Wine Trends in San Francisco

San Francisco is something of a cultural beacon to the US, driving trends that impact the rest of the nation in all aspects, and its proximity to the North Coast American Viticultural Area gives the city’s influence on wine trends extra clout. Grapes on the rise, cellar management refinement, shifting retail demographics, and a winegrowing movement — Scott Saunders gives a glimpse of what’s going on in The City by the Bay.

Lulu McAllister, Brian McGonigle, Gary Marcaletti, David Glancy
Lulu McAllister, Brian McGonigle, Gary Marcaletti, David Glancy

Lulu McAllister  

Tapped by Wine & Spirits magazine as one of the nation’s best new sommeliers, Lulu McAllister oversees the wine programs of the highly acclaimed Nopa and Liholiho Yacht Club. 

One thing that’s been hard to keep stocked, for at least two years now, is Jura red wines. The white wines are classic and those definitely move quickly enough, but the red grapes that are so food-friendly – like Trousseau and Poulsard, the lighter, fresher, low-tannin styles – seem to really fit with the more eclectic styles of food you get here.

Nopa’s menu is a dream to pair with. It tends to be fairly Mediterranean-influenced, just because of the fact that we use local seasonal produce, and we tend to have a very Mediterranean set of options here at the farmers market. But at many restaurants, including Liholiho Yacht Club, the menu there is definitely more dynamic, more exotic flavours that might intimidate most people who pair wine lists. I find low-alcohol, high-acid, fresher styles of wine are understandably popular for people who have a local palate, and who have such an interesting and diverse assortment of cuisines to choose from here.

The Loire Valley continues to be popular. It’s funny, because I’ll mention Chenin Blanc to my uncle or my parents and their friends, and they think I’m crazy that I’m excited about this grape, because apparently it was mostly schwag water to them when they were my age. But the versatility of Chenin Blanc can’t be expressed enough, and I think that’s something that a new generation of wine professionals and wine consumers is really latching on to.

The Cabernet Franc grape is a really interesting option for a sturdier red, at least in the example that I’ve selected, and many of the ones I’m finding around town. It’s not a big grape; it has that medium-bodied quality that many people are looking for when a guest asks for a Pinot Noir or a Cabernet Sauvignon, and this is kind of bridging that gap. It has the kind of spice you might get on a Cabernet Sauvignon; it definitely has something unique to it, but you can also treat it like you might a Pinot Noir. And there are definitely lighter examples, too.

Brian McGonigle

An experienced wine professional and collector, McGonigle is founder and president of the San Francisco Wine Center, a facility dedicated to wine storage, wine education and events, and the importing and distributing of fine wines.

One effect here of coming out of the recession, when creative restaurateurs like Chef Stuart Brioza at State Bird Provisions were scaling back inventory and getting rid of the three-inch-thick wine list, was much tighter, more-focused wine lists, where they’re designed to pair with the menu but they don’t feel like they need to have everything for everybody on the wine list anymore. So you come in to experiment with the wine list and enjoy the food with the wines that the wine director has chosen, and the lists are tiny compared to what they were pre-recession in a lot of well-known restaurants in San Francisco.

There are a lot of great places like State Bird and Francis that operate with one- or two-page wine lists, which is pretty incredible, and a whole different challenge for the sommelier or wine director. To find really interesting wines and cycle them in and out as their allocations are depleted, and then find something new that also pairs just as well with their menu — it’s a lot of work. And it’s a different kind of work. You’re not in the cellar all the time maintaining this huge inventory, but you’re spending just as much time staying on top of the developments of what’s available and finding unique wines that aren’t over-exposed and that you can get enough of to pour them for a week or two and then find another one as soon as that one’s gone. It’s a totally different challenge, and an interesting one. 

The same cutting-edge restaurateurs often leverage investors who are also collectors and access their collections for the restaurant’s list on an as-needed basis. So the wine director will rotate through offerings from these investor collectors’ cellars and doesn’t have to buy and hold the inventory from that cellar. They pay the investor collector for bottles as the wine is transferred to the restaurant and sold. It’s a very creative way to have an interesting list of older wines without carrying inventory. Raj Parr started this trend in earnest at RN74 and experienced wine directors like Jason Alexander at The Progress have continued with it as a way to offer a truly compelling wine list while still traveling relatively light in the cellar.


Gary Marcaletti

Marcaletti launched The San Francisco Wine Trading Company in 1976, lining his shelves with the work of small, (mostly) European producers, and educating his many customers with classes and tastings.

When we do tastings, it seems that the more esoteric the wine, or the more unique the wines are from an area, like from the Veneto, or Cinque Terra in the northwest of Italy, the more it draws the masses — 100 to 150 people every Saturday and Sunday. And they’re younger and younger all the time. They all try to learn about these wines from around the world. It’s easy to find out about Napa and Sonoma, because they’re in our backyard, but it’s difficult to find out about the rest of the world.

People in general, even the older crowds, are much more apprehensive about the $100.00-, $150.00-, $200.00-bottles of wine on the market today than they were ten years ago. And I think the real factor is that people learned how not to spend $100.00 on a good bottle of wine. And that’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, teaching people that they don’t have to spend $100.00 to get a really great bottle of wine. We can take you to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and you can find a wine that will interest you as much as any Cabernet or Pinot Noir from California, for $40.00, and it’s the same for virtually anywhere in the Rhône, or anywhere in Chablis or Burgundy, or northern Spain. We find wines of interest, and people are very interested in finding these $20.00-, $30.00-, $40.00-wines that taste a lot like their more expensive counterparts. So I think the industry is changing in that sense. People are more aware of what wine is, aware of the quality of the wine, and that you don’t need to spend $100.00-a-bottle-plus to get a good bottle of wine that will age in your cellar.


David Glancy

Master Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator David Glancy has led wine courses at the Professional Culinary Institute and Le Cordon Bleu, and now heads the San Francisco Wine School, the new occupants of a 4,000-sq-ft wine education and event space near San Francisco International Airport.

San Francisco either leads the trends, or is at least an early adopter of trends, and that’s been going on for a while in both wine and food. A trend that I’m really excited about is an organisation born here in 2011, the same year San Francisco Wine School launched, called In Pursuit of Balance, started by sommelier Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, and that’s a trend that I think is fantastic. It’s swept from the Bay Area to Sonoma Coast and down to Santa Barbara on the producer side of things, and it’s been widely accepted. It’s become mainstream enough that their tasting wasn’t even in San Francisco this year; they moved it up to Marin County.

There are some fantastic wines coming out as a result of that, and I think some of their wines are inspiring winemakers to make different kinds of wines. Not under-ripe or over-ripe, not ridiculously low alcohol or extravagantly high alcohol, not unoaked or heavily oaked — just looking for balance, however that’s delivered. I think that’s a fun movement. I don’t know how long the organisation itself will exist, but it’s been a trend led from San Francisco, and it means there’s more and more wine from California that I’ll want to drink.



Latest Articles