The longer she talks, the wider Ceri Smith's eyes become, the more she gesticulates, the quicker her speech pattern. Ideas and opinions, critiques and compliments gush like bubbles from a Prosecco bottle. Italian wine: it's her business; it's also her passion.
Smith's new Biondivino Wine Boutique, in a corner of Town & Country Village, is clean, organized, contemporary and inviting. It is brightly lit, made even brighter with Smith's effervescent smile.
This is Smith's second wine shop. The original has operated for a decade near Green and Polk streets at the foot of San Francisco's Russian Hill. Like the original store, Biondivino has a wine club, newsletter and online magazine. When permits are granted from the city, there will be wine events, tastings and classes at the Palo Alto location.
Smith's family has deep Italian roots. The wine stores are named after Smith's great-grandfather Settimio Biondi, who arrived in San Francisco the day after the great quake of 1906. He came by train from Colorado and befriended Jack London en route. He built several flats near Mason and Green streets, and a century later his great granddaughter opened her wine boutique a few blocks away.
Smith took her first wine job at French champagne-maker Louis Roederer's Anderson Valley Estate, absorbing everything about sparkling wines and working in the tasting room. Soon she discovered the lure of Italian wines and her affection and attention quickly shifted.
After working with Italian importers and distributors in San Francisco, she landed a job in Manhattan as an Italian wine specialist where she sold wine to Mario Batali's Babbo and other top-flight restaurants. A phone call from a friend about a storefront space opening up in San Francisco brought her back to the Bay Area. Biondivino's Green Street doors opened in 2006.
Awards, accolades and opportunities followed. In 2012, Smith was awarded the Leccio d'Oro prize by the Tuscan winemakers association, the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio. The following year, San Francisco magazine named her Wine Curator of the Year. In 2014, she was proclaimed Food and Wine Magazine's Sommelier of the Year. Along with Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, she is co-wine director of San Francisco's revitalized and fashionable Tosca Cafe.
"When I started working with Tosca on the revamp, our offices were in the Sentinel (Coppola) Building," Smith recalled. "I told my dad about it and he said that when my grandfather arrived in the city he spent his first night in that building, renting a spot and a blanket for $1. I've always thought of my great-grandfather as my guardian angel."
Despite the accolades, Smith said she values knowledge over awards and relationships over advertising budgets. She doesn't favor winemakers with color glossy spreads featured in wine magazines; rather, she champions smaller growers like the legendary Giacomo Conterno, Antonio Perrino and the miniscule, organic, 2-hectare (less than 5 acres) vineyard of Pagliaro in Umbria.
Biondivino carries nearly 500 labels from all 20 wine-growing regions of Italy, along with topnotch small producers of French champagnes. Prices range from $15 to $600.
Smith said at the moment, she's drawn to Ligurian wines, from a small coastal region in northern Italy along the Mediterranean.
"Often overlooked (Ligurian wines are) absolutely delicious and make perfect food-pairing wines with their fresh salinity and brightness," Smith said. "Ligurian red wines, made from rossese grapes, are light and bright and go down way too easy. As for Ligerian whites, made from pigato and vermentino grapes, they range from lighter to complex wines and again go with so many different dishes."
Smith seeks out overlooked classics and more obscure regions and varieties. She sings praises for Monteraponi's organic Chianti classico located near Radda, in Tuscany's south-central Chianti region. From the volcanic soils of Sicily's Mount Etna, she loves what Salvo Foti and the Calabretta family do with the dark-skinned nerello mascalese grape.
"Their wines are earthy, smoky, yet beautifully balanced and elegant," Smith said.
She is a proponent of organic and biodynamic wines. Organic wines are made from grapes grown in vineyards that exclude the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. Biodynamic, an ethos attributed to Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, is a holistic, self-sustaining approach to farming where planting, sowing, harvesting and pruning regimes are determined by the position of the sun, moon and planets. Despite the obstacles, it's a growing movement worldwide.
"There's a sensory expression of wine," Smith explained. "The winemaker's captured voice is inside the bottle. I get goosebumps on my arm when I sip a wine I love and get them again when I think about that wine later."
There is little personality to wines made in volume. The Antinori family, for example, are media darlings with a 600-year wine history. According to Wine Spectator, Antinori owns more than 5,000 acres of vines and sold more than 1.9 million cases of wine last year, with estimated revenues of nearly $200 million. There's no Antinori to be found at Biondivino.
Contrast that with the Carfagna family's Altura Rosso made on the tiny island of Giglio. "The Carfagna family has undertaken a heroic project to rebuild miles of ancient stone walls and terraces to restore the ancient Altura vineyard site. The estate is planted to a dazzling array of grape varieties, which are blended with some white grapes, to make the Altura reds," according to Biondivino's informative website.
Smith is animated when describing the nuances of Tuscan and Piedmontese wines, brooding to expansive, muscular to subtle, how some wines linger on the palate while others vanish like ghosts.
"There is a story in each bottle, experience and personality," Smith said.
For these winemakers, it isn't about empire; it's about passion. The same could be said for Ceri Smith.
Town & Country Village 855 El Camino Real, Suite 160, Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.