Craft beer and craft cocktails have been all the rage at bars lately, and that popularity has found its way into a place that was once the primary domain for wine: restaurants. Today at restaurants across San Francisco, you're as likely to be handed a cocktail list full of bizarre ingredients as you are a wine list. Yet, thanks to determined wine directors, wine is starting to return to center stage as programs focused on bargains, off-the-radar wine regions and education help get diners past the intricacies of vino, which many see as a daunting intellectual subject. Relax. Ignore the tasting notes. Whether enjoying a wine from Mason Pacific's "desert island" list or Souvla's roster of Greek wines while eating a lamb wrap, you'll realize that wine really is cool again.
At this Nob Hill restaurant and bar that's back in business after suffering a fire, managing partner Eric Railsback and master sommelier Dustin Wilson have one all-around excellent wine list and another that you have to ask for. They call the latter their "desert island" wine list. It’s a leather-bound, handwritten collection with labels the pair is fond of. It's highly personal for a wine list.
Perfect pairing: Thankfully, on this island, you can pair a Trimbach Riesling from Alsace with excellent scallop crudo with avocado and a Raveneau Chablis with the potatoes and uni sauce in the posh dining room that isn't what you'd find in the middle of the sea.
1358 Mason St.; 415-374-7185
San Francisco has several important Greek dining rooms with excellent Greek wine selections (we’d steer you to Kokkari if you want formality). However, it's a fast-casual Greek wraps and salads shop in Hayes Valley and NoPa that is the most notable address for Greek wine because of its collaboration with renowned Peloponnese-based producer Domaine Skouras, which is easily the best-known Greek winery exported to the states. The two together have a white blend, a rosé and a 100% agiorgitiko red.
Perfect pairing: The medium-bodied, rustic red is perfect with the smoke and spice of Souvla’s lamb and harissa-spiked yogurt wrap.
It’s a challenge to match wines with the small plates–style of eating that we're seeing more of in the Bay Area. It's also a challenge to find a wine list where almost every bottle (more than two dozen) is available by the glass, but that's how it is at the Mission’s four-month-old Eastern Mediterranean restaurant. And as a bonus, these are some of Europe and California's most impressive wine producers too.
Perfect pairing: It’s rare to find Chateau Musar, Lebanon’s famous winery, available by the bottle, and it's almost unheard of in San Francisco to find the winery's reds and whites both available by the glass. At Tawla, you're in luck. The venerable winery's 2008 red blend (Cabernet Sauvignon–based) is the right match for adding a dark fruit, leathery heft to the signature smoky, meaty eggplant musaka dish but not overwhelming the bright, delicate supporting cast of olives and cherry tomatoes.
206 Valencia St.; 415-814-2704
Melissa Perello’s always-packed first restaurant in the Mission and its larger, more upscale Pacific Heights sibling, Octavia (next slide), have special house wine blends that highlight their programs. It makes you wonder, why don't more restaurant get this hands-on with wine? Frances pours its blends on tap.
Perfect pairing: At Frances, almost every table starts with the panisse (chickpea) frites, simply accented by a squeeze of Meyer lemon and caper-spinach aïoli for dipping. Wine director Joshua Thomas would pair the house white blend of Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc and Riesling with the fresh, citrus-kissed dish.
3870 17th St.; 415-621-3870
Also from chef Perello, this Frances sibling in Pacific Heights works with two winemakers for its bottled blends, which are the highlight of the list.
Perfect pairing: As popular as the panisse are at Frances, so are the chilled squid ink noodles garnished with bottarga, fennel and lemon aïoli. The restaurant works with Napa's Massican Winery on Cuvée No. 4, a 100% ribolla gialla. The two are a perfect match with the crisp, texture-heavy wine working with saltiness and spice of the espellette and bottarga.
1701 Octavia St.; 415-408-7507
Raise your hand if you make wine choices, be it by the glass or bottle, based on the price. It’s the truth, a lot of diners do. That is where Cotogna's all-Italian list changed the game several years ago by listing all bottles and glasses of wine at the same price. Right now it's $50 per bottle and $12 per glass. Skeptics say you are getting a terrible deal on some of the wines, and optimists say that some of the list is a steal. Our thoughts: Keeping the price the same makes diners more adventurous in wine selection — and that's a good thing.
Perfect pairing: A meal at Cotogna doesn’t seem right without the signature agnolotti dal plin. Right now, pair a Sardinian Carignan, the 2014 Mesa "Primo Rosso," with the tiny pasta parcels filled with braised meats.
490 Pacific Ave.; 415-775-8508
The city’s newest Italian standout in the Mission sports a very 2016 San Francisco wine list — that is, in app-speak, as user-friendly as it gets. The all-Italy and California list is an approachable, easy-to-understand grid where sparkling, white, rosé and red are divided by light, medium and bold. Like at the aforementioned Cotogna, prices don't vary per wine. All bottles are $40 and all glasses $10. The list has more familiar varietals like a Barbera d’ Alba from Corregia in Piemonte and quirky wines like Folk Machine’s friulano blend.
Perfect pairing: When a cacio e pepe or hearty salad calls for a bold rosé, you’ve got your answer in the grid: the 2015 Montepulciano by Cirelli Cerasuolo from Italy's Abruzzo region.
1270 Valencia St.; 415-285-1200
If it weren't for this innovative restaurant in the heart of the Valencia dining corridor, we wouldn't know much about Eastern European cuisine or what a "larder" means. On the wine side, we would be clueless about Hungarian wines and many superb small producer California wines from our own backyard that don't receive much attention. Bar Tartine remains a pioneer for all of that, along with putting orange wines and unheralded grapes you can't pronounce but will love to drink, in the spotlight. There is no better place to expand your wine horizons in the city.
Perfect pairing: Beef tartare is a staple at Bar Tartine, currently on thick toast with dried tuna and the creamy tuna-enriched "tonnato" sauce (umami alert). A light, mineral-heavy furmint like the Szent Tamás by Samuel Tinon in Hungary's celebrated Tokaj region, is forceful enough to cut through the dense flavors of the sauce and lift up the raw beef's subtle meat notes.
561 Valencia St.; 415-487-1600
How do you pair wine with Chinese food? That is one of the most common questions given to wine directors and the answers vary from Rieslings to deep reds to "just give up and have a Tsingtao." At Chinatown’s game-changing contemporary Cali-Chinese restaurant, the excellent wine program is unique for two reasons. It tackles that age-old question with many deep-flavored but light-on-the-palate natural wines to cut through the multi-layered, not too sweet or too spicy dishes you'll be trying. The wine list also emphasizes many of the world's female winemakers. These producers' captivating wines, from earthy Grenache to steely Riesling, are excellent matches to the food.
Perfect pairing: Try the 2001 Renaissance Granite Crown Syrah–Cabernet Sauvignon blend with the tea smoked duck and confit leg, one of the menu's large-format dishes. It's deep, inky red, rich in tannins, but fruity enough to complement the smoked, aged duck breast and fatty confit that eventually become fun make-your-own duck tacos.
28 Waverly Pl.; 415-857-9688
Oh, the champagne conundrum. Many diners and wine personalities think the bubbles are meant for a toast on New Year's Eve and that's about it. Others, like Gianpaolo Paterlini, the wine director for this modern globe-spanning restaurant in Polk Gulch, thinks sparkling wine is one of the great wines for food. His list at 1760 boasts several excellent sparkling wines from Italy and France. The Grower Champagnes (small producers who make sparkling wines from their estate-grown grapes within the champagne region) of the list get their own special night each Monday with a 20% discount per bottle. It's little surprise that it's a weekly industry favorite to attend.
Perfect pairing: The spice-edged, complex corn and coconut ravioli needs a fruity wine full of tension to stand up to its vibrant flavors that explode when you bite into each parcel. A Pinot Noir–led sparkling wine, like the Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs Brut "Les Vignes de Vrigny."
1760 Polk St.; 415-359-1212