A Great (Small) Wine List in an Unexpected Place

PeterNeroThurWhen writing about a restaurant’s wine list, critics more often than not make a reference to the length of the list.

But is a larger list always a better list?

Not as far as I’m concerned.

This came to mind during a recent visit to the University of California campus in Berkeley. I was there to attend a concert, and to share an important part of my upbringing and adult life with my fiancée, Michelle.

If you’ve been following my blogs for more than a few months (thank you!), you know that music plays a huge role in my life. I call it cheap therapy, because there’s a genre or an artist or a song or a verse for just about any human mood — or to help break you out of a given mood.

I discovered this early in life when my Dad, after a long day’s work at our family’s bakery, would come home, sit down in his recliner next to the stereo (which more accurately was a piece of wooden furniture with a turntable inside), and play one of three records: “Up Close” by Peter Nero, “Big Swing Face” by Buddy Rich, or “Pete Fountain’s New Orleans” by Pete Fountain. To this day, I know every note of every song on those three records, so engrained they became in my musical psyche.

Nero was Dad’s favorite because he was a piano player, and Dad had been taught how to play that instrument, as a child, by a blind teacher. That probably explains why Dad didn’t read music all that well, but could replicate almost any tune by ear. He called his playing style “just fooling around,” and greatly admired Nero’s technical precision.

When I got older, in my late teens and into my thirties, Dad and I went to see Nero in concert five or six times. Without exception, whether he was leading a trio or fronting a full orchestra, each concert featured at least one George Gershwin tune, as Nero has long been known as one of the great interpreters of that famed composer who somehow managed to meld classical and jazz music with breathtaking results.

Dad passed away in 2009, and he was still listening to Nero until the end. During visits with my folks in their final years, if we weren’t watching “Gunsmoke” DVDs, we were listening to “Up Close” or other Nero records.

Today, Peter Nero is closing in on 81. After a lengthy run as music director of the Philly Pops, he’s touring again — even though he finds himself in that uneasy state of having outlived much of his audience.

But I remain a fan, and it was important to me for my fiancée to get to know my Dad — and, by extension, a part of me — through the music Dad and I shared. Thus, it was off to Northern California for a Peter Nero concert at Cal Berkeley’s Zellerbach Theater.

It was a rainy night, so we headed in early and found our fourth-row seats. (I’d never seen Nero that close and wanted to, as Dad had always advised, “watch his left hand.”) What a treat. What en education.

At intermission, I came to wish that we had looked up when we first entered the theater building, rather than shaking off the raindrops and heading for our seats. On the second level, there’s an inviting space called Café Zellerbach. Chatting with a young lady behind the café’s counter, I learned that the place had been packed prior to the show.

So I picked up a menu, and Michelle and I spent the rest of intermission perusing it. The Wilted Kale and Chayote Squash Salad sounded tasty, as did the Sweet Tangy Short Rib Bruschetta. There also were sandwiches, a soup of the day and “tasting plates.”

But what really caught my eye was the beverage list — specifically, the wine-by-the-glass selections: five reds, four whites and one sparkling. These weren’t boxed wines or jug wines or other selections with fleeting flavors. These were top-quality wines, including several names that have been featured by the wines clubs of Vinesse through the years: Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon, Edna Valley Merlot, MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir, Urban Legend Syrah, Carica Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Chenin Blanc, Raymond Chardonnay, Trefethen Chardonnay and Roederer Brut.

That was it — a well-curated, 10-item list that trumps many 100-bottle lists at fine-dining restaurants, lending credence to my assertion that bigger ain’t necessarily better.

Adult beverages are not allowed in the theater, or I would have grabbed a glass for the second half of the show.

I’ve since signed up for Cal Performance’s mailing club, and am now keeping an eye out for a (dinner and a) show to attend in the future. Good music… good food… good wine. What more does one need?

Meanwhile, I’m glad that Michelle got to see and hear and learn about my musical roots. And when Peter Nero was playing variations on “Rhapsody in Blue,” it was almost like Dad was there.

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