Natural’s Not In It, or, In Search of Clean Wine

Apologies to Gang of Four…

So Monday night found me out on the town with the Third Degree. I was at the magazine until late trying to come up with something timely to say about the American Biodynamic movement, specifically following the Biodynamics Forum held here in San Francisco this past November. I managed about a paragraph before the noisy neighbors, a massive tasting hangover and plain ol’ writer’s block set in. Thankfully my phone rang; Third Degree was outside, and she was surrounded by a crowd of people leaving the AA meeting (yes, among the colorful building mates here at the W&S San Francisco HQ is a AA affiliate club). Locked up and headed downstairs.

We went first to Local (no website yet), which a friend of mine is involved with. Official opening day is today, December 11, although they’ve been soft opening for a couple weeks now. S and I went a couple weeks ago to test the menu–good, simple food, the kind of comfort fare appropriate to a place aiming for a neighborhood vibe. But tonight was more of an opening party, and the place was mobbed. We hung around for a drink watching the crowd and then decided to split.


On a whim I suggested that we check out Terroir, a natural wine store and bar that opened recently over on 7th and Folsom near Julie’s Supper Club. Like a lot of people in the wine biz these days, I’m taken with the concept of ‘natural wine’–which, put most simply, means a wine that’s made with as little intervention on the part of the winemaker as possible, and that respects the traditions of its region. In some ways these are wines that, in theory, could have been made the same way 100 or more years ago. Marcel Lapierre, Josko Gravner, Catherine and Pierre Breton, and basically any wine imported by Louis/Dressner, fall into this category. Apparently natural wine bars are the hip thing in Paris (my friend Peter Liem wrote an excellent article listing some of these watering holes in the December issue of Wine & Spirits).

Natural wine is a vague term that feels simultaneously honest and maybe just a bit romantic. It’s also in danger of becoming another meaningless marketing term in the endless cycle of winespin. Remember ‘organic’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable‘? But these are superb wines of true character, and I’m hopeful that their greatness can transcend the trend. And in any case, if this is a trend, I’m all for it.

Terroir was empty when we arrived and it pretty much stayed that way all night, save for a guy who came in for a glass and promptly asked why the bar was named terrier. Maybe these guys have their work cut out for them?

Anyway, I counted about 20 wines in the retail shop that I’d love to try, and the list of wines open for tasting (by the glass, carafe or bottle) was fantastic. Started off with a carafe of Domaine Jo Pithon Savennieres, which, as the charming Luc and Guilhaume–two of the three partners in Terroir–pointed out to the Third Degree is a textbook natural wine. Fresh, vibrant and completely engaging chenin blanc, this was the kind of wine Guilhaume meant when he explained that a natural wine for him is really a “clean wine.” I can get that–you feel good after drinking these wines, as if their inherent balance is transferred to those consuming them.

If you want a wine that’s not open for tasting at Terroir, you pop over to the retail part of the store and pick something out (there’s no wine list)–add $12 to the price and you can drink it there. After the Pithon we moved to Italy and had a bottle of the Erbaluna 2004 Langhe Nebbiolo. This was earthy, almost poopy, tar and roses nebbiolo with no taste of oak on it. Yum! I loved it. Third Degree? Well, she came around after a glass. But again, another one of these natural wines–in this case, made with organically grown grapes from the Barolo commune of La Morra. Good shit–literally (some decanting helped that).

So Terroir rocks. In fact, it’s my favorite wine bar in San Francisco–minimal, laidback, and with great wine that’s been chosen with care and passion. Plus the only food is salumi and cheese, none of this faux restaurant-wine bar stuff. Hell yeah, that’s how it should be.


Terroir Natural Wine Merchant, 116 Folsom St, San Francisco; 415-558-9946,

2 thoughts on “Natural’s Not In It, or, In Search of Clean Wine

  1. Thanks for checking out my post on Terroir. I agree – this is my favorite wine bar in the city. It’s clear that this will soon be a very popular spot for people in the bizness. What remains unclear is its acceptance and possible blowing up in the SF scene at large. Hopefully some momentum will get a greater diversity of clientele here, as it’s about time that a consensus develops in this town around more spots that are actually cool and are doing something of a high caliber (Read: not singing the oft repeated praises of a select few, overrated, overpriced stand-bys).

  2. Pingback: The Plant Kingdom Gets Down ‘n Dirty (or, I *Heart* San Francisco) « spume

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