Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Caviar* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

From $125,000 tins to the buying best Italian brand in the world

There’s nothing more celebratory, especially when it comes to end-of-the-year holidays, than little, eentsy, teensy tiny salt-cured fish eggs. Caviar. It’s one of the world’s most luxurious delicacies, something sold in ounces like a drug. Prices soar to astronomical heights—Petrossian is selling a tire-sized tin for $125,000 this year (apparently only royalty has bought it at this point)—which is why caviar seems so off-limits to, well, pretty much everyone without a limitless bank account. But it doesn’t have to be.

At Wally’s, both the Cheese Box adjacent to the original wine shop and the Beverly Hills wine bar and retail shop, buying caviar is as accessible as picking out a bottle of wine or a hunk of fine cheese. A corner at the Beverly Hills spot has even been dubbed the Caviar Marketplace, where you can select the finest sturgeon, salmon and trout roes to take home for special occasions or just, you know, breakfast.

If you’re out to impress for the holidays, the one to seek out this year is from Calvisius, a brand from Northern Italy that’s widely regarded as having some of the finest sturgeon caviar in the world. It’s only now available for retail in the U.S., and Wally’s is the first to carry it in the country.

“When it comes to caviar, you’re always going to go with taste first,” says Jenny Knotts, the director of specialty and cheese for Wally’s. “We love the clean taste of Calvisius. You taste the ocean, not metallic flavors. They’re very consistent eggs. It’s just exceptional.”

She also adds that its one of the first sturgeon farms to win a Friend of the Sea sustainable certification, which is important. Overfishing in the Caspian Sea, the source of most of the world’s caviar, caused such depletion, international bans on Caspian caviar were put in place several years ago to protect the fish. Aquaculture has been key to keeping caviar on our mother-of-pearl spoons, and most reputable vendors will only sell farmed varieties.

“They have these wonderful spring waters, all outdoors,” Knotts says of Calvisius. “It really makes a difference in the final product. And the line is 100% traceable with the info they provide on the bottom of the can. We like that transparency.”

Of course, being top of the line doesn’t come cheap, but cheap is in the eye of the beholder. And, unless you’re an expert, how do you know the difference between Osetra and Siberian Royal and Sevruga anyway? Knotts drops some knowledge with a few tips and tasting notes about the Calvisius brand (but it’s a good starting point for all caviar):

Tradition: “This is from the Transmontonous sturgeous, a white surgeon. The color is a little more medium to charcoal gray, and the eggs are a little larger. You’ll get hints of the sea, but a real nice creaminess to this. The eggs are still firm, low salted, and the finish is moderately long and clean. If people don’t like caviar, this is a great one to start with. Or if they want to celebrate but not spend a lot of money.” (Prices start at $75 an ounce)

Tradition Elite: “This is the same as Tradition, but when they harvest the fish, it’s the prize of the harvest. The cream of the crop. We bought all of this from Calvisius for Wally’s.” (Prices start at $175 an ounce)

Sevruga: “This was not available for quite some time. It’s the Stellatus species, which is very rare. It’s super famous, the star. This isn’t a big and bold caviar, not overpowering. From Calvisius, the beads are a lighter shade of gray rather than deep black. It’s very rich and complex, a little lighter, more feminine. The taste is between Osetra and Siberian. I don’t know of any other companies importing it right now.” (Prices start at $150 an ounce)

Siberian Royal: It’s from the Baerii sturgeon. It’s bigger and more masculine in flavor. It’s the boldest flavor but not as complex as Oscietra. Salty, briny, oceanic. But you’ll get dried fruit notes. I’ve never had a caviar that has that different fruity taste.” (Prices start at $79 an ounce)

Oscietra: “Also known as Osetra, this is from a Gueldenstaedtii sturgeon. It’s a traditional Russian-style sturgeon. More feminine in flavor and texture. There’s Royal and Imperial, which we are exclusively carrying. When they’re sorting it, they start by the size of roe; the Royal has light black to almost a translucent slate color on the Imperial side. It’s nutty and creamy; almost like a hazelnut flavor. It’s really a sexy flavor. And the finish is just so long.” (Oscietra Royal starts at $135 an ounce, Imperial at $180 an ounce)

Unlike the cheeses and other snacks available at Wally’s, you can’t just walk in and expect to sample before you buy it. Occasionally there might be something open already, but it’s very perishable (these are all unpasteurized), so it’s rare. But there are caviar tastings, especially between Christmas and New Year’s. Check the website for info.

Wally’s, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, 310-475-0606; wallywine.com
Wally’s Beverly Hills, 447 Canon Dr., 310-475-3540; wallysbeverlyhills.com