Chuck Hayward from The Jug Shop
For example, I like The Jug Shop on San Francisco's Polk Street, because Chuck Hayward and his staff are such a gas. Hayward says a good retailer "has an incredible thirst for knowledge, and an incredible thirst." He talks very fast as he says that, and then explains how he began specializing in wines from the Southern Hemisphere in the early '90s, to distinguish his store from bigger chains. Now he's the man to see for hard to find New Zealand Pinot Noirs, and Australian GSM wines (that’s Aussie Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre).
"We have to be like record shops and book stores, and come up with unique offerings."
I especially like Hayward's disdain for wine snobbery, what he calls "The piss down approach to wine sales. If you don't like the wine I recommend, you're stupid."
Instead he flatters his customers. "They're very smart, he says, they know good wine, but these days they're looking for the $10 wine that tastes like $20; and the $20 bottle that tastes like $40."
I asked for two recommendations, a red and a white, for the modern, budget minded shopper; say someone celebrating landing a half-time job just good enough to pay the rent. He showed me a bottle of 2006 Sebastiani Sonoma Unoaked Chardonnay, a crisp, golden delicious apple of a wine, and a deal at $9.99. For a red he suggested The 2006 D'Arenberg Stump Jump, an Australian GSM wine full of raspberries and spice for $9.99.
Hayward and his staff host a lot of tastings (recently they coordinated the first Twitter tasting of Pinot Noir I've heard of), and that's also the mark of a great wine shop. It's one reason I stop in often at Farmstead Cheeses and Wines, with its two East Bay locations, Alameda and Montclair Village. Wine makers and wine brokers stop in on Friday (Montclair), and Saturday (Alameda) to pour in the back of these two tiny shops. You can taste upward of half a dozen wines (Your $3 is reimbursed if you buy anything; there's no cost to wine club members), before choosing what you want for dinner. It's very civilized.
Jeff Diamond owner of Farmstead Cheeses and Wines
Owner Jeff Diamond is a warm, effervescent man, a former publicist for arts groups and nonprofits. He embraces the scholarly connoisseur looking for St. Joseph from Yves Cuilleron, or Viognier from Alban Vineyards, as well as the picnicker upgrading from White Zinfandel. His motto: "Relax, it's just food." In fact, he got into the wine business to offer an alternative to elitist stores. "I would buy wine and come home really angry," Diamond says. "And my wife, Carol, would ask, 'Why are you so upset?' And I'd say, 'I just spent $1000 and I had to put up with someone else's agenda.'"
Diamond says Farmstead has one advantage over other shops, "Wine and cheese speak to each other." He often has California burrata (a kind of mozzarella with a creamy center). So on a Saturday afternoon, you can stop by the Feel Good Bakery, housed in the same Alameda Marketplace as Farmstead, and buy a baguette to rival any in the East Bay, then taste wine and cheese at Farmstead, tearing off pieces of your baguette to wash it down.
I challenged Diamond, as I did Chuck Hayward, for two wallet friendly wines, bottles to stave off thirst while preparing my taxes. He responded with the 2007 Morandé Terrarum Sauvignon Blanc from Chile ($10). It features fabulous lemon grass and grapefruit aromas, and leaves you wanting more and more. His favorite value in reds (this week) is the 2007 Monte Oton from Spain's Bodegas Borsao, a raspberry and black pepper treat made with grapes from 50-75 year old Grenache vines ($10).
You can't beat the attention and care that Diamond and Hayward take as they match their inventories to the tastes of their customers. But I confess I also buy wine at Safeway, which features utter commercial dreck next to incredible values. This week I'm drinking the terrific 2007 Ménage à Trois California Red from Napa's Folie a Deux ($7.98). They blend Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet into a wine that's full-bodied, spicy, and gulpable. For a white, I grabbed the 2007 Clos la Chance Unoaked Chardonnay ($6.98). It's crisp and lemony, and without another thought in its head. These are great bargains, but you won't find interesting imports at Safeway, or knowledgeable staff to help to match the wine to your meal.
Here in Northern California, we have dozens of other fabulous stores (and I hope you, my readers, will tell us about more of them). K&L features a dazzlingly deep selection online and in its three stores (San Francisco, Redwood City, and Hollywood). The East Bay features Kermit Lynch, arguably the most influential shop in the U.S., but narrow in its focus (France and Italy), and pricey. North Berkeley Imports has carved out a niche for its exclusive imports from Burgundy and Champagne. Solano Cellars pours oodles of good wine at its wine bar, and Paul Marcus shows off his impeccable taste at his store in Rockridge Market Hall.
The best thing is finding a store in your neighborhood-- (it's nice to walk home, not drive, after tastings!), where they get to know you, in the same way your barber or hairstylist knows you. And if you say you want a fruity red, with a little off the top, they know just what your palate needs.