San Francisco is one of the best places in the world to drink young wines, particularly those with attitude, from many different places. Sommeliers here are passionate and their wine lists reflect it.
We don't have many older wines on lists because restaurants turn over so quickly that they don't build up cellars -- plus our diners are savvy enough to cherry-pick gems. We also don't have strong California-centric lists like you find in Napa Valley. Our sommeliers have an almost irritating lack of allegiance to the state.
But their international curiosity has the great benefit that this is a fantastic city to learn about the world of wine by drinking it, one glass at a time.
If Wine Spectator wrote this list, it might focus on restaurants with the most Napa cult Cabernets and first-growth Bordeaux. But this is San Francisco, not Dallas: Meals here are lighter and more vegetable- and seafood-driven, and diners as a whole are more wowed by "unique" than "famous." I've chosen 10 wine lists that represent both the restaurant and the city, and I have paid close attention to value.
To those who inevitably say, "How could you leave off Restaurant X? It's a top 10 for sure," I probably agree. Tough choices had to be made, and I left off some personal favorites, in a few cases because the wine director changed and I can't be sure what the future holds. Moreover, in six months new restaurants will open that also demand consideration. But right now, for the SF Weekly reader, these are the Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco.
1001 Minnesota (at 22nd St.)
Piccino's wine list brings to life what red-staters think of San Francisco. We know what's good for you, and we're not afraid to tell you -- some tiny-production wine made by a like-minded radical. The list is nearly exclusively made up of wines that fall under the broad rubric of sustainability, and you have to really know the wine world to recognize more than a half-dozen of the roughly 50 producers. Fortunately, the staff is good about making recommendations. It's nice that about a third of the list is available by the glass, and all of these, save the bubblies, can be had in a 375 ml carafe for half the bottle price. Spend $50 here and you can have two carafes that will expand your horizons.
842 Valencia (at 19th St.)
Range has almost the archetypal San Francisco wine list. It leans heavily but not dogmatically toward natural producers and elegant wines rather than fruit bombs. It casually mixes countries in a list that ascends from lightest grape variety to heaviest, putting wines from Spain, California, and France next to one another. The list is strongest in about the $60 range, but you can drink well under $40 and get your money's worth at $80. And with about 25 whites, 40 reds, and 10 bubblies and pinks, it's long enough to offer variety, but not so long that you'll spend forever deciding.
5800 Geary (at 22nd Ave.)
It's unlikely, given the culture, that there's a restaurant anywhere in Morocco that has as good a wine list as San Francisco's leading Moroccan restaurant. This is a greatest-hits list for wine geeks: Most names on here are from winemakers most respected by experts in their region. The list's strengths are in French and Italian wines, but California natural wine producers are well represented.
330 1st Street (at Folsom)
How convenient is this: If you like the wine you drink at this restaurant and wine shop, you can take another bottle home -- for $10 less. The passion of the proprietors is great as long as you play along. Here's a recent quote from the list, about a featured wine from Columbia Valley: "This might not be the wine for everyone, excepting those who can taste great wine when it's given to them. If you don't like this, we have something more expensive we think you might like." That said, this is one of the cheapest places to drink well in the city, with many good choices under $35 in the restaurant.