There might be no better sign of where San Francisco's fine dining scene is in 2011 than the wine list at Fifth Floor.
It's a pricey hotel restaurant, reviewed today by our restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman. Yet the list is currently managed by wine director Amy Goldberger, an upstate New York native who learned about wine during the five years she spent at Oakland's À Côté, which is known for the aggressive quirkiness of its wine selection.
Fifth Floor has only 25 California Cabernets -- including multiple vintages of the same wines -- while there are 89 red Burgundies. Yet neither of those are where Goldberger's interests lie.
"I'm a huge fan of wines with minerality and strong aromatics," Goldberger says. "This place was about the classics, but I don't get resistance, I get encouragement. The people put me in this position because I have a more esoteric outlook."
I need to say immediately that there aren't many bargains on Fifth Floor's list. Markups are high across the board, generally between 2.5 to 3 times retail, and unusually, this is even true for expensive wines, like Joseph Phelps Insignia 2005: $150 in stores, $395 on the list. You're discouraged from bringing your own wine by the punitive $35 corkage fee, especially because there are plenty of interesting whites around $50 a bottle, and reds once you get to about $70.
But that's OK, because my strategy at this place would be to order (relatively) cheaply, because that's where Goldberger has had the most impact. She has 21 wines by the glass, priced between $9 and $23 for a five-ounce pour, and unless I was dining with a group I'd stay on that page all night.
We tasted some interesting stuff together. Domaine Vocoret & Fils Montmains Chablis Premier Cru 2008 ($20 glass/$80 bottle) is so earthy on the nose that it's like smelling soil, but on the palate, it sings with lemon after the initial strong minerality before closing out earthy again. A wine like this just doesn't get boring.
Goldberger opened a bottle of a favorite of hers, a Kermit Lynch-imported Italian white, Punta Crena Vigneto Ca de Rena Riviera Ligura de Ponante Pigato 2009 ($52): "I just think it has nice viscosity and great depth," she said. I agree, the oily mouthfeel and pine resin notes are unusual and interesting, with melon fruit in the background and plenty of mineral on the nose.
I ask how wines like this go over at a hotel restaurant. "We do get a fair number of travelers who are here to taste Napa and Sonoma wines," she says. "I'm not here to tell people I have something better. I represent California wines on the list, absolutely. But if you're telling me, I want to spend $60 on a wine that can go with the pork and the scallops, that's where I can do something new."
So her by-the-glass pink is from Germany, which is not known for them: Von Buhl Pfalz Pinot Noir Rosé 2010 ($13 glass/$52 bottle). It's very pale salmon, with a lively raspberry flavor and very light body; not at all a baby red like too many rosés these days.
The wine that blew me away was the Luciano Landi Garigliano Lacrima di Morro d'Alba Superiore 2008 ($13 glass/$52 bottle). Beautiful aromas leap from the glass: red fruit, fresh flowers and a hint of copper. I wouldn't even need to drink this wine; I would be content to sniff it. It doesn't disappoint on the palate; you get crushed red plum with floral notes.
I'm also a fan of the Les Pensées de Pallus Chinon 2008 ($15 glass/$60 bottle), which delivers intense cherry fruit with sticky tannins and some herbal notes despite a light, food-friendly body.
I didn't love the most expensive red wine by the glass, Saint Cosme Saint-Joseph 2006 ($21 glass/$84 bottle); nothing wrong with it, but it's a somewhat spicy, balanced, old-world wine that just doesn't excite me enough for $21. But it is indicative of what Goldberger's trying to do: her priciest wine isn't from California and is made from decidedly untrendy Syrah, not Cabernet or Pinot Noir like seemingly every other hotel restaurant in the country.
"Not all Napa, not all Cab, not all Pinot," Goldberger says. "I don't like to be bored."