Growing up in an Italian family in New York, Francesca Maniace has been around wine since she was a kid. But it wasn’t until she was working as a maître d’ and floor manager at a NYC restaurant circa 2006 that she realized her career would be in hospitality — and wine.
Maniace was “happier than I had ever been at any job in my life,” she says. She began rising through the ranks of the industry at some of New York’s most established restaurants, including Balthazar and Market Table. She moved into her first sommelier position, at Marea, in 2009.
In 2010, Maniace headed west to the culinary hotspot of San Francisco. Since then, she’s worked as a somm at A16 and wine director at Commonwealth, helping the establishment earn its Michelin star. And, most recently, as wine director at Che Fico. It opened in April 2018 and promptly became one of hottest reservations in town, and counts Anderson Cooper and Gwyneth Paltrow among its fans.
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“It feels really nice to have been working so hard and people are really responding to what we’re trying to do every day,” Maniace says. She has nearly doubled the Italian- and sparkling-heavy list since the restaurant opened. “But it’s only the beginning,” she says. “We have so much growing to do. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
We caught up with Maniace to hear about growing up in a wine-loving family, her soft spot for Hungarian whites, and the extra-special bottle of bubbles she cherishes.
1. What’s the bottle that made you fall in love with wine?
I’m gonna be honest — there’s not really one bottle. I don’t have that romantic Burgundy experience! I grew up with wine in a working-class family. We weren’t fancy people, we don’t collect wine. But we always had Italian table wine, and my grandfather made wine.
With wine, sometimes people like to talk about history and culture, society, and appellations. But my early memories of wine are more a combination of people, places, and experiences. I just remember being out to dinner with family and friends, being in different places, and tasting things I hadn’t tasted before.
2. FMK three varieties: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay.
I don’t want to kill Pinot Noir or Chardonnay because, Champagne… I wouldn’t want to F any of them! If I could choose my own grapes for this one, and if I could choose red grapes, I’d F Syrah, marry Nebbiolo, and, well, I don’t know who I’d want to kill. For white, I think maybe I’d F Riesling, kill Gewürztraminer, and marry Chenin Blanc.
I also wouldn’t kick Furmint out of bed. I’m a huge advocate for Hungarian whites, and that grape is outstanding. It behaves a lot like Chenin Blanc, you can make a dry sparkling with it, you can make a sweet wine with it, you can make a still dry wine with it.
3. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper wine?
This gives me a panic attack. If I’m on death row, because I’m about to die I’ll be really nervous, and I’d really want a Negroni, because the gin will give me a buzz and the Campari will help settle my stomach and nerves. That, or a Krug Cuvée 164.
4. You can only drink one wine for the rest of your life. What is it?
Variety is the spice of life. I need to have to want something or miss something, and if you drink the same thing every day, it’s not special.
5. You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
Probably Vesuvio here in San Francisco. It has a great great vibe and energy to it. You can sit at the bar with a friend, or you can sit in the corner and write. You can just go there and be left alone, if that’s what you want.
6. What’s the best and worst wine on your rack (or in your fridge) right now?
As a human being in this industry, I would never call anyone else’s work bad. So I don’t have any bad wine. But I probably have some plum wine from Japan in my fridge that someone gave me as a gift that’s probably gone bad, but was beautiful at some point. The best is Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Creation — I believe it’s 1999. It’s just elegant, ethereal Champagne. It was a gift from someone I love very much.
7. If you could no longer drink wine, what would be your beverage of choice?
Tea. It has so much culture behind it, it’s ritualistic, you can enjoy it with a meal, have it alone, it’s elegant.