Best Wine Lists of the World: Lessons from San Francisco
Eat out at a top restaurant and you’ll notice as much care goes into the wine list as what’s on your plate. Here Californian sommelier Camille Berry gives the low down on how they do things there, and what to expect if you’re ever in San Francisco.
There’s an art to creating a good wine list. Like the wines you carry, the list itself should be all about balance. Naturally, you want the wines to complement the restaurant’s vibe and we’re not just talking about going well with the food.
You want to achieve versatility with the cuisine and offer guests a wide price range, with an eye towards giving people great value while satisfying the needs of those who like spending the big bucks.
Back in the States, you’ll see these themes in any quality wine list. In San Francisco, it’s the rule, not the exception. Are there gold standards we fall back on? In terms of varieties and styles, absolutely. Wine is daunting for many and putting together a list without varieties that anyone can recognise will only serve to alienate and perhaps annoy your guests. People dine out for all sorts of reasons, to relax, celebrate, for business, or take a small break from their day to day lives.
There’s nothing to be gained by forcing some kind of wine agenda on them. A good wine list needs its familiar touchstones, your Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Pinot Noirs. Once those bases are covered, you can feel free to get a little more creative. Have an incredible orange wine that’ll go beautifully with chef’s new seasonal menu? Go for it. Just don’t leave your guests stranded in the wake of your enthusiasm.
As a restaurant diner, regardless of the size of the wine list or the cuisine, you should always be able to find certain universal styles. Light bodied, fruity reds will share space with brooding, oaked ones, as well as absolutely everything in between. The same holds true for white wines. A great wine list will have something for everyone.
In recent years, the new generations of San Francisco’s sommeliers and wine directors have sought to explore less well-known regions and varieties. The hope is to not only create a versatile, and dare I say unique list, but also to challenge restaurant guests to try and perhaps even fall in love with something new.
To that end, we love offering flights as part of our wine programs. What better way to give people the opportunity to try something new without having to invest in an entire glass or bottle? The brilliance of the flight is that it allows people to try a couple of ounces of a few different wines (usually somewhere between three and five) at a reasonable price. There’s no real commitment beyond having an open mind. These wine flights typical have a unifying theme, whether based on style, e.g. zesty whites, grape variety, say a comparison of Pinot Noir from different regions, or highlighting a wine region. Flights may also be crafted to go with chef’s tasting menu.
The concept of the flight has winged its way over the Atlantic and more British restaurants are beginning to feature them as part of their wine program. All the better for the British wine-loving public.
A sample flight, using the zesty whites example might look a little something like this:
- Fleur d’Artagnan Blanc La Réserve, Gros Manseng, Petit Corbu, Arrufiac blend, Sant Mont
- Devil’s Corner Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania
- Fratelli Ponte Arneis, Roero
- Peter Lehmann Wildcard Chardonnay, South Australia
It should come as no surprise we feature many American wines – something we don’t really see here in the UK (side note: you’re missing out). But in addition to homegrown wine, we’re all about shining light on upcoming regions and unusual varieties or styles.
You’ll see grapes you’ve never encountered before sharing space with the usual suspects. Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines are also popular at the moment, as people are beginning to cast their concern over not only what they put into their bodies, but what they drink as well. Plenty of organic options grace San Francisco’s wine lists.
But none of this really matters without focus. You can feature the greatest wines in the world but if they don’t match up to the food you serve, the needs of your clientele, and the general feel of the joint, you’ve struck out. In other words, don’t feature a wine on your wine list just for the sake of having it there. It does no one any good if it sits in the cellar gathering dust.
Maybe it’s personal bias or nothing more than a little hometown pride, but I think the Golden City’s wine lists have an awful lot of panache. SF’s somms aren’t afraid to experiment.
I genuinely can’t say whether this is true of the UK (though I imagine it is), but most wine lists indelibly have the personality of their creators stamped upon them. This is a fantastic thing and brilliant for wine fanatics.
Sommeliers and wine buyers are a passionate bunch, and we love peppering our wine lists with hidden gems. If you make it over to San Francisco – and if you’re mad about great food and wine, you really ought to, pop into one of our thousands of excellent restaurants and see for yourself. I can assure you, disappointment won’t be on the list.
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