Tableside with a Somm: Toro, Coppa, Little Donkey

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.

When you ask Jodie Battles what it takes to manage the wine programs of three very different restaurants, she quips, “A lot of coffee!” Then she’s quick to credit her colleagues. “I’m lucky to have teams who care so much,” she says. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”

Battles is wine director of Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey, all a part of the restaurant group of Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette. She met the James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs in 2013. At the time, the Cape Cod native was contemplating a move back to New England, having worked for years in fine dining in Charleston, South Carolina. After just one meeting with Oringer and Bissonnette, she knew she wanted to work with them. “Their passion for what they do carries through to how they operate,” she says. “They take what they do seriously, but they don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Battles resonates with the chefs’ approach, and reflects on her own path in food and beverage. While attending college in Charleston, she worked at a wine bar that housed a retail shop downstairs. She immersed herself in the study of wine, and was soon helping customers select glass pours for their meals and bottles to take home. “It’s like a sweater unraveling,” she muses, still enamored of wine and its endless complexities.

Today, a substantial part of her job is educating servers, bartenders, and managers at each restaurant about the ever-changing roster of wines. “Face time is important,” she says. “I want them to hear it from me.”

That training is essential, given that each program is geared toward a different cuisine. At Toro, where Spanish fare is the focus, a 2017 tempranillo called “Correcaminos” is a current favorite. Crafted by natural wine producer MicroBio, located northwest of Madrid in Rueda, this red offers notes of sour cherry and oregano. It pairs winningly with smoked beef heart, layered in pastrami-like slices on grilled bread slathered with romesco sauce. Coppa, with its menu of Italian small plates, showcases pours from up and down the boot. A 2016 “Il Sangiovese,” part of a line of wines called Noelia Ricci, expresses soft tannins and persistent tartness. It’s delectable alongside tagliatelle with pork sugo. “I totally fell in love with it,” enthuses Battles, who discovered the wine on a recent trip to Italy.

Among the three eateries, Little Donkey—with its anything-goes take on global flavors—poses the biggest challenge when it comes to building a wine list. A 2016 chenin blanc from Forlorn Hope, crafted by winemaker Matthew Rorick, is just the kind of bottle that Battles likes to showcase. Made from fruit grown in California’s Sierra Foothills, she describes it as “Loire-esque” because it reminds her of whites hailing from that river-defined valley, which stretches from central France to the Atlantic coast. She recommends the salty, briny quaff with tuna poke and a dish intriguingly named Vietnamese Bologna—cold-cuts with fermented fish sauce, peanuts, and fried squid.

Battles is thrilled to bring wine education to the public through a series called Vino Veritas: Truths About Wine. Every second Thursday of the month, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., she conducts classes with illustrative glass pours and snacks. Wine styles and restaurant locations rotate, but the through-line remains the same.

“Wine is something people can be intimidated by,” observes the somm. “I want to make it approachable, relatable, and enjoyable.”

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