Thursday, October 8, 2009

NorCal 2009, Day Five: The Allure of Terroir

Not having been to San Francisco for the better part of a dozen years, it was eye opening to walk through the Mission District, our first stop upon driving into town, and see just how much things have changed. It’s not that gentrification has put a complete whitewash on the neighborhood. No, it’s still got a certain undercurrent of grunge to it. But it’s become hipster central. Bike shops, record stores, cafés and indie boutiques dot every corner and – just like in Philly – it seems everyone's riding a fixie (or at least a single speed). There’s still quite a divide between Mission itself and Valencia, just one block away, where most of the hipstrification has occurred. But changed it all has. Whether that change is for the better is, I’m sure, a matter of debate among longtime SF residents.

The new development I was really looking forward to, though, was in the pipeline for later in the afternoon. A first time visit to Terroir (aka, Terroir SF), where natural wine, little if any of it from California, is served up by a handful of guys who are passionate about what they’re pouring, what they’re spinning, the vibe they’re making, and how it all comes together in a little storefront spot on a quiet, somewhat neglected block of Folsom Street.

In light of the timing of Eric Asimov’s piece – in which I play a referentially credited supporting role – on New York wine bar The Ten Bells in this week’s New York Times (with a cross-post at The Pour), comparisons between Terroir and The Ten Bells seem only inevitable.

Terroir's by the glass list on the day of our visit.

In one sense they’re actually quite different. The Ten Bells (check out my recent write-up) is a bar that just happens to feature a small but eclectic and fantastic selection of natural wines. Terroir, on the other hand, is actually a wine shop, albeit one that looks and feels much more like a casual wine bar. Their by the glass list is similar in scope to that at TTB, with a dozen or so decidedly natural wines poured by the glass on any given day. The bottle list at Terroir, though, is long and deep, the kind of list that can take an hour to digest if one is so inclined. And every one of those bottles is available for retail sale. For now, the wine bar is the dominant part of the business but that may change as the shop matures, especially if the owners are able to execute their goal of establishing an e-tail presence.

Terroir co-owners, Luc Ertoran and Dagan Ministero.

In a larger sense, however, the two spots share a great deal in common. I’ve found few wine-oriented bars in this country that share a similar sense of spirit, fun, passion and comfort. As dangerous as is The Ten Bells for a certain ilk of wine lover, Terroir might just be even more potentially addictive. It’s warmer, softer or “homier,” as my pal Wolfgang, the “wine writer from San Francisco,” called it. There’s pretentiousness to be found in both, I suppose, if you go looking for it. But at root, Terroir is just a place run by guys who take their wine seriously and want to share the common experience that great wine can evoke with the people who find their way in the door. There’s no guarantee you won’t be greeted with a mild dose of attitude, though that’s perhaps less likely than in the past given the recent departure of founding partner Guilhaume Gerard, who has left Terroir in order to pursue other ventures in the wine world. But you’re much more likely to be turned on to something new and to have fun, whether it’s geeking out or just enjoying the company of friends, in the process. The inimitable Joe D. sums it up:
“The sad thing is that only 10 Bells and Terroir in San Francisco have this ambiance. You would think there would be copycats cropping up all over the place. Part of what makes these two wine bars unique is the owners and staff at both places travel frequently in Europe, meet and make choices in the cellars, and know the vignerons on their list. They are not waiting around to taste wines from importers and wholesalers, but are going out into the vineyards to find wines that they love.”

Joe’s thoughts may be considered a little biased given that his portfolio features heavily on the lists at both Terroir and The Ten Bells, but I think he’s actually pretty dead-on. It’s the clear love of wine at the very root of the shop’s mission that makes Terroir such a fantastic place to hang (though the excellent vinyl collection certainly doesn't hurt).

Our starting pours. Bonus points to anyone who can ID all three. (Hint: they're all from the by-the-glass list.)

In a somewhat freakish twist, it turned out to be an almost all New Jersey affair. At one point or another, just about everyone in the place (Sunday afternoon is a very mellow time to visit Terroir, btw) had lived in the Garden State – my wife and I, our friends Steve (at left, above) and Stacy (far right), their friends Dan and Maria (center), the chef from a local restaurant, another guy who just happened to stop by for a glass on his way elsewhere…. Co-owner Dagan Ministero, it turns out, grew up at the Jersey shore. Only Luc was left out....

Our Sunday afternoon visit, conceptualized as a quick stop for a glass or two before dinner, quite naturally morphed into a four-hour affair. No one wanted to leave, plain and simple, so we didn’t, at least not until the closing bell.

1116 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 558-9946
Terroir on Urbanspoon


Such was the draw of Terroir, and my comfort/fun level once there, that I felt no compunctions about spending a solid chunk of Sunday there even in full knowledge that I’d be right back the next night for a little pre-planned wine blogger mash-up. Monday night’s get together almost had its legs cut out from under it, though, when it was reported that Terroir had suffered water damage late the night before as the result of flooding in the apartments located upstairs. Luckily, things were cleaned up enough for the show to go on, so Joe Manekin of Old World Old School, Cory Cartwright (who now works at Terroir) of Saignée, Wolfgang Weber of Spume (and Wine & Spirits Magazine), wine nut and Disorder man extraordinaire Slaton Lipscomb, Emily Straley, Dagan (who had no choice in the matter), and I all got together to share a few glasses and talk about life, wine and, of course, music. I won’t even attempt tasting notes from the evening’s festivities, as Joe’s already provided the full lowdown at OWOS.

It turns out that the flood damage has taken its toll after all. I don’t have full details on the extent of the damage but I do know that, as of this past Monday, October 5, Terroir has closed its doors for approximately one month to allow for repairs. That’s a long time for a small business to close, but something tells me these guys will come back ready and rarin’ to go, maybe even with a few new discoveries made in the course of their forced vacations.

Be sure to check Terroir's website for updates before planning your next trip and, in the meanwhile, please join me in wishing the guys best of luck with the repairs.


TWG said...

12 years is too long, Terroir is a place I'll very much like to visit. Hope they recover quickly. My guesses:

foreground: Breton Dilettante

middle: Bea Rusticum

background: DeMoor Aligote

1WineDude said...

Sounds kick-ass!

David McDuff said...

Who are you, TWG??? In retrospect, the Bea was a bit of a giveaway and there weren't that many other options... but still, you nailed all three on the first go. Nicely done.

OneDude, yes, it kicks ass. When in SF, be sure to go.

TWG said...

The Bea was a give away, but who could resist an orange wine by the glass? I presumed you would guide your guests to some nice wines and you like aligote and the Breton Vouvray would be a must try.
Prices appear shockingly reasonable to a PA/NJ consumer. Did I win any of those famed MDFWT tasting notes?

David McDuff said...

Can't say I've ever thought of my tasting notes as prizes, Tom, or as famed for that matter. Thanks, though. I think....

The prices at Terroir are definitely very reasonable. I don't remember the exact formula Luc told me they use for pricing the wines for on-site consumption, but it's something along the lines of 40 points above the retail cost (what you'd pay, in this case, to take a bottle home with you). Compare that to the average 3x markup in Philly....

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