A Chef In The Wine Room

Michael Serpa trusted his gut, and his gut built one of the most industry-beloved wine lists in Boston.

March 13, 2017 ● 5 min read

We've long heard rumblings about Boston's Select Oyster Bar experience, from chefs and oyster-lovers and wine people and food-eaters far and wide. One of the more notable things people usually say, a little breathlessly, is that Select's chef-owner Michael Serpa not only blew apart their ideas of what a seafood place could be, but that he had built the impossibly cool wine list himself. Hojoko's Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale once told us it was the secret to the whole placeSo we checked with our Boston-based wine writer Lauren Friel, who has crafted award-winning wine programs for knock-out Boston restaurants, and who we'd trust about everything forever, for her take.

"Select's wine list is exactly what an oyster bar's list should be," she wrote. "A metric ton of Champagne, a bunch of sick, acid-driven French whites, and not much else. The red is mostly Pinot Noir and Burgundy, and if you want to drink powerhouse wine he's gonna make you pay for it (which I appreciate as someone who believes an angel dies every time someone drinks Screaming Eagle with Island Creeks). It's really well-edited. Nothing you don't need, everything you do, all from the best producers in their respective regions. I can also say that right now Select has one of the most old-school, badass Burgundy selections in the city, and some of that stuff is priced damn close to cost."

Well-played, Serpa. We'll let him take it from here. 

Way back in my culinary school days at the Culinary Institute of America, I remember thinly-veiled disgust at everyone drinking Busch, Keystone Ice, and Coors Light.  

I wasn’t an elitist prick — they just all tasted like shit.

Our small crew used to scrap together our collective spending money and host wine parties in our dorm room. We would raid the local wine shops for bargain wines; Portuguese reds, unknown Italian whites, budget-friendly French wines, anything that sounded interesting and went for six to eight bucks. They weren’t necessarily good, but they were miles ahead of the rest of the swill consumed in Hudson Hall. 

After dropping out of culinary school, wine still managed to hold my attention while I was working in kitchens. I kept tasting (read: drinking) new wines, and began to branch out into more regions, more varietals, and tasting them side by side to see how they compared. I got a chance to tour Italy, and really grasped the magic of how wine works with food. My basic knowledge continued to grow, and my opinions became clearer. The balance of pairing food and wine became my new starting point. There are always surprises and new things to try out when you're pairing, which means more wines to drink.

In the majority of restaurants, chefs have little input on the wine programs. Traditionally, wine is left to someone from the front of the house — the sommelier, or the general manager — but at my place, I knew I wanted to put together and manage the list. An ambitious choice, yes: I don’t have a traditional wine background and never had any formal training, but I figured that what I looked for in wines was the same thing I looked for in food. Does it taste good? Is it well-balanced? Everything else comes into play after that. Many of the wines on our list also have some sort of personal connection or experience for me and our staff, which makes it really easy to be enthusiastic about what we're pouring. At other spots, knowledge on the wines being offered can be limited to one or just a few people on the floor; I like our wines to be familiar to everyone, so guests feel like they are getting something we really care about. 

Select Oyster Bar has an informal vibe. Our style of service is loose, disarming, and fun, and that translates to our wine service. Sometimes people are a little surprised to hear a Mac Dre track while ordering $195 bottles of white Burgundy, but too bad, I like Mac Dre and I like white Burgundy. As much as I like to drink interesting (and often delicious) “natural” or low-intervention wines, I always find myself going back to the classics. I've had countless bottles of low-sulfite wines, bio, organic, pét-nat, unfiltered Mt. Etna Rosato, and totally gnarly Chenin blanc, but I can’t live without the originals. You can’t eat calves brains every day — sometimes you need a fatty, delicious rib eye. 

Here are a few of the classic wines that I gravitate towards, and why I love them:

Chablis is King

I love the minerality, acid, and freshness of Chablis. I can, and pretty much do, drink it every day. It is the textbook wine to showcase terroir. Drink a California chardonnay and drink a chardonnay from Chablis, and you will immediately understand how soil affects wine. The flinty, chalky notes and cleanness of Chablis is why I always reach for it.  

Favorite Producers: Christian Moreau, Gilbert Picq, Domaine René + Vincent Dauvissat.

Beasting off Riesling

Apparently, Kanye West gets ‘turnt’ off this typically low ABV grape. So there's that. Tons of people assume that Riesling is always sweet, and most guests either ignore the Riesling by the glass we offer, or are hesitant to order it because of past experiences. I personally lean heavy towards the lean, high-acid camp, but have been surprised and impressed by some old vintage Rieslings that carry a bit more residual sugar. My benchmark Riesling is Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, a.k.a Fredy E. The Fredy Emile hits every note: nervy tension, acid, fruit, just round enough, super petrol, long finish, age-ability. It’s not über hip, but it's the definition of a classic. It's one of my favorites and I can (and do) order it over and over again.

Favorite Producers: Trimbach, Peter Jakob Kühn, Scribe Winery.

Rosé All Day

I’ve heard Massachusetts is the highest consuming state per capita of rosé. This makes sense in the way the Massachusetts is also the highest consuming state per capita of ice cream. Boston winter sucks. There is no way around it. The collective joy of the first 65-degree spring day is electric. People love spring and summer here like few other places, and stocking lots of rosé is protocol for all good restaurants here. Getting your allocation of the good stuff is practically a blood sport; Domaine du Bagnol Cassis and Chateau Pradeaux are stretched thin among the good spots around town.

Good spring/summer rosé has the lightness and freshness of a white wine, and a touch of the depth and fruit you would get from a red wine. Fall and winter rosé should be essentially a super light chilled red in terms of fruit, body, skin contact. We are fortunate that our menu leans on the light side for food, so rosés of all sorts work with the food. Nothing says “fuck you” to a blizzard like chugging rosé and eating crudo. 

Favorite Producers: Chateau Pradeaux, M+E Roblin, Domaine du Bagnol, Ulacia.

I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot! (Or: Let's Talk Pinot Noir)

With one line, the movie Sideways managed to slash the Californian merlot market. Pinot noir became the ‘it’ wine as merlot sales plummeted. The elegance and delicacy of pinot can be seen across continents, although for this classicist, the delicacy and finesse in a great Burgundy is tough to beat. The price points for the best producers are generally absurd, but there is still value to be found. Since pinot noir is generally viewed as the go-to red for seafood, we try to feature a strong lineup at Select. 

Favorite Producers: Alex Gambal, Banshee Wines, Domaine de la Côte, Armand Rousseau.

Michael Serpa | Image via iStock