Melissa Gisler, founder and managing partner
“The name ‘Ottimista’ means optimist in Italian,” explains Melissa Gisler, founder and managing partner of the Italian-inspired wine bar in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. “We always think of the wine glass as half full.”
Gisler truly was an optimist when she opened the wine bar three and a half years ago without any previous experience other than as an avid wine lover and amateur chef. Her vinous epiphany occurred while on a business trip to Rome, when Gisler discovered Italian enotecas, convivial neighborhood spots. “It was an eye-opener,” recalls Gisler, who realized that San Francisco didn’t have any such wine bars.
With a shoestring budget, Gisler designed the décor herself. “It’s a homespun effort, but I think that rustic feeling makes the place work.” Details like wine barrels that serve as tables, a whole wall covered with wine racks and a fresco of an old map of Italy reinforce the enoteca atmosphere.
The focus, of course, is on Italian wines, with 35 six-ounce pours and roughly 250 by the bottle. Four high-end selections usually not available by the glass also are offered by the quartino, and two flights are menued. Selections change frequently. There are new by-the-glass selections every day, and the whole list rotates every week or two. The bottle list changes about once a month. “We’re always discovering new wines and great values,” notes Gisler.
Ottimista’s proprietor encounters many new wines at Vinitaly, the annual wine fair in Verona. After a week of sampling at the exhibition, she spends an additional week in Italy, visiting vineyards and forging personal relationships with producers. The fruits of these annual pilgrimages are often new and esoteric wines for Ottimista’s list.
“Because we have crazy stuff on our list, wines customers wouldn’t gravitate to on their own, we primarily hand-sell our list,” points out Gisler. All the staff is passionate and knowledgeable about wine, and most have worked at the restaurant since it opened. Training sessions are held once a month, augmented by field trips to local wineries.
Unusually, Ottimista also has an unlimited free-taste policy. “If a customer orders a wine they haven’t had before, I will always pour them a taste before they commit,” says Gisler.
Promotions include a buy one, get one free happy hour on Tuesdays and bottle prices that are reduced by a third every Sunday evening. Winemaker-oriented events are held frequently. Additionally, each month there’s a focus on a different region of Italy, with wines and local dishes from that region.
Every bottle offering is listed both with an on-premise and a to-go price, with the to-go price about a third less. Customers will try a wine, like it, and take a bottle home because they know they can’t find it anywhere else, says Gisler.
“My mission is to introduce people to really exciting wines that are under the radar,” concludes Gisler. “I think people like that sense of discovery.”