Wine Bars Offer Neighborhoods a Toast

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“Accessible” and “customer-driven” aren’t necessarily what come to mind when you think of the retail wine experience. But San Francisco’s neighborhood wine bars—with hybrid retail and dining options—have evolved to become fun and educational gathering places, thanks to a new crop of sommelier founders.

Sommeliers, co-founders and owners of DECANTsf, Simi Grewal and Cara Patricia noticed an absence of hospitality in the City’s wine retail establishments. 

“Every time we walked into a wine store in SF, no one on staff asked what you wanted from this bottle of wine, which can be intimidating for shoppers who don’t know a lot,” said Grewal. 

In 2019, Grewal and Patricia opened DECANTsf, on Folsom between Seventh and Eighth streets, as “an education-focused space.” The wine bar has a low serving counter, with tables interspersed among shelves of bottles. 

“We want the shelves to look like a wine list,” explained Grewal. 

Bottles feature tags indicating “Last Bottle,” or Polaroids of the winemaker at an in-store event. 

Grewal and Patricia blind-taste every bottle. The resulting hand-selected wines are bought in small quantities, according to “rigorous standards of sustainability, deliciousness, value, and story.”

DECANTsf hosts pop-ups. Dabao Singapore, a takeout and delivery service, has held cooking classes, along with meal kit pickups for which DECANTsf recommends wine pairings. Basil Thai diners can enjoy appetizers in-store during Friday happy hours, with the corkage fee waived for in-restaurant diners who’ve purchased wine from DECANTsf.

Located on Third between 20th and 22nd streets, Ungrafted is helmed by sommeliers Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman. Fineman holds the distinction of being the 25th female Master Sommelier in the United States, one of 28 women, and 249 Master Sommeliers in the world.

“Everyone working front of house is a sommelier,” said Gaither. “We’re nerds at heart, and we want to make wine accessible and fun.”

When it opened in 2018, Ungrafted focused on champagnes, a passion for the husband-and-wife team. Today, it boasts expansive cellar and retail lists, with 1,000 individual units from around the world. 

Wine clubs are curated by member preference, based on a conversation with Fineman. “It’s a concierge wine club service; you don’t get the same two bottles every month,” she said. “I find something you’ll like, and introduce you to new grapes, styles, wines and regions you’ll end up loving, but may not have known about otherwise.” The “choose-your-own-adventure” monthly wine clubs offer two bottles of sparkling, red, white, “surprise,” or a 6-pack “dealer’s choice,” and are priced by selection.

Parents of a 4.5-year-old daughter, Edith, Gaither and Fineman prioritize hospitality and community-building at their full-service restaurant. 

“We’ve always believed that children can—and should—dine out,” said Fineman. “Our staff is here to welcome families, not make them feel uncomfortable.”

A pioneer in Dogpatch, Yield, a family- and dog-friendly wine bar has been near the corner of Third and 22nd streets since 2006. Owned and operated by Chris Tavelli and Lindsay Sink, it’s the longest standing bar under the same ownership in the neighborhood. It’ll celebrate its 15th anniversary with complimentary treats and a glass of bubbly on Saturday, August 21, from 5 to 10 p.m.

Yield offers wines from small, family-owned, organic vineyards that’re farmed sustainably, often with limited production. Their “Quarantine Wine Club” was launched during the pandemic, and offers three bottles, a half, or a full case based on customer preference.

“We have customers from all over the world,” said Tavelli, who works with global distributors. “Younger wine drinkers are coming in learning about wines from Australia, China, India, and Africa, not just the Old World.”

Visitors to Yield are greeted by Denver, an Australian Cattle Dog who “takes care of all the bar security” and Teddy, a white Labrador Retriever “who handles customer relations,” said Tavelli.

Two mobile parklets installed as a result of the pandemic increased the dog-to-human guest ratio at Yield. 

A recent renovation was spearheaded by Sink, and executed by family members, who helped paint, build furniture, and hang lights. She envisioned an inviting, casual place to hang-out with friends and neighbors. The new botanical theme is highlighted by lush, leafy wallpaper that makes for a dramatic backdrop for guests’ Instagram posts. 

Mission Bay Wine & Cheese, on Fourth and Channel, owned by Peter Granoff and Debbie Zachareas, also the proprietors of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and Napa’s Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant, opened in 2019, and is managed by Chris Rivera. In addition to the retail shop, which houses a craft spirits boutique, wine bar, and bistro, the business offers cheese, charcuterie, conservas, and specialty olive oils and jams. 

Having several wine clubs helped establish the store’s reputation. Monthly members receive two different bottles of wine—mixed (one white, one red), red only, white only, or rosé (seasonal); quarterly members receive three bottles of cellar-worthy reds or sparkling wines.

“Flights are also a big part of what we do; it’s in our DNA,” said Rivera. 

All wines on the menu are available to taste by two-ounce pour, so customers can build their own flights. Tastings are offered bi-weekly during summer, weekly in the fall. The “happiest of hours” was recently launched from 2 to 5 p.m. daily, and includes free antipasti with the purchase of a beverage. Mission Bay Wine & Cheese’ co-owners curated the wine list for the Chase Center and will open the Mission Bay Wine Bar there before the end of the year.

Photo (top): Ungrafted. Credit: Christopher Gaither.