Posted by: erdehoff | June 15, 2009

Where to sip in San Francisco

Wine lovers in San Francisco have little to complain about. Not only are we within spitting distance of world-class wine-producing areas, our city is packed with wine bars, and many restaurants here offer thoughtful selections by the glass. But not all wine bars are created equal, and there are definitely some that just go through the motions — populating their lists with mediocre or overpriced selections (or both), staffed by people who don’t know or care about the wines they serve, letting their menus stagnate. Here are a few I’ve found that come through more or less consistently. (This is by no means an exhaustive list — for every wine bar I’ve tried, there are three or four I haven’t. Suggest one in the comments!)

Best overall

Amelie: By far my favorite wine bar in the city. They serve dozens of wines by the glass, and the variety is breathtaking — from bargain sauvignon blancs to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and everything in between. Don’t miss the happy hour (5:30-7 p.m.), when you can select your own tasting flight of any three wines on the menu for $10. Incredible deal. The kitchen serves appetizers, light dinners and desserts; their cheese selections are diverse and carefully chosen. And the bartenders know their wines! I often stop here before tango class.

A very close second

Internos: The Inner Richmond neighborhood has long lacked a wine bar, but when Internos opened a few months ago, it was the answer to my prayers. I love this place. The list of wines by the glass — which owner Adnan Daken is constantly updating — is stunningly diverse; there are about 25 at last count, and there are usually a few special wines that aren’t on the menu. Prices range from $7 to $15 a glass. Happy hour here is a great deal: $2 off wine by the glass and $3 draft beers (of which there are four). The kitchen serves about a dozen small plates, such as brie and prosciutto sandwiches and goat cheese bruschetta. There’s a TV for sports fans, but don’t worry — the sound is muted. And when you’re done, you can finish off with an espresso.

Best flights

S.N.O.B (Sonoma Napa Or Beyond): I’m not a huge fan of their wine list as a whole, but every week or two they have a themed flight from a different country or wine region. Past themes have included New Zealand wines and gruner veltliner from Austria. They offer a lot more by the bottle than they do by the glass, and their list places a heavy emphasis on California wines. Service is spotty and appetizers are, IHMO, largely overpriced. Their weekly flights are an exception — always $10 for three or four wines, usually with a generous pour.

Best for California wines:

California Wine Traders: Hardly anyone can match their list for variety when it comes to California wines. If nothing on the by-the-glass list strikes your fancy, you can buy any bottle they sell and drink it at the bar for $10 over retail. The vibe here is more casual and neighborly than what you’ll find around the corner at Nectar (below). This isn’t one of my favorite wine bars (perhaps because I am — shhh — not a huge fan of California wine in general), but if you’re in the Marina, it’s a good choice.

Also-rans:

Cafe Meuse: A nice little spot on Russian Hill with a moderate menu. The wine list mostly focuses on Europe, with a number of nice French selections. Very small space. Service has been indifferent every time I’ve been there. If the sun is out, sit at one of the sidewalk tables and watch the cable cars rumble past.

Nectar: I’ve been here twice, and both times it was filled with what locals will recognize as “Marina types.” They have a truly breathtaking assortment of wines by the glass, and the prices are more reasonable than you might expect given the surroundings. But the flowery, pretentious tasting notes on the menu appear to have been written by someone who’d had a few too many.

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant: This is the wine bar that introduced me to txakolina, so they get points for that. And I like the handy icons they use to show you what you can expect from each wine. That said, the seating area is small and service can be indifferent. This place is packed with Financial District suits at happy hour. Drop by to cap off an afternoon exploring the Ferry Building, which is a destination in and of itself.

First Crush: Go here if you have an expense account, especially if you plan to order food — it’s not cheap. Their flights are fun, though.

Bubble Lounge: Go here if you have a really, really big expense account. That is all.

I know there are many, many more I haven’t tried, like Cav and Terroir. I’ll get around to them, I swear! It’s just that my favorites are so convenient…

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Responses

  1. You should try CAV & Terroir! CAV may well be the best wine bar in the city (though I haven’t tried all those on your list, will have to do) – great, diverse list, and excellent food to accompany (don’t miss the housemade charcuterie plate). Terroir is also a lot of fun – a good selection of off-the-beaten-path “natural” wines, and a good vibe.

  2. I’m trying Amelie for the first time this week – very excited!!

  3. Nice round up! I see a couple on here I need to check out. Some of my favorites, in no particular order, are Bacar, California Wine Merchant, Bin 38, Hotel Biron, Bar Tartine (maybe not a wine bar in the strictest definition), Swirl on Castro. Many great places in San Francisco to go.

  4. My new favorite is Vin Club on Broadway. Totally sketchy location, but they have a lot of fun selections, have affordable flights, and the owners are great.

  5. Great suggestions, everybody — I can’t wait to check them all out. Hey, it’s a rough job, but somebody’s got to do it…

    I did finally check out Cav and liked it a lot. I’ll post a review soon.


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