San Francisco is full of opportunities to enjoy stunning wines from around the world. FIONA BECKETT samples its riches
I am sitting at a table in Rubicon leafing through a wine list – and when I say leafing, I don’t mean turning over a page or two. At 55 pages it’s the size of a small book, and it doesn’t just represent all the major wine-producing regions of the world and most of the best producers, it also offers a totally mouthwatering choice of their top cuvées and vintages. It is extraordinarily easy to drink incredibly well in San Francisco (not surprising given its vicinity to Napa Valley). Not cheaply maybe, but just as this much-hyped city rarely disappoints first-time visitors, it’s almost impossible to walk into a restaurant without finding something delicious to drink. The list of establishments with ‘Winning Wine Lists’ in the current Zagat guide to San Francisco and the Bay area totals 126.
Rubicon is in a class of its own, particularly when it comes to Burgundy. The list was put together by the restaurant’s wine director, Larry Stone, who used to work for Charlie Trotter and who became the first American to earn the title of French Master Sommelier. There are 45 Meursaults, including 14 Lafons and 32 Vosne Romanées, 26 from Henri Jayer, who also supplies the restaurant with another 20 wines from his cellar. There are also splendid Bordeaux, magnificent wines from the Rhône and northern Italy and a spectacular selection of sought-after Californian Cabernets including Araujo, Bryant Family, Grace Family, Diamond Creek, Harlan Estate and, of course, older Rubicon vintages going back to 1978.
Naturally none of this comes cheap, to Stone’s regret. ‘Our Neyers Hudson Syrah, for example, has gone up from $60 to $100 in one year. Unfortunately we have to keep prices high otherwise customers try and bribe my staff. At auction, some of the cult Cabernets were going for triple what I was charging for them. We do, however, have a regularly changing ’40 under $40’ wine list and the option of a tasting menu for $90, each course of which is paired with a glass of wine.’Stone’s pioneering work in the city has spawned imitators.
At the glitzy Fifth Floor restaurant in the Hotel Palomar, his protégé Rajat Parr, who used to work at Rubicon, has a similar, even pricier list with a 1959 Mazis Chambertin from Domaine Leroy ($3,100), a 1949 Latour ($4,320) and an 1870 Lafite Rothschild ($18,000), though whether, when spending that kind of money, you want to be told that a wine ‘kinda reminds me of toasted marshmallows,’ as one of his team advised us, is another matter.
Fortunately, much better value is to be found in the city’s more casual restaurants. At the newly opened Dine, the simple list of largely Californian wines is perfect with Julia McClaskey’s fresh-tasting West Coast food. The list is divided by grape variety and includes a number of less well-known producers such as Groth, Liparita and Whitcraft. Wine prices are modest by dotcom millionaire standards.But one of the biggest surprises on my recent visit was the strong presence of aromatic wines such as Riesling and Gruner Veltliner on the wine lists of the city’s many Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants.
At the newly opened Ana Mandara, for example, an exceptionally glitzy Vietnamese restaurant part-owned by actor Don Johnson, a 1997 Diel Burgberg Riesling Kabinett offered by the glass proved an inspired partner for a bar snack of crispy rolls and Vietnamese steamed crepes. And at fusion restaurant Azie there’s an impressive range of Alsace wines, 15 Austrian whites, and a mouthwatering selection of Californian and Oregon Pinot Noir.
Rubicon, 558 Sacramento Street. Tel: +1 415 434 4100.
Fifth Floor, Hotel Palomar, 12 4th Street. Tel: +1 415 348 1555.
Dine, 662 Mission Street. Tel: +1 415 538 3463.
Ana Mandara, 891 Beach Street. Tel: +1 415 771 6800.
Azie, 826 Folsom Street. Tel: +1 415 538 0918.
Two of the best known and longest established wine bars, Eos and Hayes & Vine, are slightly off the beaten track. The Eos team has recently opened Bacar, which is achingly hip but clearly suffering a few teething pains from its overnight success. Two of the glasses we chose from its 100 strong wine list were out of condition, so give it a couple of months until the in-crowd has moved on. You should also drop into First Crush, which was strongly recommended to me. It has more than 300 wines including a wide range of Zinfandels.
Eos, 901 Cole Street. Tel: +1 415 566 3063.
Hayes & Vine, 377 Hayes Street. Tel: +1 415 626 5301.
Bacar, 448 Brannan Street. Tel: +1 415 904 4100.
First Crush, 101 Cyril, Magnin Street. Tel: +1 415 982 7874.
Finally, of course, San Francisco presents the opportunity to buy some rare Californian wines that you can’t buy elsewhere. I stumbled by chance across the Napa Valley Winery Exchange, a tiny shop on Taylor Street with a mouthwatering selection (averaging around 70) of small parcels of Zin. Fortunately (for my wallet), I was only able to carry two back on the plane: the JC Cellars Redwood Valley Zinfandel and the Joseph Swan Mancini Ranch Russian River Valley. I meant to lay them down for a while, but we just weren’t able to resist them…
Napa Valley Winery Exchange, 415 Taylor Street. Tel: +1 415 771 2887.
California Wine Merchant, 3237 Pierce Street. Tel: +1 415 567 0646.
John Walker & Co, 175 Sutter Street. Tel: +1 415 986 2707.