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It’s No Longer Enough for Wine to Be Delicious. Now It Has to Be ‘Interesting.’

Light, oxidized, tastes like dirt!

 

A decade ago, a great wine list offered bottles that you’d only imagined. It had cult wines made of grapes that you drank every day (especially cab and pinot) but that, in the hands of some superhero vintner, had become something else entirely. And it had a page of chardonnays because…well, no one really knows, but it was there. 

Today, however, a great list is loaded with wines that we haven’t imagined. Wines from subtropical islands. Cloudy wines. White wines that look brown. “Where,” you might ask, “are my super-cab and super-chard?” “Hey,” your sommelier might reply, “we do have a chardonnay—from the Jura. It’s oxidized before bottling, so it tastes like dirt and shoes—sorry, earth and saddle leather. Shall I open it?”

In short, deliciousness is no longer what many diners—and most San Francisco sommeliers—want from a wine. Instead, they want their wine to be interesting. That historic change highlights how much is at stake when we scroll through a restaurant’s list. When the key word isn’t “delicious,” the world of restaurant wine lists wobbles a little on its axis, sometimes to its peril. Whom we trust changes, and how much we spend, and how we experience and discuss wine.

“There has been a paradigm shift, particularly among younger sommeliers,” says Rob Renteria, sommelier at La Folie in Russian Hill. “I don’t really know where their palate is. Now it’s all about where the wine is from, how it’s made, what the story is. It’s all about the story. I might taste that same wine and say, ‘This is fucking shit, this is terrible. How can you be selling that to somebody?’” Natural no-sulfite orange wines, for example, are always interesting but can be an acquired taste. “A lot of times,” Renteria says, “I’ll taste some of these wines and think, ‘I don’t care where this is from or how it’s made. It’s flawed.’”

That’s not to say that wine can’t be both interesting and delicious, like a stunning teran from Croatia, for instance, or old-vine boğazkere from eastern Turkey. And, naturally, most restaurants try to sell wines that both taste good and have a story—why wouldn’t they? But these days, many are erring on the side of the latter, at the expense of bottles that might be delicious but aren’t particularly thought-provoking: Napa cabs and chardonnays, bordeaux, merlot from anywhere. If you see a merlot on a San Francisco wine list, get out your phone and take a selfie with it. The list, that is. But for god’s sake, don’t order it—somebody might see you.

Some restaurants take “interesting” to extremes. In the Mission, AL’s Place has a list composed almost entirely of oddities: pétillant naturel malvasia from Suisun Valley, Austrian rotgipfler, trousseau from San Benito. In February, Cadence, recently opened in mid-Market, had not one cabernet sauvignon on its 70-plus bottle list (though one was recently added). It serves a by-the-glass sauvignon blanc from Burgundy—the place that gave the world chardonnay—but zero by-the-glass chardonnays. In their place are wines like a prié blanc, made from an Italian grape so obscure that fewer than 100 acres of it are thought to be grown in the world. 

Don’t get me wrong: This is not an old-guy rant about esoteric or pretentious wine lists. I’m a wine geek—if I see a grape that I haven’t heard of, I order it. What’s amazing is that so many other San Francisco diners are doing the same thing. But as encouraging as that is, their nonconformity is often rooted in conformity. “How much are people trying to order something because it’s hip?” asks Peter Palmer, sommelier at Waterbar and Farallon. “Take grüner veltliner. That took San Francisco by storm when the rest of the country didn’t know anything about it.” Now, of course, grüner veltliner is so 2011. “People tell me, ‘I already know about the Jura, I know about the Canary Islands. What else have you got?’” says John Wight, a sommelier at Noe Valley Wine Merchants. “It’s harder and harder to give them something different.” 

Thus, you get wine lists like the one at Cala in Hayes Valley. It’s a relatively brief document that nevertheless makes room for a Sonoma Valley sylvaner. Sylvaner, an Austrian grape, is so scarce in California that the National Agricultural Statistics Service doesn’t even list purchase data for it. Cala also offers a white wine from within Madrid’s city limits—an item so rare that there is little evidence of it online. And the restaurant caters to the popularity of rosé for men (the technical term is “brosé”) with three devastatingly masculine pink wines. But none of that well-known Provence stuff—these three are from Amador County, Corsica, and the Canary Islands.

It’s highly unlikely that an average diner at Cala would walk in knowing what any of these wines taste like. And that, according to Palmer, is the point: to put patrons in a position where they’re in need of a little help. “It’s always a dialogue, not just a one-sided thing,” he says. “You’re asking them a series of questions and seeing what they’re looking for. Do they want something they know and love, or do they want the newest, hippest whatever?”

It’s easy to call this quest for novelty a millennial trend, and Wight affirms that younger drinkers are leading the way. “They don’t want to drink their parents’ wine,” he explains. “This isn’t a big deal in Middle America, where dad is still expected to grab the check. But here, young people have money.” However, at least in San Francisco, their elders are following suit. “The older crowd can be set in their ways,” Wight says. “‘I want my oaky chard; I want my pinot that drinks like a cab.’ But if you challenge an older person’s palate, you may gain long-term clientele. Older diners are surprised by these wines: They’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought about that, and it’s great.’ And then you have a customer for life. The younger crowd, they’re always moving on to something new.” 

Another advantage of serving obscure bottles is pecuniary: Wines made from unknown grapes grown in unheralded regions are cheaper than premier cru burgundy. Many of the most interesting wines on San Francisco lists range from $35 to $50 a bottle. In New York—where, says Eater NY wine editor Levi Dalton, many diners at top restaurants refuse to buy wines in that price range because they think it’s beneath them—“interesting” is a less compelling virtue, perhaps because there’s more of a legacy of snobbery than on the West Coast. Still, “years ago, when I was at the InterContinental, I couldn’t sell a $35 bottle of wine,” Wight says. “People thought it was too cheap. Now, if there’s an interesting Australian marsanne for $50, they’re tempted to buy it.” 

How long can the preference for curiosities over deliciousness last? Given that the world has more grape-growing peninsulas than San Francisco diners can imagine, perhaps a good long time. “There’s more and more unusual stuff coming out,” Wight says. It’s possible that this shift is making us ever-more-fickle drinkers, amateurs who partake of new wines without developing the deeper understanding that comes from tasting 10 or 20 bottles from the same region.

But I’m not one to talk. The night before I wrote this story, I was in Florence, Italy. Instead of doing as a Florentine would and ordering wine from a region that I know, I had a prié blanc from distant Valle d’Aosta. It was excellent, though I have no way of knowing if it was a typical prié blanc. Tonight, I plan to drink something else entirely: whatever is interesting.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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