San Francisco is without a doubt the best situated city in the United States for oenophiles. With Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino to the north, the Central Coast to the south, and the Sierra Foothills to the east, it is literally bounded on three sides by some of the finest wine growing regions in the world. Couple this with top-tier cuisine and an innovative and daring culinary movement, and there are few places better suited to enjoying a spectacular glass of wine with an awe-inspiring meal.
All this is not missed by wine professionals, and San Francisco has an astounding array of some of the best sommeliers in the business. Wine is not just a luxury in San Francisco’s dining scene – it’s a way of life. Although there are many upstanding sommeliers and stewards in San Francisco, I have here tried to pare it down to three of the finest.
Perhaps one of the most aptly-named professionals in the business, Emily Wines is among the most talented as well. She joined the team of Fifth Floor Restaurant in 2000, working under Raj Parr, now at Michael Mina. Earlier this year she was made a Master Sommelier – one of only fifteen women so honored in the United States. In taking her exam she passed all three sections on her first try, earning her the coveted Remi Krug Cup. Ms. Wines brings a deep knowledge and a genuine passion to Fifth Floor Restaurant’s wine program. Her love of wine must be infectious, because the staff seems equally infatuated, and nearly everyone on the floor is able to speak easily and vibrantly about the wine selection.
The wine list at Fifth Floor is nothing short of astounding. A Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 2001, it is one of the most comprehensive in the Bay Area. It is a hefty book, with more than 1,500 wines, with a particular emphasis on Burgundy, the Rhone, and California. The list features a number of interesting and affordable wines by the glass, such as a 2005 Chateau Rayas La Pialade, and a 1979 Toro Albala Pedro Ximanéz Gran Reserva. Where it really shines, though, is in its vintage depth of outstanding vineyards, such as the 1969 Maison Leroy Chambertain, or the 1978 Mommessin Clos de Tart. Ms. Wines has done a remarkable job, not simply sitting by and stewarding an already great wine list, but building it up and making it even stronger.
Raj Parr is one of the most respected sommeliers, not only in San Francisco, but in the entire country. Talk to anyone who works with wine in the Bay Area, and they’ll likely have an anecdote or two to share about Raj. He studied under Rubicon’s Larry Stone, a legend in his own right, before moving on to establish the Grand Award-winning wine list at Fifth Floor. In 2003 he took over as wine director for the Mina Group, and soon had made Michael Mina the first restaurant ever to be honored with a Wine Spectator Grand Award within a year of opening.
His passion for teaching wine can be seen in the many disciples he’s trained who have gone on to become brilliant sommeliers in charge of their own programs, not least among them Emily Wines. He passes on this knowledge to every member of the waitstaff as well, with regular tastings helping to inform them about new selections and to understand the best fits for the menu of the moment. Raj’s team at Michael Mina is among the best in the city, and the service itself is impeccable, with perfect stemware, glasses seasoned, and wines poured effortlessly and without intrusion.
The list Raj has built at Michael Mina is large, at over 2,800 wines, and focuses on Old World selections, with a special emphasis on Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, and Austria. He has also built up an impressive range of California wines, including some very rare producers and vintages. He has a strong showing of half bottles – always a treat – including gems like a 2005 Perrot-Minot Morey St. Denis La Riotte and a 1983 Château Margaux. The Champagnes are the real stars of the show, though, with outrageous rarities like a 1928 Lanson, and grower-producer showstoppers like the 1990 Alain Robert Tradition. Raj Parr offers an unbeatable wine program at Michael Mina: great pairing advice, flawless service, and a wine list easily among the five most interesting in all of California.
Alan Murray is another of Larry Stone’s disciples, having worked under him at Rubicon from 1998 on. In 2001 he took over the list at Masa’s, taking a shining star and making it glow even more brightly. In 2005 he was made a Master Sommelier – the first Australian to have earned that distinction. Murray has a keen understanding of what makes wine service great, and the staff at Masa’s, under his diligent instruction, create an environment of ease that makes the wine all the more enjoyable.
At around 900 wines, Murray’s wine list is somewhat modest in size when compared to titans like Michael Mina or the French Laundry, but it makes up for it in the laser-like precision of its selections. Masa’s offers a fantastic choice of smaller-size winemakers, giving diners the opportunity to try some truly rare wines from some of the best producers in the world. Murray has also obviously put a lot of energy into bringing to light lesser-known varietals, especially natives from wine-growing regions in Italy and Spain. All this could be frightening at the wrong restaurant, with strange producer names and even stranger varietals populating the wine list. But at Masa’s, Alan Murray or one of his staff is always on hand to help walk you through your selection, guiding you to expand your horizons a bit and have wonderful new experiences.
© Restaurant Agent Inc.