Get the scoop on three of the hottest new wine bars.
Photography by Matt Edge
Wine bars are opening faster than screw-top wine bottles. From “natural” wine bars (Oakland’s new Punchdown) to Las Vegas–style trendsetters (San Francisco’s RN74), we count almost as many Bay Area wine bars as types of wine, and all of them different. While some are more wine shop than restaurant, others are very big on small plates. To make sense of it all, we sniffed out the perfect wine pairings at three of the East Bay’s newest, hottest wine bars.
Nibbling and sipping, we scanned the menu at Walnut Creek’s newest wine bar, in a downtown storefront that could easily be mistaken for a wine shop.
We sampled salumi from Italy and wines on tap from California, loving the lush cherry nose of the Sangiovese from Emeryville’s Periscope Cellars ($9). Then, we paired Brillat-Savarin cheese (French, of course) and a smattering of salad with a citrusy white from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. We matched flavors and textures, acidity and balance, savoring each morsel and moment, when suddenly our friend Rick dropped a bomb: He asked for “Napa.”
“We’ve got stuff that’s just as good,” replied our über-savvy server, as she recommended a flight of reds from the Rhône. With 27 flight wines (groupings of three small pours organized by region) and more than 50 wines by the glass, Residual Sugar offers more than a few stellar wine choices. You won’t find the best-known supermarket brands or the high-profile Cabs Rick was after. Nor will you find many hearty bites. But what you will find is a wine education.
Residual Sugar, 1684 Locust St., Walnut Creek, residualsugarwine.com.
Underdog Wine Bar
Underdog Wine Bar opened at Concannon Vineyards next to the main winery last summer. With handsome leather chairs, airy outdoor seating, and masses of beautiful people, Underdog has put Livermore Valley on the food and wine map. Most wines (including more than 50 by the glass) are from the Underdog Wine Merchants, a blue-collar versus blue-chip portfolio of reasonably priced wines, and include Concannon’s eco-friendly Conservancy line as well as offerings from the whimsically named It’s a Head Snapper brand and the capricious Cupcake Vineyards. Remember, Underdog champions the consumption of everyday-everyman wines, not precious Napa Cabs.
To match the wines, chef-caterer Barbara Llewellyn has composed an eclectic menu with a range of East-meets-West flavors, using locally sourced ingredients, that leave plenty of room for pairing. You’ll find crab cakes, caprese, and sliders (Warning: you will not want to share the pulled-pork sliders with chipotle slaw), as well as the standard wine bar offerings of cheese and olives. Of the three wine bars reviewed, Underdog is the only one that offers wine pairing suggestions on its menu, lending it a vibe that feels equal parts wine bar and food emporium.
Underdog, 4590 Tesla Rd., Livermore, (925) 583-1581, underdogwinebar.com.
It’s called an enoteca (the Italian equivalent for wine bar), but owner Joe Madison is the first to admit Enoteca Molinari is more of a restaurant. But few wine bars or restaurants have hit their stride as quickly. A line formed on College Avenue before the doors even opened in January.
Raised in this Oakland neighborhood of Northern Italian immigrants, Madison wanted Molinari to be an all-Italian affair, spotlighting the food and wine of Piedmont and Ligurian cuisines as familiar to him as his grandmother’s apron. So, after he renovated the tiny storefront in a family-owned building, he made two decisions: to feature an all-Italian wine list (most of it practically unpronounceable) and hire a great chef, in this case, Steve Jaramillo, formerly of Berkeley’s Lalime’s.
With its tightly spaced tables, Molinari feels simple and authentic. We loved the Italian tradition of illuminating the logo over the chef’s counter. But nothing is more authentic than the food. We passed on the cheese plates and started with the chickpea fries. Soon, we were eating our way through the insalate (the fennel, orange, and olive salad was magnifico) and slowly, and with feeling, launched right into the pasta. Ahhh … the pasta … housemade with family-style ragu. While each dish was uniformly delicious, several of the obscure wines we ordered had off flavors, and some of the whites were not served cold. Because it’s called an enoteca, we missed the walls of wine and the presence of a shiny Enomatic machine, which helps preserve the wine and is now standard in local wine bars. But as Madison says, Molinari may be more of a restaurant than a wine bar. And oh … the pasta …
Enoteca Molinari, 5474 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 428-4078, enoteca-molinari.com.
The bright berry aromatics of a 2009 Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley Vineyards ($13) broke my “Ahhh!” meter when paired with the crisp, salty, creamy eggplant and mozzarella panini ($10). After they arrived, no one came up for air.
The spicy-salty ahi tuna tartare tower with cucumber, avocado, radish, cilantro, wasabi aioli, and wonton chips ($15) went swimmingly with the crisp 2009 Darcie Kent Rava Blackjack Grüner Veltliner from Monterey, a bargain at $6. The menu suggested a Pinot Noir pairing, so I also tried the 2008 Brophy Clark, Santa Maria Valley ($8). Yummy, but the tart finish of the Darcie Kent worked better for me.
The tagliatelle al ragu ($12), a housemade pasta sauced with a meat and tomato ragu, paired with a velvety, medium-bodied red from Friuli, the 2007 La Viarte Schioppettino ($11).