How Visiting Dozens of SF Wine Bars Led me to Becoming a Bridesmaid
Genie wrote this ringing endorsement of the San Francisco Wine Passport without being asked. Many of the places she mentions from the last SF Wine Passport are in this year’s edition, but we’ve rotated some new ones in this this time around to keep up the variety. You can get yours right here before it sells out.
It was September of 2018 when I saw the email and texted Alyssa “Want to get this Broke-Ass Stuart wine passport and have wine adventures together?”
“Omg, yes!!” she responded, and we both bought our passports right away. She was flying to South Africa with her then-boyfriend Conrad, who had grown up there. As it would turn out, this was the trip on which Conrad would propose to her, and they would return to America engaged. But she didn’t know at the time what the next year would hold except, now, lots of very cheap glasses of wine.
Being the pragmatic/broke/stingy SF native that I am, as soon as I received the passport in the mail I started designing different potential groupings of wine bars. I looked up all the locations and designed ways for us to hit as many as possible in any given night using public transit. I was determined to go to every single place in the booklet and goddammit I would get my 23 very cheap glasses of wine.
Night 1: Early November, Hayes Valley/ Soma
We decided to meet at Noir, a small spot on Hayes and Laguna. Unfortunately, when we got there we were told that it was closed for a private event. There was a gaggle of girls in tight dresses and high high heels standing outside, which we quickly moved past. Neither Alyssa nor I have ever been known to wear heels unless forced.
Most of the other places around Hayes Valley were already closed, as we had made the mistake of going out on a Sunday. But, one place called Hotel Biron, situated in a little alley near Market St was open, so we went there. We sat in an adorable brick room with couches and had our first glass of wine, discussing Alyssa’s upcoming wedding, all the excitement and the anxieties of it. The place was so cute and welcoming, we both plan to go back again when we’re in the neighborhood. (Note: As you can probably tell by now, this article is not really about the wine. I don’t know anything about wine.)
We then headed to two spots on Folsom right near each other, Oola and Jamber. We had Oola’s mac and cheese which was fantastic, especially after two glasses of wine. Alyssa said she liked the wine at Jamber the best of the night.
We were three glasses in but felt like we could do one more, so we hopped on the train to the Castro and went to Blackbird (a little loud for my taste, but not otherwise objectionable). I had a vague drunken memory of being there before but couldn’t place it. At this point we’d had quite a bit of wine and our conversation was getting more and more touchy feely. It was nice because prior to this, we hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to hang out one on one, since our men were in a band together and we usually all hung out together.
We parted ways from there, agreeing to have our next wine adventure as soon as we could.
Night 2: Maybe also November? I’m a terrible journalist. Fillmore/ Pac Heights
We met at Fat Angel, which Alyssa said was her sister’s first date location with her now-husband. I was super late because I always forget how long the walk actually is from Van Ness to Fillmore; in my mind it’s only like two blocks, right? Alyssa was already sitting there with her glass of wine in the adorable little wine bar where I could definitely see many first dates happening.
I ordered and the bartender thanked me for tipping. She said a lot of the people who used the passport didn’t tip. For shame! Alyssa and I have both spent portions of our lives in the service industry and were shocked by this. When you use the passport you MUST tip!
We then moved around the corner to Social Study and Alyssa told me she had to ask me an important question. “Will you be my bridesmaid? I was thinking about who I would really want up there with me, and I would be really happy if you would do it.” Of course I agreed, perhaps over-emphatically due to the second glass of wine in my bloodstream.
We decided our next place would be Scopo Divino, which it turned out had replaced one of my favorite restaurants, the Trattoria. It was all fancy now, with a live band and everything. The waitress refused our tips. The owner came by and asked how we heard about the place. We ordered some bruschetta as a snack, but were shocked to see a bill of $20 for what was literally 4 tiny pieces of bread with a little prosciutto on them. That’s the thing about fancy places. I miss the Trattoria.
Feeling like we could handle more, we hopped on the 22 to Hayes Valley and made our second attempt at visiting Noir, which was pleasantly decorated and themed but rather loud. We got out of there as soon as we had finished our glass and headed to the train station on Market. But noooooo the train wasn’t coming for 30 minutes.
“Well,” Alyssa said– and I want to be very clear that it was Alyssa and NOT ME, “there is another place close by…”
That was how we ended up having a FIFTH glass of wine while waiting for the train at a sportsy place called Hazel on Market. I honestly don’t remember much about it except that the staff was very nice, but take note if you’re ever in the area and stuck waiting for a train. I was very hungover the next day. Five glasses is a lot for me. The next time I saw Conrad, he said to me “What did you do to Alyssa?” Again, I want to be VERY CLEAR that ALYSSA suggested the fifth glass, NOT ME. Although it does sound like something I would do.
Night 3: Early February, Castro/Mission
We met up at Blush which is one of those places I had walked by a million times and thought “one day when I have money I’ll go here.” (Note: I still have no money! Funny how things work out.) The wine was good, and the location is very central to the energy of the Castro. We then walked down the street to Swirl, which was super adorable and they gave us cheese which I always appreciate.
After that we decided to take the bus over to 16th and Mission and try Slate, which I had already made two attempts to visit but failed due to it being closed for private events. This one was no different, which was annoying. We decided to hop on the 14 and go to the next nearest place, which was Blue Plate in Bernal. Which it turns out is a restaurant. A very small one. The waitress said we could stand in the corner if we just wanted to have our wine, so we awkwardly stood drinking our glasses as quickly as we could, laughing about the lengths we would go to get cheap wine.
Determined to get one more glass in, we took the 14 all the way back up to SOMA, the craziness of the bus softened by the three glasses we had already consumed. We talked a lot about the upcoming Oscars throughout the bus ride and our visit to Terroir. I had visited there before for a poetry reading– they have a cool upstairs space and the place is pretty cute and comfortable. It was a good spot to end the night on, friendly and with, as far as I could tell in my drunken state, good wine.
Random Solo Jaunt: SOMA
We hadn’t really figured out a way to integrate some of the SOMA spots into our regular adventures, and I happened to be in the neighborhood with nothing to do for two hours. I was on my way to volunteer usher for a show and figured one or two glasses of wine wouldn’t hinder my ability to pass out programs.
I went to Waystone first, which is one of those spots on Market that are trying to be fancy while shooing away homeless people from their outdoor seating. When I went to the bathroom, I had to go through a door that led to the next building then down an elevator to a creepy basement. There was a staircase by the elevator with a bouncer sitting by it. “What’s up there?” I asked the bouncer. “It’s the Warfield,” he said. He let me peek up to the stairs, where you could see inside the venue. The last time I was at the Warfield I was seeing Cake on New Year’s when I was in college. I kinda wanted to talk to the bouncer more since he seemed like he’d seen some things, but I had to move on if I wanted to get to ushering in time.
Night 4: April, all over the damn place
Alyssa and I met up at Belle Cora in North Beach, which is easily one of the cutest places we had been. We sat in their outdoor seating, which was incredibly pleasant and European. Alyssa was dealing with a lot of anxiety over planning her wedding — trying to please everyone, changes in the date due to family drama. I was still coming out of my yearly winter depression. It felt very nice to have this time together with the added benefit of free wine. After Belle Cora, we got a cannoli at the bakery where I used to work, Stella Pastry, and perused City Lights.
We then decided to hop on the bus to Jax, which is somewhat deep in the most confusing part of Soma, near the ballpark. We got off at the wrong stop and had to walk a few extra blocks. Then, just as we were about to step out to cross the street, a car accident happened literally right in front of us: a car coming off the freeway hit a motorcyclist. It was probably twenty feet in front of us, and neither of us had ever witnessed a car crash like that. The motorcyclist, thankfully, got up and pulled his wrecked bike out of the way, but not before a bunch of impatient Uber drivers honked at him to get out of their way. Yet another reason Uber is the worst.
That put a bit of a damper on the evening, but we continued optimistically to Jax, only to discover it was closed. Curses! They had super weird short hours and weren’t open on weekends.
Determined to get at least one more glass, we headed to Hayes Valley to hit up Pause. But when we got there, it was some kind of brewery called something totally different at the address we tried. Dammit Stuart! You printed the wrong address on the passport! We found the actual address on google, and were very graciously greeted by the bartender, who seemed to think he would be famous from this article. Except I don’t remember his name! I’m the worst. In any case, he told us they do trivia nights and game nights, which sounded pretty cool, and the place had a really friendly neighborhood vibe.
We decided to try Slate one more time, and walked there from Pause. Success! We got our wine and had a good end to our night. I probably would go back to Slate if I wanted to go dancing. We took some cute photos in their photo booth before we parted ways for the evening.
Random side jaunt: Jax, again
My boss gave me his invite to some fancy bank party that I didn’t care about, but me and my similarly broke writer friend Susan decided to go because it said there were free oysters. There were no such oysters, but we did get a free dinner catered by Nopalito so I guess it was worth it. We tactfully slipped out before the presentation started. The upside was also that the place was right near Jax, and it was actually open! This place is a cute oasis in an otherwise shitty part of SoMa, so if you ever happen to be in that part of town within their extremely limited hours, I guess go for it. (I think they do a lot of private events, so that might explain it.)
Night 5: June, Sunset/ West Portal
We had gone through a lot of the places already and our options had dwindled, so we decided to, shockingly, only go to two places in one night. We started at the pleasant neighborhood spot Inner Fog, which is in Alyssa’s hood. She had already used her voucher there on a meeting with a former friend of both of ours (long story). She said she figured if she had to spend the evening with her, she would at least do it with a free glass of wine.
The owner was super nice and we ended up getting multiple glasses there before hopping on the bus to West Portal. Vin Debut was also a cute spot, certainly one I would return to if hankering for wine in West Portal. We also had a delicious artichoke dip. Alyssa’s wedding date was in August, and I had just gotten my bridesmaid dress tailored; we talked about this and other things. It seemed far away to me but, I imagine, very soon to her.
Night 6: August, Gratta Wines
Of course the last page left in my passport was for Gratta Wines. Not because we doubted its quality, but because it’s located in Bayview, which is not a place I have occasion to frequent. So on a lovely August Saturday, Alyssa picked me up and we drove to Bayview for the finale to our year of wine adventures.
Gratta Wines did not disappoint, in fact it was the perfect way to top off our year of wine. We walked past friendly neighborhood people hanging out on the street playing music out of their car speakers, who all said hello. The winemaker herself, Barbara, greeted us as we sat down at the small counter where a few others were sipping glasses. Not only was she super hospitable to us, but everyone in the area seemed to know her. Several neighborhood residents popped in while we were there, including an extremely tall BBQ-master and a woman named Brandy who extensively told all of us about her life. How she had five kids, the oldest of which was killed, and she now raised his baby. How she wanted to be a stand-up comedian, how she wanted to tell people her stories and to make them laugh.
One of the ladies in the corner actually turned out to be someone who knew my mom. The room was diverse, the wine was good, and everyone got along. That’s what the world could be, if we want it: people of all backgrounds getting together in a neighborhood spot, drinking good wine, and talking to each other. While the other wine bars we went to are all varying degrees of bougie ranging from just-the-right-amount-of-fancy-for-when-you-feel-like-it to pointlessly overpriced and basic, Gratta Wines is the community-oriented spot I wish every neighborhood could have.
Alyssa and I talked about her bachelorette party, which was coming up in a few weekends. By the end of the month, she would be married. I asked her if she would want to do another year of wine if a new passport came out and she said “hell yeah.” Because, what a great year we had! We discovered new places, drank really cheap wine, became closer friends. We have places in every neighborhood we will go back to together.
So is it worth the $40? Hell yeah!