Friday, October 3, 2008

Rivoli's and Corso's Roscoe Skipper: Professional Pairings

While my Coq au vin post is cooking, which, by the way, takes as long to write up as it does to make, I thought I'd introduce you to a wine friend of mine. Meet Roscoe Skipper, the wine director/owner of a top 100 San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area restaurant, Rivoli, and the new Tuscan style trattoria, Corso -both in Berkeley, California. Roscoe's been drinking and pouring wine at top restaurants around the country for years and if anyone has a mind prime to pick for food and wine pairing inspiration, it's Roscoe. I'm much obliged to include him in the Professional Pairings series, and am certain you'll take as much any from this interview as I have. Thank you Roscoe!

You've worked at some highly reputable restaurants in San Francisco, like Square One, Masa's, and other celebrated places around the country. Could you trace your path in food and wine for Vin de la Table readers, and briefly describe how your professional life led you to where you are now, a wine director and owner of two restaurants?

Well, I started as a bus boy for Shoney's Big Boy restaurants in 1971. I was a cook for years, but wanted to attend college, so I started
waiting tables. This is when I started getting into wine. In '86, I
started at Square One and Even Goldstein was the sommelier. We had
daily wine tastings and were the guinea pigs for the course he was to
teach for Seagrams about wine, so I learned a ton there. After that,
Masa's with Mike Bonnacorsi, Chaya Venice in LA with Greg Louie, with
a great eclectic wine list, another year at Masa's with sommelier
Burke Owens (where I had the greatest wine I ever had, '66 La Tache!),
then I opened Bizou with Joseph Graham. In each restaurant I got to
taste a lot of wine and learn. Also, I went to France and Italy a few
times, where wine is a part of life, not just a part of restaurants.
When we got the opportunity to open Rivoli, the wine list was the fun
part. But I learned the most about wine after my motorcycle accident
in 2001. Because I couldn't be at the restaurant for a couple of
years, I started intensively reading and writing about wine in order
to better educate myself and my staff; the whole Oxford Companion to
Wine, the Wine Atlas of the World, all of Clive Coates, Bastianich,
Belfrage. And then writing: I've got tasting notes and background
descriptions of wine regions and producers for probably 1000 different

If you could pinpoint a moment when you decided to be a sommelier, what would that be?

It had to be when we opened Rivoli. As much as I loved wine, I kind of didn't want to make it into "work." I didn't really like a lot of the seriousness around it so I never thought about working as a sommelier. But the wine list was the fun part of starting Rivoli, so that's when I started taking it seriously.

Many people are curious about how wine lists are constructed and wonder why certain genres of wines are particular to certain styles of restaurants. You have two restaurants, Rivoli's and Corso, in Berkeley. Could you explain how the wine lists differ and your process in selecting wines for each place? How does the food, service, and atmosphere in the restaurants affect the wine list, for example?

The wine list at Rivoli is meant to complement Wendy's food. I know everyone says that, but I had no space for a big wine list, so I really had to throw out everything that wasn't necessary. Rivoli was based on seasonal, local ingredients with French and Italian techniques. So, duh, California, French and Italian wines made sense. I've dabbled in other areas, Australia, Argentina and even Croatia, but I always end up with just the three areas. However, I feel that Germany and Austria make the finest white wines in the world so I represent them too. Rivoli is more of a special occasion place, so it makes sense to have special occasion wines, so I concentrate on bio-dynamic and organically raised wines from specific vineyards, though I do offer less expensive wines that show me something, a varietal flare, a sense of place or typicity for a good price. The wines should say they're from somewhere, just like our food does. And for the style of wines, I tend to offer more whites that are crisp and fruity, like Veltliners and Soaves and reds that are not overdone, too much oak, too extracted, too high in alcohol. Wines that are on the extremes aren't very friendly to Wendy's food.

With Corso, Wendy wanted to do a Florentine trattoria, and in Italy,
you just don't see wines from anywhere else, in fact you rarely see
wines from outside the region. My favorite trattoria in Florence
doesn't even offer Brunello for Christ's sake. So I thought it would
be fun to do an all Italian list, with an emphasis on Tuscany, though
all regions of Italy are represented. Here, the emphasis is on
different styles of Chianti Classico, modern vs. traditional, and I
usually use the lesser bottlings from good producers, as seems fitting
for a casual trattoria. For example, Lonardo is one of my favorite
producers in the Taurasi region of Campania, so for Rivoli I offer his
finest wine, the 2000 Taurasi. For Corso, I offer his 'second' wine,
made from the same vineyard, just the less good areas, the less good
barrels, less oak treatment, lower price, simply labeled Aglianico.

What have been the most surprising food and wine pairings you've encountered? Feel free to explore the good, bad, and the weird.

The good: California chardonnay and corn soup. The bad: foie gras and
Sauternes; really, you need a Loire Valley Chenin with some residual
sugar. The weird: Duckhorn sauvignon blanc and tomato soup. Don't
know why it works but it does.

What do you eat and drink together when not at work, or at the end of a long shift?

I'm comfortable enough in my masculinity to admit I drink rose. All
summer. And not just a little bit. In the winter, I tend to drink
Loire cabernet francs and nebbiolos. And Burgundy when I can afford

Do you have other favorite pairings?

Where do I start? Of course the classics, goat cheese and Sancerre, oysters and muscadet, prime rib and Bordeaux, grilled chicken with lemon, thyme and garlic with chardonnay, charred rare rib eye with Barbaresco.

Lastly, now that you have the chance to speak to Vin de la Table readers interested in the holy combination of food and wine, would you care to share any parting pairing guidelines, wisdom, or suggest any experiments in the world of food and wine?

Wine is a part of our shared cultural heritage. As such, its history needs to be understood, so I urge everyone to read about wine. Some of what's written is pretty dry, but Matt Kramer, Clive Coates and the greatest of them all, Andrew Jefford are simply great writers and very engaging even when they get detailed. It's probably geeky, but everyone should own the World Atlas of Wine. I mean, who doesn't like maps? Oh, right, just me. And as I just put together a wine list for an Italian place, don't get too concerned about food and wine pairing: the Florentines drink everything with Chianti. Am I going to tell them they're wrong? And now I'll leave you with my favorite quote about wine:

―"A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, except that on a
day without sunshine you can still get drunk"- Lee Entrekin

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