try this wine with slow-braised lamb shanks marinated in soy, garlic, a touch of molasses and a pinch of Chinese five-spice powder.

The 2021 Viognier ($65 a bottle and 50 cases made) is effervescent, pale yellow in the glass with aromas ranging from lemongrass to candied ginger. On the palate, this pleasingly angular wine tastes of pear and apricot and has the wonderful steely force that is so alluring in one of the exceptional Viogniers from France’s Rhône Condrieu appellation.

Try this wine with any seafood dish – sushi, oysters, raw clams – or Rigotte, also known as Rigotte de Condrieu, which is a soft goat’s cheese with a bloomy rind. As the holidays approach, I strongly encourage you to try this wine with roast turkey in cranberry sauce.

Beyond the two wines, the olive oil ($52 for 750 ml) is worth the detour. These locally grown and ground oils are aromatically expressive and speak to Singer’s infatuation with angularity. Try the oil drizzled over sourdough bread or a salad of grilled vegetables brushed with balsamic vinegar and chopped rosemary.

“My goal is to continue working to achieve the highest expression of this vineyard,” Singer said. “When you get to live and work in a place as beautiful as this, it fuels a lively sense of wonder and curiosity, and that’s something I love to celebrate and share.”