San Francisco Reflections: A Journey Through Natural Wine

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To commence a journey one needs a place to begin, a place from which perspectives can be formed. It is from this *beginning* that revelations gain their meaning and epiphanies derive their poignancy.

When I first visited San Francisco over 3 years ago my focus was on California and its vineyards. This was as it had to be for I had never visited a wine region before and I was only commencing my deeper interest into wine.

At the time I knew little of how wine was made and how techniques in the vineyard and the cellar impacted the final product. I was focused on the taste. My blog back then reflected this focus with its series of pithy tasting notes. My wine spoils from California back in 2006 consisted mostly of Petite Sirah, Merlot and Cabernet.

Over time not only has my palate changed, but so has my understanding of how and why wine is made. I have learned that while taste remains the crux of passion for the most dedicated wine lovers, taste itself is also elusive and profoundly intertwined with our knowledge and understanding.

This is like any aesthetic pursuit. By way of example, the dissonance and power of a Bartok string quartet often grates at the novice listener. With a little knowledge and understanding, however, the very same sensuous material transforms and gains nuance. What was once great becomes banal and what was once unpleasant and unintelligible becomes the source of our greatest exaltations.

And so it was that I touched down in San Francisco for my birthday in 2010, armed with a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding after four years of passionate – often excessive – exploration. What I found confirmed my rediscovery of the tasty and protean beverage we call wine.

A Dinner at Nopa or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Macerated Whites

Sulphites are one compound that most wine drinkers are aware of. Often blamed for causing headaches and allergic reactions, its greatest crime is suppressing the aromatic profile of most wines. And yet, nearly all wines use sulphites either out of necessity or caution to prevent nasty faults from happening.

While dining on some very delicious food at Nopa in San Francisco at the reasonable hour of 11:30pm I tried my very first orange wine – the Damijan Kaplja 2003. This ‘white’ wine was macerated on its skins for several days, which added tannin, colour and depth to the wine. The early oxidation also allowed the wine maker to use absolutely no sulphites in the wine. This was unlike anything I had had before, playing chameleon to the various foods on offer from seared tuna to cheesy flatbreads and a caper-based pasta. Being a hybrid red and white wine gave it an astounding ability to pair with food.

The wine was also subtle and nuanced in its flavours and it changed as much as you would expect for a wine that goes with almost any food. I won’t bother trying to list flavours or other descriptors. Just know that this wine is elegant, nuanced, complex and unlike anything else. It blew my mind and was the perfect start to the weekend.

Alice Waters’ Revenge: Dinner and Drinks at Chez Panisse

After spending the day in Napa (to be the subject of future posts) I headed over to Berkeley for the dinner that brought me to San Francisco in the first place: Chez Panisse. For those who aren’t aware, Chez Panisse (and chef Alice Waters) is a legendary restaurant that invented the ‘100 mile diet’, which is the concept that all the ingredients should be sourced locally and raised or farmed ethically. In many ways this not only echoes the natural wine movement, but is the reason why this movement had ground to grow in in the Bay area.

The food focused less on Haute Cuisine and fancy techniques and more on simplicity and the quality of ingredients. Eating the food one gets the sense that Alice Waters could master almost any cuisine and yet chooses to focus on a humble approach to food. The fact that ethics and farmers/ranchers are the focus here shows how respectful Alice Waters is. This is rare for great chefs and in my books is tremendously admirable.

Oh, and the locally raised grass fed veal went perfectly with Paolo Bea’s 2006 San Valentino red blend from Umbria (Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Sagrantino). Bea is somewhat of an icon for the natural wine movement, but what I cared more about was the purity, delineation and clean expression of this otherwise rich and powerful wine. Although I do love his motto: “nature should be observed, heard,understood, not dominated.” All the poo-pooing of too much oak aging makes little sense in this context. In fact, I would say that this wine has helped me rediscover red wine, which is almost always overblown and overpriced.

The taste of Jacques Puffeney Chardonnay, which is oxidized in style, went well with the heirloom tomato appetizer even if it was far less subtle than the best Tissot single vineyard chardonnays I’ve had the pleasure to taste.

Baking and Banking: How Good Food and Wine Can Transcend Elitism

Yet another opulent meal found its way into my gullet at Baker and Banker, a trendy new restaurant in the very rich and very exclusive Pacific Heights neighbourhood. Despite the bevy of stuffy clientele, me and my plaid shirt ensconced in the sheer deliciousness of the food. A house-smoked trout and potato latke appetizer led into a truffled house made papardelle with wild mushroom pasta that both paired incredibly with what is perhaps my wine Mecca of the moment: J.P. Foillard’s 2008 ‘Cote du Py’ Morgon.

Beaujolais Cru is already great wine. When the French take the Gamay grape seriously it can produce wondrous results. The Foillard, however, is a wine unto itself. Deep, complex, and textured, this is a Grand Cru from Beaujolais. Its structure and intensity do not overwhelm immediate drinking. Instead, they support the cherry, strawberry and wonderful herbs and flowers that usher up from the glass. This wine definitely enjoyed decanting and is stunningly delicious now even while it can age for quite some time.

As with every wine in this writeup, Foillard is a ‘natural’ producer who adds little sulpher and is extremely vigilant with avoiding chemical fertilizers etc.

But it is not biodynamics or organics that matter here. Rather, these are wines made with passion, expertise and a willingness to sacrifice the ego and easy money in order to have the chance at producing something wonderful. That certain producers have mastered this balance is a testament more to them than it is to any particular methodology or philosophy. In the end it is a unique confluence of human and non-human that matters – nothing more or less.

Terroir – The Meaning of it All

Terroir: a concept, a philosophy, the source of countless debates. Also, a wine bar. But Terroir is also much more than a wine bar – it is the physical expression of a conviction for what I like to call ‘honest’ wine. Biodynamics, organics, natural wine. None of these labels matter. Terroir, a wine bar in the SOMA district of SF, really just pours a lot of delicious wine in an unpretentious space where you get to listen to classic and modern vinyl records while drinking mind-altering wines.

What did I have? As much as I could swallow.

Starting with the Palo Bea ‘Rusticum’ – which is basically a white wine with 15 days skin contact made by a bunch of nuns in Umbria. Delicious, singular and powerful. This is not subtle, but it is very very tasty. And it will change your perceptions of what white wine should/can taste like. I may have enjoyed the Damijan more, but this is great stuff.

Of course, the five other wines I tasted were all delicious, with standouts being an amazing 2006 Nusserhof Teroldego from Alto Aldige (large, gamey, singular), the Breton 2009 ‘La Diletante’ Bourguiel (delicious forest floor and clean cool black fruit) and the Julien Sunier 2008 Fleurie (probably the most aromatically beautiful Gamay I’ve ever smelled, topping even the Foillard).

The Reflections

Simply put: my palate has changed. I no longer enjoy extracted overly fruity wines; wines with overt wood tannins; wines that taste like caramel, or rich poached pears, or like red licorice. I also no longer enjoy most ‘prestige’ wines, whose personality seems to have been emphatically drowned out by technique and an amazing lack of accessibility and beauty.

These days I’ve turned to honest wines. Those with something I can’t understand – but with something undeniably compelling. They aren’t always easy to find, but last weekend in San Francisco served up an impressive survey into the kinds of wine that will forever change the landscape of my journey.

Posted in: San Francisco


  1. Joon S.
    August 12, 2010

    Shea, it’s posts like this that make me envy you. Not only were you in San Francisco, but you were eating delicious, exquisite food. Not only were you eating delicious, exquisite food, you were drinking some unique, thirst-inspiring wines. I am particularly intrigued by the 2003 Damijan Kaplja–wow! And I always love when others rave about Beaujolais. It’s such a terrific style of wine.

  2. Shea
    August 15, 2010


    I think it is wines like the Damijan that make this whole wine obsession worth it. Thanks for the envy ;).

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