If you count a high quality wine scene as one of your must haves in a city, there are few places better to live in or travel to than the San Francisco Bay Area. Situated near the famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma and infused with a culture that has always valued high-end cuisine and old world charm, the Bay Area has embraced wine culture on a level unmatched in the United States (you'd expect no less from the “Paris of the West”). And though there's certainly an abundance of extravagantly priced, oak-bombed bottles littering the city, wine lovers here have also embraced the current hot trend in the world of vino: natural wine.
Natural wine may feel very of the moment, but at its core the movement is based around an attempt to bring wine making back to its roots. “Natural Wine” may mean different things to different people, but in a basic sense it refers to wine made with minimal human intervention, using organic or biodynamically grown grapes, free of additives and fermented with native yeasts. Flavor additives and chemical manipulation are also not allowed. Unable to use human devices to interfere with the process, winemakers must instead work with the natural process that creates wine, focusing on terroir, vine health, and seasonal variation. The result is a class of incredibly complex, diverse wines which can be seen as pure expressions of their environments. Natural wine is lively, unique, and interesting, and offers an alternative to the Chardonnay and Malbec class of wines that have come to dominate the wine market. The following is a list of San Francisco hot spots that have achieved great success by including natural wines on their lists.
Not to be confused with the New York City institution of the same name, Terroir is a small, unassuming wine bar in the SOMA that you could miss if you weren't looking for it. But step inside and you'll be greeted by an ode to wine you're unlikely to find the equal of anywhere, Manhattan included. The space is friendly and inviting, with empty, purposefully dusty bottles lining the walls and a design concept that calls to mind two decades of coffee house décor: sleek metal bar stools and re-purposed wood siding cover the modern downstairs, while rows of unkempt books and plush couches adorn the loft space upstairs in a look that calls to mind the mid-90s. Above the bar hangs the chalkboard that lists the bar's offerings, which change every few days. This constant change keeps the list interesting, but is also born out of necessity: many of the wines served are so limited that Terroir doesn't receive more than a case of them. A variety of obscure offerings from Europe and America populate the board, and though they're often extremely limited, the helpful bartenders are happy to sell you one to go: they've got plenty more delicious oddities waiting in the wings.
Another fantastic bar that provides sophistication and comfort in equal measure, Ordinaire is yet another culinary reason (and there are many) for San Franciscans to spend a weekend in Oakland. Located in the thriving Grand Lake neighborhood, Ordinaire makes the experience of drinking, discussing, and enjoying wine comfortable and friendly. The name refers to “vin ordinaire,” a term which refers to wine made but not bottled, reserved for the winemaker, his or her family and friends, or the local bistro, to be enjoyed and shared without pretense or overblown ceremony. Implied in this title is the idea of natural wine's appeal: that wines made without too much work, left to their own devices, and enjoyed casually with great company can be anything but “ordinary.” The wine list changes daily, but the focus is on natural gems from France, Italy, Spain, and California. There's also a retail component, with selection of high end Cabs and other classics from Napa and Sonoma, but the real treat is the obscure bottles which reflect what's pouring at the bar.
A restaurant with a comprehensive list of fantastic natural wines, Trou Normand is the SOMA brainchild of Bar Agricole mastermind Thad Vogler. The restaurant features a selection of whole animal butchery and charcuterie that would make any carnivore swoon, in addition to rich and hearty vegetable dishes. While it would be easy to beef up (pardon the pun) this menu with bulky, over-extracted wines, wine director Jai Wilson has taken a more thoughtful approach, crafting a wine list full of fresh, natural wines that still pair sublimely with Trou Normand's food selection. San Francisco boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to both thoughtful food and natural wine sources; Trou Normand resides right at the intersection.
While not technically a wine bar or restaurant, Winelandia.com seems essential to mention when discussing the natural wine scene in the tech-savvy Bay Area. Ask a natural wine geek how they'd most like to get technology working for them, and Winelandia.com would be the likely answer. Winelandia.com offers a rotating selection of small production, natural wines that can be ordered online and delivered to your door, often on the same day. It's the kind of service offered by apps like Saucey, but with beautiful and unique wines taking the place of macro-lagers and grocery store vodka. For those that live in the Bay Area, a selection of unique and affordable (most wines are in the $10-$40 range) wines are available without the hassle of leaving one's couch.
All cities should have it this good.