Theresa Paopao · Asta

By Ellen Bhang · 09/27/2017

Curious about restaurant wine lists? Each month, Boston Globe wine columnist Ellen Bhang chats with a sommelier about a couple of terrific bottles and recommends food pairings – you come away a savvier sipper. 

Theresa Paopao likes to share how the wine program at Asta breaks with tradition. The somm doesn’t oversee a cellar populated by hundreds of bottles, and selections aren’t listed in a thick tome. In fact, much of what she pours does not appear on any printed page.

“It’s super collaborative,” says Paopao about how wines are chosen at the Back Bay favorite. “It’s like the haute couture of how you do this.”

Just as high-end fashions are custom-fit to each client, wines are tailored to every dish on Asta’s five- and eight-course pairing menus. That bespoke approach involves Paopao alongside co-owners Alex Crabb (the executive chef) and Shish Parsigian.

Brian Samuels

Paopao starts by looking at the prep list, which serves as a “Coming Attractions” of new dishes. Recently, she spied callaloo, oxtail, and snails on that page, with the leafy Caribbean green in the starring role. “Shish and I started talking it out,” says the wine pro. “We knew it would occupy ‘position five’ of an eight-course menu, and we agreed to use a light- to medium-bodied red.” A Côtes du Rhône was ruled “too plump,” so they opened a few more bottles from the pantry. They settled on a lively Marcillac from southwestern France. “We gave it to Alex to taste, and he said, ‘That’s it!’”

Of-the-moment wines like the Marcillac aren’t written on any list. Paopao and Parsigian tell guests all about them as they pour. While diners can peruse a paper list of wines by the bottle, most opt for the glass-by-glass experience.

The somm welcomes the challenge. Her career has taken her from Ana Sortun’s Oleana in Cambridge to David Chang’s Momofuku group in New York and back to Boston, at Tim Maslow’s now-shuttered Ribelle, named Boston magazine’s “Best Wine Program” of 2015. “It’s about honing in and working through the mental rolodex,” she explains. “We step outside ourselves and think about what guests might expect, but we almost never go with the obvious choice.”

For example, it would be perfectly fine to pair a white wine with a dish of brown butter-drizzled spaghetti squash, apples, and chicory. But the team agreed that the sweet, bitter, and rich components of the dish would be brought to life by an amontillado sherry called La Garrocha from Spanish producer Bodegas Grant.

Brian Samuels

Paopao loves how the intermediate style of fortified wine expresses nuts, black coffee, and dates. “It was an aha moment for guests,” she says proudly.

A platter of agnolotti—pasta pillows crafted from chestnut flour and stuffed with pungent Oma cheese—was recently served with a berry compote. The nutty profile of the pasta and cheese made Paopao think of one of her favorite French pours, a 2015 Cerdon du Bugey from Domaine Renardat-Fâche, situated between Lyon and Geneva. It’s an effervescent pink that’s light in alcohol, offering bright, ripe fruit and a whisper of sweetness.

“It’s like peanut butter and jelly,” she says about the pairing. The pink wine, she notes, is always a hit. “Everyone finishes it,” she says.

Brian Samuels

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