How A16’s Shelley Lindgren Built a James Beard Award-Winning Wine Program at a Neighborhood Restaurant

How A16's Shelley Lindgren Built a James Beard Award-Winning Wine Program at a Neighborhood Restaurant

A16 is a warm and intimate restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina district. It’s known for authentic Neapolitan pizzas made in the traditional pizzaiolo style: crusts blistered in a wood-fired oven, with a few simple toppings that showcase the freshest local ingredients. It’s the kind of place locals come again and again — where you can stop in for a quick bite, or stay for hours sharing pizza, pasta and carafes of wine with friends.

It is not, at first glance, a restaurant you would expect to have a James Beard Award-winning wine program.

“I’ve always thought that we are such a smaller neighborhood restaurant,” says Owner and Wine Director Shelley Lindgren, who was honored by the James Beard Foundation this year with the Outstanding Wine Program award for her work at A16. “To have so many supporters nationally that voted for us and think that it’s James Beard Award noteworthy — it was really exciting.”

The tome of a wine list at A16 showcases southern Italian bottles, along with California wines, meant to complement the restaurant’s rustic Italian cuisine. Instead of the usual Barolos and Brunellos, you’ll find lesser-known grapes like Fiano and Nerello Mascalese.

It’s an incredible learning opportunity for guests, if they’re up for it. And it’s certainly a departure from the typical fine-dining world of sommeliers and wine programs, which almost always revolves around France.

We caught up with Shelley at the restaurant, where she stopped by after a run with her dog Georgie (appropriately, he’s an Italian Spinone, commonly bred for truffle hunting) and joked about all of the nominations she received before actually winning the Beard Award. She walked us through the origins and evolution of the wine program, how she works with producers, and how she guides guests to their perfect bottle. Here’s how she built one of the most important and groundbreaking lists in the country.

Keep Learning, Keep Teaching

“I’ve always enjoyed work,” says Shelley with a shrug. “I still enjoy work.”

That’s obvious from the way she splits her time between her restaurants, which include A16 and SPQR in San Francisco and A16 Rockridge in Oakland. She’s also a mom, and her husband Greg owns three bars in the city. Between the two of them, there’s not a lot of down time.

Shelley began working in restaurants as a teenager and put herself through college by working full time at Fleur de Lys. She majored in English Writing and earned a minor in Biology, but she always gravitated back to food and wine. She took the sommelier exam while she was in college and later attended culinary school at Tante Marie’s Cooking School, where she went on to teach wine classes.

Her wine team consists of four people who bridge roles between sommeliers, servers and managers. They hold weekly wine tastings as a team of eight (including reps from all of the restaurants) and Shelley makes sure everyone learns how to do inventory and ordering, how to put away wine, and how to think about wines by the glass. She is constantly looking for ways to fine-tune the staff’s education.

Over the years she’s sponsored more than 30 sommeliers in the front of house and kitchen management teams in her restaurants, and she’s sent some of them to Italy to continue their wine educations.

She’s currently in the process of writing a new book all about southern Italian wines, out next year. “I feel like I’m just getting started, even though it’s been over 11 years.”

Dig Deeper

Once Shelley and her business partner Victoria Libin decided on a culinary concept for A16 — Neapolitan pizza — they went to Naples to visit wineries and start building a wine list.

“I had already fallen in love with Italy and the way you can go and eat local, drink local, and it all works,” she says.

Keeping the wine regional as well, they sought out the most important producers in Naples. But when she got back to San Francisco, Shelley realized there were many wines in the producers’ books that she hadn’t tasted — and that most people never tasted because they weren’t Barolos and Brunellos, the wines that most buyers wanted. Shelley asked to taste them. And they were great.

“They went with our food and the price was really affordable, and they were available. Because we were able to get a few strong producers, it kind of went from being an all-Italian wine list to, I think we can make a southern Italian wine list happen.”

Shelley and Victoria built A16 on a budget, and wine was the last part of the inventory they brought in. Cost was paramount. A16’s very first wine list was so inexpensive that Shelley’s friends told her she needed to raise the prices or she’d go out of business.

“People were almost giving us the wine,” she laughs. “A couple of original co-workers were blackmailing me with that first list that I had stapled together.”

Now the same wines sell for five times the price they were then, because awareness has grown and quality has improved. “Our timing of opening was right in line with this huge renaissance of southern Italian wines,” says Shelley.

Introduce Something New

When the A16 team first traveled to Italy to taste wines, Internet access wasn’t what it is now. There was no widely-used social media; no Google maps. They drove around rural areas with big paper maps, trying not to get lost. That’s where the name A16 came from: it’s the highway that runs from Naples to Puglia.

“We literally went knocking on people’s doors, saying, ‘Hi, I’m from San Francisco, we’re opening a restaurant on Campania. Can I taste your wines?'” Shelley remembers. “Nobody was going there to do that — they’re sleepy towns. But that’s part of the fun.”

The winemakers were thrilled. Shelley’s team has since forged close relationships with many of them and thinks of them as “extended family.”

These days there’s a plethora of southern Italian wines for restaurants to choose from, but that wasn’t always the case. Shelley says grandparents of modern winemakers in the south of Italy may never have left their villages; these days, people all over the world are embracing wines from the region. Guests are more open-minded to new varietals than ever before.

“In general, we try to offer the best quality we can, and we’re not looking at what our neighbor’s doing. We’re not thinking about what our customers want us to serve them. We’re doing our work and our research and finding our discoveries. We’re thinking of ourselves as the guests and saying, if I was a guest, this is what I would want.”

Since the availability of southern Italian wines has grown, Shelley is able to showcase more and more styles and regions on the A16 menu. She mentions the Mount Etna area as an example; over the years she has separated that section of the wine list into geographic distinctions, including the richer bottles from the west and south of Sicily and the lighter ones from the east.

Make It Easy for Guests

Obviously, introducing guests to unfamiliar wines requires a certain level of education for the staff and buy-in on the guests’ side. Shelley was determined never to make guests at A16 feel like the restaurant was trying to be esoteric or exclusive, but instead to share the stories behind the wines and offer a range of values and styles.

At the restaurant’s nascence, she was the general manager, wine director, and the host (she admits they were woefully understaffed). She would check in with each table as they made their decisions; if they said they liked Sauvignon Blanc, she’d recommend a Falanghina.

The whole front-of-house team is committed to making guests feel comfortable and for taking responsibility for the wine they offer, ready to describe it and explain the traditions behind it. They have a “60-Second Rule”: tables must be greeted within 60 seconds of sitting down, even just to hear “I’ll be right with you” and for servers to get a feel for the guests’ pace.

“I always tell them, they know more than they think they know,” says Shelley. “We want to have as much information as we all can, because it’s really what the guest is looking for and not what you think is great.”

A16 offers around 40 wines by the glass and half-bottle carafe, and wines by the glass make up about half of their overall wine sales. The staff is quick to recommend that guests start with a glass or carafe of wine, especially if it’s unfamiliar and they are hesitant about committing to a full bottle.

Earn Guests’ Trust

“When I’m training and doing education, I always tell our team, our guests are savvy; they know food and wine. You can taste when something’s of good quality.”

While value is important for wines sold by the glass, the quality is absolutely critical. Shelley says that even if a producer is willing to sell her a wine for next to nothing, she’d turn it down if it wasn’t made with care. That’s because if someone comes into A16 and orders their very first Fiano, she wants them to have one of the best Fianos available.

Ultimately the goal is to build trust with guests, and that starts with representing the finest imported grapes she can get, and that she can also pour by the glass.

“I always give our guests a ton of credit because they’re really open to trying things. They come in and they like to hear what I have to say, but they’re fine on their own. They can now read their way through the list. Before, I’d try to touch every table, and now they’re like, ‘How’s this one? I haven’t had this one before.'”

The team also uses OpenTable Guest Notes to keep track of regulars’ wine preferences. When new bottles come in, Shelley loves recommending them to guests she knows will enjoy them. Those combined commitments — to quality, education and hospitality — have made A16’s wine program truly unique.

“We weren’t trying to make a splash or anything,” she says. “We were just doing things from our heart that we believe in. And we are always trying to improve and be better at what we’re doing.”

Photo Credit: Alex Loscher