As wine and food go, Germany, Switzerland and Austria stand deep in the shadow of their big brother to the west – France – and of their big brother to the south – Italy. For the next eight weeks, this region’s unique cuisine and terroir-driven wines are the showcase at Oakland’s Barrel Room.
Here, at the newest of two Barrel Rooms (the first is in San Francisco), chef Sam Paulding and sommelier-owners Sarah Trubnick and Carolyn Johnson shift the culinary and wine focus of their snug wine bar and restaurant every eight weeks to a new wine region. This regular rotation offers an opportunity to experience the immense diversity of the world’s wines, dive into regional cuisines and, even better, to drink limited or small production wines not often seen outside of their home countries.
Johnson or Trubnick capably guide customers through the 40-plus wines, all available by the glass or half glass, many of which, on this particular journey, on this unique night, may be unfamiliar. I was instantly drawn to the first wine on the list, a sparkling Grűner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria.
Sparkling wine from Austria? Nonsense! Bring it on! Sharp and bright, it was full of fresh apple flavors, its racy acidity nothing like the softer and more familiar Cremants and Champagnes of France. Paired with pancetta-wrapped and blue-cheese stuffed dates, the wine added herbal notes to the rich dish, refreshing the palate after each sip.
Chilly central European winters call for rich foods and, this being February, Paulding does not shy away from foods like goulash (paired with a Slovenian Cabernet Franc) and house made beer cheese bratwurst. Swaddled in a blanket of nearly pureed beans and mild kraut, the sausage was lovely and fresh, its toasty notes of nutmeg a natural companion to a Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir to the rest of us) from Rheinhessen in Germany.
There is lighter fare, too. Tea smoked duck salad, the breast confited and seared, was bright with Satsuma tangerines. An Austrian Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) picked up and enhanced the dish’s citrus but this universal wine, quite literally, pairs well with everything. Try it with the lightly smoked trout. The flavors will transport you to a small table by a lake from which the Alp rise in all their grandeur. You can taste the mountains’ minerals in the fish, in the water, in the wine.
But wait, for I have not yet told you about the not-to-be-missed auchen spiced walnut torte with marzipan and whipped cream. Johnson paired it with Heidi Schröck’s Welschriesling/Weissburgunder Beerenauslese (late harvest wine made with “botrytized” grapes) from Austria’s Burgenland. If you suffer from marzipan dreams, if you long for real German pastry, get thee to Barrel Room Oakland for this torte is pure of soul and spirit. Place it next to a cream-topped coffee and you could be in Vienna.
Return from your Alpine reverie to California where Barrel Room’s pendant lamps cast light on the remarkably thick and glossy naturally-shaped redwood tables. An L-shaped bar invites conversation and mingling while the tables have a more intimate feel. The walls are lined with dark wood wine carrels. During evening hours, chat with the staff about bottle selections as it is difficult to see the wines on the low-lit shelves.
This is the point, really. Faced with a selection this highly curated, you will want a guide to explore the ins and outs of the flavors you have just experienced and how to enjoy them again at home with a bottle from this intimate shop and restaurant.
And to think that Italy is coming up next…