Natural wine” is a spectrum that encompasses a range of wine-growing and winemaking practices, from 00 (say: “zero zero”), that is, nothing added or removed during the winemaking process, to minimal techniques that help ensure a certain final product. One of the biggest goals of the natural wine movement, though, is to strip out pretense and enjoy wine for what it is: delicious, a little boozy, and great to share with friends and food. Accessibility is key: Natural winemakers often want their bottles to be enjoyed by a wide variety of drinkers, not just those with money to spare. Most of these winemakers are farmers as well, focused less on marketing and self-promotion but on making a product that they themselves want to drink. Imagine that your favorite organic farmers’ market vendor made something that will get you tipsy: How could you say no to that?
These wine bars and restaurants are some of the best stewards of natural wine in the Bay Area, showing off what’s finest about the world of natural wines. They’re focused on low-intervention, high-enjoyment bottles in a judgment-free environment – the purest expression of what wine should be.
This popular Grand Lake-adjacent wine bar is a bit headier than most others. It embraces the spiritual, mystical side of natural wine and encourages learning about natural winegrowing and winemaking practices. Saturday flights feature winemakers pouring their own wares – a great opportunity to ask more about the process (and a bargain at $10 for 5 pours). The shop also has one of the best wine clubs around.
The Punchdown, just above the 19th street BART in downtown Oakland, presents its extensive by-the-glass list not simply by color but by flavor profile: a wine might be described as cherry/cocoa/vivant/glou glou (French for “chuggable,” more or less). The list, presided over by wife-and-husband owners Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney, is thoughtful and flights are encouraged; the “Oakland Rent Relief” is an inexpensive gateway into the world of natty wines. The Punchdown also has a small but noteworthy bottle shop on site with well-priced rarities.
Named for the Italian word for “minimal,” Minimo, in Jack London Square, is a wine bar and shop that wears its heart on its sleeve. Its wines are defined by minimalism throughout the whole winemaking process, mostly from small makers. Unabashedly dedicated to creating community, the space has a shared long table, perfect for a group or for sharing a bottle or three with new friends. Biweekly winemaker tastings, on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, offer an opportunity for education.
A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that one of Eater’s 16 Best New Restaurants in America would be a natural wine bar. Sure, it was opened by superstar wife-and-husband restaurateurs Lindsay and Michael Tusk, of Quince and Cotogna fame. But it also indicates that natural wine, in some ways, is entering the mainstream. Verjus managing partner Matt Cirne maintains the French-leaning wine list — he’s just as comfortable discussing funky garage wines as premiere producers — and the staff is composed of a who’s-who of somms from other natural wine bars.
With a list from natural wine champion Louisa Smith (of Lord Stanley fame, which itself has a noteworthy menu), Brandon Jew’s Moongate Lounge is an easy pick for a glass of natty in Chinatown. The ten wines by the glass and three dozen bottles read like a who’s-who of the natural wine world – look out for Julie Balagny in Beaujolaus, Vouette & Sorbée in Champagne, and Martha Stoumen in our own backyard, for example. The list is dedicated solely to wines grown organically or biodynamically, and is full of high-acid glou glou to complement the salt-fat-acid hits of Jew’s bar menu.
A beautiful, large, airy space in Laurel Heights is home to Tofino, a neighborhood favorite wine bar and bottle shop. Its owners April Sack and Mark Nevin are wine industry lifers, and share a love of teaching customers about the vagaries of natural winemaking processes, as well as lesser-known wine regions from the old world (don’t miss the sherries by the glass.) An orthodox but well-executed wine-friendly food menu — olives, cheese, charcuterie — is the handiwork of Chef Josh Even, formerly of Tosca Café.
Terroir is one of the old guards in the Bay Area’s natural wine scene, opening its SoMa storefront all the way back in 2007. Since the beginning, they’ve focused their short by-the-glass list and large cellar on biodynamic, 00 wines from the old world, mostly from France. The space is open and airy, with a variety of seating options, from cozy intimate corners to tables set for a party – and there’s always some vinyl on the stereo. The by-the-glass list always has some great entry-level natural wines and a few deeper cuts, so don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations.
Occupying an English basement on the busy Divisadero strip, Fool’s Errand specializes both in old world low-intervention wines and locally-made hazy IPAs — and remarkably succeeds at both. Owner John Dampeer oversees an impressively curated list of wines by the bottle, with a heavy focus on France as well as an impressive selection of Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners form Germany and Austria. Dampeer is forever excited to talk about all things fermented, so start with a glass from the short by-the-glass list – or a pint of something juicy, and grill him about his favorite bottles.
With two locations — a wine bar in Hayes Valley and a bottle shop in the Castro — Fig & Thistle provides some much-needed natty in some more conventional-leaning ‘hoods. The bar, which was opened in 2012 by Angel Davis and Nguey Lay, is fun and funky — share the bunkbeds with friends for a more intimate experience — and the wine list is small but thoughtful, with a focus on California. The market is a meet-cute of a neighborhood bottle shop, candlelit bar, and succulent garden: A surprisingly quiet retreat from Market Street’s normal clamor.
The newest cool kid on the block, Elda – a “Californian, but Latin” bar and restaurant on the corner of Guerrero and 16th – is a bright, airy, and impressive first effort from Eric Ochoa, Alvaro Rojas, and Jay De Natale. Their wine list is small but mighty: three wines on tap and ten by the bottle (all of which clock in at a supremely reasonable $45/bottle) showcase an impressive breadth, with representation both Old World and New. Each bottle on the list has a brief, approachable description, including tasting notes, producer details (one is described as a “musician, firefighter, and rad winemaker”), and process – a novel way to coax folks away from an enticing cocktail menu.
Most big names in the SF restaurant scene are back-of-house icons, chefs whose reputations fuel their restaurants. But the personality of the Morris rests firmly on its front-of-house auteur, sommelier Paul Einbund, who has been nationally recognized for his cellar. Einbund has an eclectic palate and the capacity to pursue the outliers and oddballs that excite him (see his remarkable selection of Chartreuses). The Morris’s wine list skews toward the far end of the natural spectrum, presenting itself as a case study on biodynamics. Of course, tthe back-of-house is doing incredible work too – an impressive charcuterie selection and a legendary smoked duck from chef Gavin Schmidt are perfect complements to whatever bottle you settle on.
One of the most ardent members of the 00 camp is Ruby, a small shop in Potrero Hill. They pour a few wines by the glass – whatever they’re feeling like, always $12 – but the focus is bottles for take away and to drink in the space, for retail pricing plus $10 corkage. Their bottle list is notable but perhaps not for natural novices, and their rigid attitude can come off as aloof in an otherwise hospitable, welcome wine scene.
While it might not be on the radar of many SF and Oakland wine fans, Millbrae’s Vineyard Gate is in the pantheon of great Bay Area natural wine shops. Since opening more than 20 years ago, it’s become a go-to both as a neighborhood bottle shop and as a pilgrimage for nerds from the north seeking a suburban getaway for a glass or two. Owner Alex Bernardo keeps a wide-ranging selection of hard-to-find and obscure bottles and a diverse by-the-glass selection, making it fertile turf for the natural wine-curious.