San Francisco for wine lovers

Rachael Ryan guides us round one of the world’s great wine cities. See also this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

Many wine enthusiasts land at SFO with their sights set on Napa, Sonoma and other world-famous wine producing regions a short ride away. It would be foolish, however, to ignore the city of San Francisco itself as a wine destination. A city legendary in equal parts for its freewheeling spirit, as well as the current technology boom that has raised skyscrapers, San Francisco is a city that is constantly evolving. It is no surprise then that the city is home to a correspondingly diverse array of wine bars, shops and restaurants.  They are spread out over many of the city’s patchwork of neighbourhoods. Indeed, it is difficult to point to one area as the heart of San Francisco’s wine scene. Fortunately, however, in the city that birthed Uber and an array of other helpful apps, it is easy to navigate between neighbourhoods. New wine-centric locations seem to be opening nearly as fast as the summertime fog (which, it should be noted, has its own Twitter and Instagram accounts) rolls in.  

Wine bars

High Treason A stripped-down wine bar in the heart of the unassuming Inner Richmond neighbourhood, surrounded by Chinese markets, High Treason features sherry, sake and everything in between. Look for European classics like Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey burgundies interspersed with hometown heroes like Berkeley-based Broc Cellars. One end of the bar is dominated by two turntables as well as the owner’s private record collection. On Monday nights, local industry veterans are often slated to DJ.

Ungrafted Recently opened in the Dogpatch neighbourhood by Master Sommelier Rebecca Fineman and her husband Chris Gaither, an Advanced Sommelier, Ungrafted (pictured top right) has a San Francisco casual vibe. So t-shirts and hoodies are acceptable, though fine champagne is available by the glass, as well as a rotating selection of wines from around the world. 

Verjus Owners Lindsay and Michael Tusk have already left their imprints on the San Francisco restaurant scene with their Michelin three-star Quince. Verjus, on the other hand, is a departure. The swanky, impeccably designed space, split into two rooms, is an ode to natural wine, from both near and far. An ode to the caves à manger of Paris, the walls are lined with bottles of wine, tins of fish, and an assortment of fine home goods available for purchase which the Tusks have curated from their culinary travels around the world.

Terroir While we’re on the subject of natural wine, no sans soufre visit to San Francisco would be complete without a stop at the original altar to natural wine in the city, Terroir. Located on a busy stretch of Folsom Street in SOMA, Terroir’s walls are lined with natural wines, and cosy couch seating on the mezzanine encourages guests to linger for a second bottle.

Birba Tiny Birba sits in the heart of Hayes Valley, and though it quickly fills during early evening hours, getting cosy with fellow patrons is a small price to pay for a well-thought-out list of mainly European wines by the glass, including an extensive sherry and vermouth selection. On non-foggy nights, the garden out back is an ideal place to sip wine al fresco.

Hotel Biron Walking into Hotel Biron feels like stepping back into old San Francisco, or at least the San Francisco of only a few decades ago, before any industry had yet been disrupted. Small, dark and narrow, Hotel Biron is tucked away on a narrow street behind Zuni Café (see below) in the gritty Civic Center neighbourhood. Service is at the tiny bar in the back only, and the classics of Europe (think Beaujolais and Bandol) share equal space on the petite wine list with up-and-coming California winemakers.

20 Spot Owned by Bodhi Freedom, who perhaps should win an award for the most San Francisco name of all time, this sophisticated but comfortable wine bar sits in the centre of the trendy Mission neighbourhood. The wine list features a particularly good selection of German and Austrian wine, and the accompanying food menu is a step above the usual cheese and charcuterie selection – small plates such as yellowtail crudo and Dungeness crab gnocchi provide ample pairing possibilities. 

Fool’s Errand This small, wood-panelled wine bar is anchored on a busy stretch on Divisadero Street. A small wine by the glass offering belies a much larger bottle list that often highlights multiple bottlings from hip, sought-after wineries such as Skerk from Friuli or the multi-region Envinate brand from Spain. The remainder of the list is filled out with sommelier-favoured regions such as the Loire Valley and Canary Islands.  

Wine shops

K & L Certainly the largest wine store in San Francisco; if K&L doesn’t carry what you’re looking for, it’s debatable whether you need it. With everything from bargain-priced everyday bottles to regular fine and rare wine auctions, K&L is known for knowledgeable staff and enthusiastically attended weekly tasting events.

Decant SF A newly-opened female-owned wine shop in SOMA. The motto at Decant SF is Drink for Yourself. With an emphasis on wineries owned by women and and minorities, Decant SF has a wide array of classic wines from international regions both large and small. Local sommeliers often take turns behind the counter, and winemaker events are held weekly.

Arlequin A Hayes Valley neighbourhood favourite for several decades, Arlequin is usually crowded with deep stacks of boxes featuring mostly European wine from small but well-known producers. Slightly offbeat regions such as the Jura and Sicily are well represented; more traditional regions such as Bordeaux and Tuscany, less so.

Verve Opened by Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, this is the San Francisco sibling to the original New York location. With white marble-topped tables and lofty floor-to-ceiling shelves, it boasts a mostly-classic selection of wines that can also be consumed on site for a small corkage fee.

Flatiron Yet another example of a West Coast expansion, this store draws its name from the NYC location of the original store. With a focus on heavy-hitters, collectible bottles, and local favourites, Flatiron also features seasonal selections such as an extensive rosé collection.

Ruby Much as Terroir represents the spiritual home for natural wine bar enthusiasts, Ruby provides a place for the low and no intervention crowds to purchase a bottle for home consumption. On a quiet block in Potrero Hill, Ruby usually has owner Aran Healy on site for a lively debate about sulphur, pesticides and the natural wine movement in general. 

Wine-centric restaurants

In a city with many Michelin-starred restaurants, all of which feature deep and extensive wine lists as would be expected, the focus below is on San Francisco classics, both old and new. Each features a wine list worth stopping by for.

Zuni Café Truly, is any visit to San Francisco complete without a stop at the famous Zuni Café? Located on a slightly seedy stretch of Market Street, floor to ceiling windows provide fascinating people-watching. A mainly French and American wine list pairs exceedingly well with fresh local oysters and the famous brick oven chicken for two.

Lord Stanley Wine director Louisa Mary Smith has carefully curated one of the city’s best selections of natural wine at a restaurant, many of which she deftly pairs with the night’s explosively delicious and hyper-local tasting menu.

Heirloom Café Small but mighty, Heirloom Café feels like walking into a favourite aunt’s house, albeit an aunt who collects wine from Europe and California, often in large formats, often with age. Fresh California cuisine frames the surprisingly deep wine list.

A16 A beloved Marina favourite, A16 is a southern Italian favourite. The wine list is an ode to regions such as Campania, Basilicata and Sicily.

Foreign Cinema The best tables at Foreign Cinema are most definitely the outdoor patio tables, with a view of the film of the night projected onto a large wall on one end. The movie may be forgettable, but the lengthy wine list provides ample opportunities to delve into regions from around the world.

Slanted Door The wine list at the Vietnamese-inspired Slanted Door in the waterfront Ferry Plaza Building features an understandably deep selection of German wine, including many Kabinett and Spätlese examples well suited to the spicy, pungent cuisine.

Across the Bay

This is a guide to the City by the Bay, but I would be seriously amiss if I didn’t mention a few favourites on the other side of the Bay, namely the Oakland and Berkeley. A short drive across the Bay Bridge delivers visitors to some of the entire region’s best wine shops, bars and restaurants. To name just a few: Paul Marcus, Bay Grape and Vintage Berkeley for bottle selections; Ordinaire and Punchdown (both wine bars) to locate perhaps the true heart of the natural wine scene in the Bay area; and the legendary Chez Panisse, along with A Cote, Commis and Bellotti for some of the best restaurant wine lists in the region. The East Bay also features a lively and growing urban winemaking scene in re-purposed warehouses and industrial buildings. Broc Cellars, Vinca Minor, Blue Ox, Dashe and Purity – all of which have weekend tasting room hours – are just a few of the best.

Ungrafted wine bar in San Francisco