For some, the words “wine bar” still summon up cliché lounges from the 90s, when buttery Chardonnays were the drink of the day. A new generation of winemakers (and drinkers) have paved the way for a diverse selection of varietals, styles, and environments in which to consume wine. Now, San Francisco wine therapy comes in lots of shapes and sizes, with more options joining the wine bar scene all the time.
Next up: All eyes will be on 2540 Mission Street in anticipation of this year’s opening of one of the Bay Area’s largest wine bars from the team behind Foreign Cinema. The 15,000-bottle cellar will focus on America and Europe, particularly Burgundian wines and some unusual, small producers from California and beyond.
1 California Wine Merchant
An impressive California-centric wine list and a friendly welcome ensure this rather small wine bar punches well above its weight. The combination wine store and wine bar has been a Marina fixture since 1974, where handmade redwood shelves display wine bottles from floor to ceiling. They’re pouring in elegant Reidel glassware seven nights a week until late.
2 Nectar Wine Lounge
Like bees to nectar, wine geeks seek out this establishment for its international 800-bottle wine list. If you’re less than an oenophile, why not try a flight of nectar set up? The kitchen produces savory snacks, sweets and a mix-and-match cheese and salumi selection. Just off Chestnut Street, the Marina’s first-ever wine bar uses muted movies as moving wall art and candle light for atmosphere.
3 The Hidden Vine
Add the X-factor to an after-work date when you book the outdoor bocce ball court in advance. Down a little FiDi lane, there’s nothing discreet about the Old World/New World wine list of nearly 200 bottles including 40 by the glass. Romantic nooks for real conversations and low lighting, background music enhance the date night quality while small bites and sliders ensure nobody leaves hungry.
4 Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant
A magnet for visitors and local wine lovers alike, a superior selection and unbeatable people-watching makes this a destination wine bar. With neighbors like Cowgirl Creamery and Hog Island Oyster Co., there’s always something worthwhile to eat when settling in to explore one of the Bay Area’s biggest and best inventories of boutique producers. Talk to the staff to tap into a wealth of knowledge.
5 The Barrel Room
Carefully curated, regionally rotating, small production. Singled out for a 2016 award of excellence from Wine Spectator, only the best wines even make it to the cellar here, no less to your glass. The restaurant menu is paired with regional wines to focus on a different corner of the world each quarter. Impossible, yet true, a speakeasy is tucked away downstairs.
Where cheese and charcuterie meet cozy and candlelit, Amelie rules. It translates into a wine bar with nice bites and a French accent (can you say Gratin de Ravioles du Royans?) lauded for its outstanding wines, authentic vibes, red lacquer interiors, occasional live jazz. Weekdays happy hour blows it away with $10 customized flights and weekends get super crowded in this small space.
7 Scopo Divino
Designed with grownups in mind, this friendly lounge in Lower Pac Heights provides a welcome neighborhood addition. On half-price Tuesdays, wine therapy features single glasses and curated bottle selections from the “library wall,” which makes a great excuse to try something new. Italian dishes from the kitchen, weeknight happy hours with dollar oysters, and Sunday night live jazz in a comfy living room-style setting.
Gracing Geary in the TenderNob since 2015, Resolute is a handsome space with big picture windows and long wraparound banquettes as well as bar stools. Go with white, sparkling, or a rosé flight. Pair a properly aged domestic red with pizza or panini, cheese and charcuterie. A three-hour-long happy hour (!) every day lasts until 7 p.m. and Winemaker Wednesdays are worth a detour.
9 Press Club
The Press Club covers the bases: Sophisticated enough for an LBD and heels, smart enough for after work drinks, casual enough for post-shopping or museum going. An early adopter of the Coravin system, there’s a five-page list of wines by the glass but a short food menu in this sleek and contemporary underground space. Happy hour features half-price off wine bottles from $70; a DJ picks up the pace until midnight on weekend nights.
10 Wine Down SF
When location meets price, you’ve got a winning combination for after work gatherings in SoMa. Opened in summer 2016, there’s a simple decor, stools at high tops and at the generous sized bar, plus plenty of folks standing around. A younger crowd falls in with the tagline decorating the wall: Drink Up!
11 High Treason
Nip in between the Clement Street lineup of pan-Asian eateries and old-time Irish pubs, where veteran sommeliers Michael Ireland (The French Laundry, Quince) and JohnVuong (Ame, Gary Danko) are delivering just what the Inner Richmond has needed since the High Treason début in 2016. You’ll be offered a taste before you select from a well-curated selection of wines by the glass. The list rotates as does the spinning vinyl and occasional live DJ, adding a retro touch.
12 Tofino Wines
It’s easy to appreciate the great bones in this big, open space that houses a Laurel Heights retail wine and shop and bar. More than 800 wines imparting a sense of place from France, Italy, Spain, Austria and America have been selected for the menu. A rotating “highly-allocated reserve list” has wines that are normally only found in the world’s top restaurants, available here for less. Small food menu and a happy hour, too.
Here’s proof positive that Hayes Valley has more than its fair share of small, cozy wine bars. This one, with 16 seats, has a slightly pastoral vibe with its interiors of plain white and wood. The kitchen produces appealing snacks, lunch, and dinner to accompany primarily European wines. The owner is always on hand to pour tastes, make recommendations, or offer a bite from the small, but mighty menu of small bites (plus occasional specials, like taco night). In Italian, Birba means “little troublemaker,” but at this namesake spot, the only trouble is making sure you’ll get in.
When it opened a decade ago, Terroir pioneered the organic wine frontier, pouring European wines free of pesticides, herbicides, or sulfur. A recent Friday night featured dollar oysters to pair with a flight of Catalonian wine grown on limestone. A large vinyl collection shares with occasional live bands, bluegrass, or jazz and $10 carafes are a draw during Wednesday happy hours.
15 The Riddler
Geniusly combining Champagne and caviar with a popcorn machine, this Hayes Valley concept backed by women is the newest addition to the city’s posh drinking scene. The interior décor strikes gold — on the ceiling, gleaming brass trim, marble table tops, greenery, poster art — but French bistro chairs and stools accommodate only 40. Non-vintage sparkling starts at $12 and vintage Champagne starts at $22 a glass.
16 Hotel Biron
This little, narrow wine bar in Hayes Valley is on a little, narrow alley. Not a hotel at all, it’s a sultry wine bar for a rendezvous where conversation at comfy sofas and tables for two is muffled by cork ceilings. About half the 60 wines are offered by glass or by the bottle and plates of cheese, charcuterie, and pâté are served with French baguette. The name is inspired by Paris’ Rodin Museum, so monthly art installations add character to exposed brick walls.
Karl the Fog aside, you’ll find an unpretentious approach to small-production California wines on the robust list of wines-by-the-glass. It’s only a short walk from Golden Gate Park, so loyal Sunset residents mix with park-goers from other ‘hoods. On weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., happy hour is a draw with $6 glasses of wine and comfy sofas that stimulate ease of conversation for small groups.
18 Swirl on Castro
Because the sidewalk frontage looks like a spirits retailer, it sometimes throws people off — the tiny wine bar’s in the back. At the end of 2016, the longtime owners passed on their keys to Swirl’s wine and spirits buyer, winemaker Casey Bowers. The nightly lineup features family-owned, sustainable wines from California, Spain, Argentina, France and Italy.
19 20 Spot
This place is so San Francisco: A revamped record store converted into wine bar with a sous vide restaurant (yes, including oysters) because there’s no stove, spread across the ground floor of a 19th century Victorian. The vibe feels like an ultra-cool friend’s living room with a choice vinyl collection; the daily playlist is printed on the menu. The wine list is heavy on the owner’s favorites: Pinots, French burgundy, German riesling. Don’t overlook the deviled eggs with trout roe.
20 Yield Wine Bar
Happily, 10 years after this wine bar opened in a test ground Dogpatch microhood, skeptics of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines have disappeared. Indeed, the trend supports a sister wine bar location, Pause in Hayes Valley. Pair eco-friendly wines with vegetarian-friendly small bites like vegan flatbread and a super artichoke dip.