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.
2355 Chestnut (at Scott)
A16 has the best regionally focused list in San Francisco. The majority of its 500 wines are not just from Italy, but from southern Italy, which is much less the darling of the wine press than the northern part of the country. A16 is not pedantic; you can get California Cabernet if you want, but you would be wasting a chance to try wines made from indigenous Sicilian grapes, for example, that aren't available anywhere else in the Bay Area. It's always good practice to frankly tell the sommelier your budget and ask advice, and particularly rewarding here.
1 Ferry Building (at Embarcadero)
Mark Ellenbogen drew a combative line when he compiled the original Slanted Door wine list that still resonates throughout the wine world: He refused to even consider wines over 14% alcohol, because they won't go with the restaurant's food. Chaylee Priete is wine director now, and while she doesn't broadcast such a strong stand, the list still forces tourists having their first experience with Vietnamese food to explore lighter wines than they may be accustomed to. What the Slanted Door calls "fuller & meatier reds" would be called "weirdo lightweights" in Texas. Alcohol level is not the only political position this list takes; it highlights "ecologically minded individuals who understand stewardship, clean farming, and balance." One major quibble: the wine list is online, which is great because you can look up obscure wines ahead of time, but the prices are not.
4. First Crush
101 Cyril Magnin (at Ellis)
As you can tell from my other selections, I drink plenty of non-American wines. Yet one of my pet peeves is the disconnect between the locavore movement in food here and the way wine lists are compiled. In Paris you drink French wines. In Rome you drink Italian wines, In San Francisco, you drink French and Italian (and Swiss and Uruguayan) wines. What's wrong with this picture?
San Francisco is surrounded by California wine country, yet to my knowledge only two restaurants here have all-American lists: One Market (which is a little pricey), and First Crush, which amazingly has the only major all-California list in the city. It's an enthusiastic list that serves both people seeking natural wines and tourists seeking cult Cabernets. Themed by-the-glass flights make it a great place to learn about small producers, no matter what style of wine you like. To quote the prophet Jello Biafra, California über alles.
3. Bar Agricole
355 11th St. (at Folsom)
I rarely order wine at Bar Agricole, because I go there for cocktails. Yet this is the best conceived and organized wine list in the city. Rather than a long list of wines from all over the place with no explanation, Bar Agricole presents you with a booklet. On each page is a description of the producer, including its location and farming philosophy, and several of its wines. I wish every wine list gave you context like this, because no sommelier has time to describe every wine on the list in this way, but I would like to hear it. The list leans heavily Old World, toward light-bodied wines, which makes sense because if you want more alcohol here, you'll order a cocktail.
560 Divisadero (at Hayes)
Nopa's list radiates enthusiasm for wine. If you want something obscure, like Swiss whites or Austrian reds, they've got that, but they don't turn their nose up at reliable California wines like Ridge Geyserville. The emphasis is on food-friendliness, but it's not pedantic. The selection of half bottles is generous and interesting. Prices are generally fair: Spend $50-$60 here and you can go in many great directions. Nopa's weakness is the absence of affordable alternatives in some important categories (sparkling wine, Chardonnay). I'm not sure how to explain the lack of cheap bubbles, but I think the Chardonnay pricing is a subtle nudge to get you to try something else. Nopa is a great place to do that.
25 Lusk (at Townsend)
This wide-ranging list will please wine lovers at all price levels. If you like expressive wines of terroir and are counting your pennies, you probably shouldn't be eating here, but it's not going to be the wine that breaks you; there are several good selections under $35. If you just cashed in shares of Google, you can spend more than $300 a bottle on quite a few fabulous Rhone or Burgundy wines or well-chosen California Cabs. I love that even the splurge wines are trophies only for the cognescenti. But I would quite happily spend under $40 a bottle because wine director Cezar Kusik has impeccable taste. If you order a Rueda, a Gruner Veltliner, or a New Zealand Pinot Noir here, it's most likely one of the best available at its price level, and that's really all you can ask.
Former SF Weekly food editor W. Blake Gray blogs about wine at The Gray Report. Follow him on Twitter at @wblakegray.