You know how they're always fixing up the neighborhood after you leave? This always seems to be happening to me. They remodeled my junior high school the year I became a freshman in high school. They remodeled my high school the year after I graduated. They re-did my college freshman dorm the year after I moved out.... And they put a decent wine bar in the Financial District after I switched jobs and was no longer working there.
Sometimes, the world is out to get you. For those of you who don't share my bad luck, the addition of WINE Bar and Shop to the Embarcadero Center is certainly a stroke of good luck. That is, if you're one of the hundreds of downtown workers looking for a place to get a nice glass of wine instead of an overpriced cocktail or a sports bar.
Tucked inconspicuously into the corner of the Embarcadero Two building in the Embarcadero Center, WINE offers a comfy, colorful environment for all-day wine enjoyment. There aren't many places in this city where you can get a good glass of Riesling for breakfast, but as soon as the doors of WINE open at 10:00 AM, you can start yourself tasting away. For those who are serious about their mid-day consumption, the bar also offers no corkage fee on bottles purchased before 4:00 PM. Ordinarily the bar charges $12 if you want to open one of the bottles sold in the compact wine store that takes up the right hand side of their space, but if you buy a bottle and want to drink it over lunch, you pay only the retail price. Beats the heck out of a three martini lunch, doesn't it?
Whether you're perched at one of the 10 seats at the bar, at one of the tables with their bright purple bench seating, or in one of the plush booths near the back of the room, you'll have a good view of the open space which rapidly fills up as the day pushes past five o'clock.
Unlike some other wine bars in the city, WINE thankfully has table service, so if you manage to find someplace to sit, one of the knowledgeable servers will be around shortly to take your order or help you navigate through the frequently changing wine list. On any given week, WINE offers 5 sparkling wines, 2 roses, 9 whites, 10 reds, 3 ports and 5 miscellaneous dessert wines from a surprisingly wide variety of international wine regions. This standard list is also accompanied by two or three flights of wine based around a specific theme. One of the things I love about these flights are that they are actually explained on the menu. A full paragraph or three accompanies each flight, describing the wines, their producers, the region, and the varieties in each. This is an incredibly valuable service to their patrons, and it shows they take the fundamental purpose of a wine bar seriously: to introduce their customers to new wines and teach them something in the process.
The quality of the wines on the list are generally good. The international focus makes for a refreshing lack of California wines on the list -- only the number you would expect (3 or 4) on a 30 wine list that was trying to cover its global bases. The list makes a decent effort to include a few older wines as well as a few wines that are more premium wines which end up costing $15 or more dollars for a glass but which allow people to try wines that actually cost more than the $25 or $30 per bottle that many wine bars seem to focus on. All wines are available in both a 6 ounce full glass and a 3 ounce taste, and in proper stemware (though they do tend to pour all the half glasses in smaller tasting glasses, rather than the full sized stems).
The gracious and helpful explication that customers find on the wine list extends to the food menu as well, where in addition to olives, mixed charcuterie, and an antipasto platter, the bar offers a weekly selection of imported and domestic cheeses, each accompanied by a paragraph about where it comes from and what it tastes like, something that all restaurants in San Francisco that offer serious cheeses could do well to provide their customers.
The level of explanation offered on the menu is a good indication of the general knowledge of the staff, which tends to be quite high. On one occasion I had a server offer me erroneous recommendations (like pushing me towards a zinfandel, suggesting it was similar to the Pinot Noir I wanted that they were sold out of), but most other visits have proven that their staff regularly taste the wines on offer, and the more experienced staff, including the owners, have an excellent level of knowledge about what they are pouring.
The crowd at WINE is always a mix of suit wearing Financial District folks and, well, non-suit wearing Financial District folks, with an occasional mall shopper and t-shirt wearing tourist thrown in. On Thursday and Friday nights, the place can become a bit deafening and standing room only, as a good chunk of wine-loving San Francisco unwinds from the week. I've passed the place by on a couple of occasions at the prospect of clutching my wine glass to my chest as I squeezed out a bit of space in the crowd, but when it's not packed, WINE will always be my choice for meeting a friend for a drink downtown after work.
WINE Bar and Shop
Two Embarcadero Center
(facing Front Street)
San Francisco, CA 94111
Open starting at 10:00 AM until 11:00 PM weeknights, plus an extra hour on Fridays. Open Saturdays 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM and Sundays Noon until 7:00 PM.
Street parking in the area is practically non-existent, but there are parking garages under the Embarcadero Center. BART Embarcadero center is 3 blocks away, as is the MUNI F-line streetcar.
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