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…

Posted by: erdehoff | May 24, 2009

Small crowd

I recently went to a wine store tasting of “unusual” California varietals and blends. The tastings at this place are almost always well attended, but this time it was absolutely dead. Same at a riesling tasting I went to last week and a gruner veltliner tasting the week before: nobody. At all three, employees said this happens whenever they offer an off-the-wall lineup — people will flock to the pinot noir or Bordeaux or zinfandel tastings, but offer them something different and they fade into the woodwork.

I can’t wrap my head around this. What’s the point of only tasting wine you already know you like? The whole point of a tasting is to try things you’re not ready to risk buying by the bottle (or even by the glass). No wine tasting is a waste of time! Every new wine I try is an education to me. Each new tasting tells me more about my own preferences — and every once in a while, a wine I never expected to love completely blows me away. Even the wines that don’t wow me often show me qualities I never expected — a minty nose, a chocolaty finish, a burst of rose petals.

I’ll rarely turn down a pinot noir tasting — but offer to introduce me to (or reacquaint me with) a varietal/blend I rarely encounter, such as mourvedre or sangiovese or vermentino, and I’ll be there in a flash. How about you?

Posted by: erdehoff | May 18, 2009

Sniffing the produce

A funny thing happened to me when I started to approach wine tasting seriously and began taking copious notes. I wonder if I’m the only one.

I was in Safeway the other night on a routine grocery run. The produce section is usually my first stop, though I rarely buy produce there — my neighborhood is packed with Asian markets that sell decent produce for a fraction of Safeway’s price, so I only buy produce at Safeway if I’m desperate. But as I was making my rounds, a display of berries caught my eye.

I’d recently tasted a number of red wines whose aromas kept bringing the term “berries” to my mind, but I found that, frustratingly, I couldn’t narrow it down. The fact is, I don’t eat much fruit besides apples, bananas and (when in season) strawberries and blueberries, and I don’t spend much time sniffing them in any case. Seized by a sudden impulse, I marched up to the berry display, grabbed a carton of fresh organic raspberries, and took a deep whiff. I did the same with the blueberries, the blackberries, the kiwi fruit (not very helpful unless you cut it open, I think), the mangoes — everything they had on hand, I sniffed. I must have looked like a nutcase, and of course I didn’t buy the $5 8-ounce carton of raspberries (who do you think you are, Safeway? Whole Foods?), but I suddenly felt I was onto something. I foresee much sniffing in my future (probably to be accompanied by many weird looks from store clerks, but that can’t be helped).

On a related note, I’m planning a group wine tasting event in August. Last year we did wine and cheese, and it was sort of chaotic — I had no idea what I was doing and we had way too many wines (and too much of most of them), and the whole thing was overwhelming to the participants, most of whom are relatively new to wine. This year I’ve got a better handle on what to serve. But instead of cheese, or perhaps in addition to it, I’d like to give each person a plate full of flavors: slices of guava, kiwi, peach and apple; an assortment of berries; cucumber slices, maybe some dried flower petals, sachets of herbs and spices. I know I can’t always put a name to the aromas I encounter, and I think this method might be particularly helpful to people who haven’t really interacted with wine. Not all of us can take a whiff and reel off terms like “gooseberries,” “grass” and “wet slate.” (I don’t think I’ll put rocks on the plate. Well … maybe.)

So as I begin to put together the wine list, I’d like to hear what you think. What wines have thoroughly engaged your senses? What are the wines that gave you that moment of “Aha! So that’s what they mean when they say a wine is earthy/lush/grassy!” and opened your eyes? They can be any varietal from any country; I’d like to keep the price under, say, $25. Let me know!

Posted by: erdehoff | May 16, 2009

What’s your dirty little secret?

There’s an interesting column in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator in which James Laube explores (subscriber access only, unfortunately) how those low-class wines — or, ugh, wine coolers — many of us take so much pleasure in deriding have actually led many people to far, far better tastes. I have to admit that I’m one of them.

My parents were mostly wine-in-a-box people (think Franzia, not the upscale boxed wines we’re starting to see nowadays), with an occasional splurge for a bottle of Black Swan shiraz or the infamous Sutter Home white zinfandel. I shudder to remember it, but that’s what got me started. I knew just enough to sneer at Mom’s box of Franzia, but I slurped up that sticky pink syrup like it was lemonade. From there I moved on to other budget confections, Blue Nun among them. In my first year or two in the workforce in Northern Virginia, price was my main consideration, so there was a lot of $4 Liebfraumilch and such. And in those days, I mostly bought at Safeway — I never considered going to a wine store because I assumed they had nothing in my price range.

What changed for me? Education. I soon stumbled across a wine store near my house where an importer held free tastings every weekend — almost exclusively European wines, some of them bargains, some decidedly not. I tried them all, and was able to sample dozens of wines I never would have considered, many of which I’d never even heard of. It was eye-opening. Over the next few years, I slowly started to approach wine more thoughtfully, to become aware of my likes and dislikes, and to discover aromas and flavors I’d never known wine could possess. I learned about deliciously floral yet bone-dry Rhone whites, Gruner Veltliner and Sekt from Austria, smooth red Burgundy, full-bodied Barbera, shimmering Prosecco, spicy Zinfandels, velvety Cabs, silky Pinot Noirs … the list goes on. Since moving to San Francisco three years ago, I’ve branched out and discovered the pleasures of New World wines as well — not just the many West Coast vintages available to me here in California, but also New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I’ve barely scratched the surface, I know, but I look forward to digging deeper in the years to come — and I hope my salary rises enough to allow me to sample the higher-end stuff more often than I can afford right now.

I turn up my nose at Sutter Home White Zinfandel these days; I’ve moved on to greener (pinker?) pastures. But I can’t regret the fact that the pink plonk drew me into a world that was vaster than my wildest imaginings. Sutter Home, I salute you. I toast you, in fact — with a glass of Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo Rose, which is far, far better than what I started out with. Cheers!

Posted by: erdehoff | May 14, 2009

Gruner Veltliner

SNOB Wine Bar has biweekly tastings centered on a country or region. This week’s was unusual enough that I made sure I had the evening off so I could attend: Austria’s Gruner Veltliner. It’s rare to see this wine on a by-the-glass list, let alone at a tasting. I’m happy to say it surprised me; I was expecting something much sweeter and with far less backbone than what I encountered.

Laurenz und Sophie Singing Gruner Veltliner 2007: Delicious floral nose with notes of honey, ginger and white peach. Honey carries through on the tongue, but it’s tempered by a hint of acidity that fades to warmth. White pepper on the midpalate; flavors of pure citrus and Granny Smith apples melt into honeysuckle. Pleasing and well-balanced with a solid mineral undertone.

Leth Gruner Veltliner Reserve Steinagrund 2007: Nose of honeyed fruit, candied lemons. Zesty citrus on palate, subtle touch of honey on the back end. Herbal notes of lemon verbena and sage; minerally backbone.

Kalmuck Gruner Veltliner Wachau 2007: Oily minerals on the nose, but the taste is pure lemon zest, with notes of black pepper, ginger and chalk. Racy at first, the wine melts into a smooth warmth on the tongue. This one was my favorite by a nose.

Posted by: erdehoff | May 14, 2009

A quick intro

Welcome to Crushworthy. I’m Liz, a writer, editor and wine enthusiast. My tastes are broad and often outstrip my budget (as do most people’s). It’s hard to narrow down favorites, but they include grassy Sauvignon Blanc, spicy Riesling, silky Pinot Noir and peppery Zinfandel. And I discover new ones all the time! I don’t care how common or obscure the varietal is — I’m willing to try anything, and I’m always happy to discover new favorites.

I drink on my own dime; if I receive consideration, however, I will disclose it. I prefer blind tastings, but that’s not always possible; however, I try not to let price influence my opinion (in either direction — cheap is tempting!). I live in San Francisco and frequently visit Napa and Sonoma, but much of my tasting is done at home and in the city at wine shops and bars.

Please contact me if you have questions or suggestions. Thanks for reading!

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