Wine bars typically depend on street traffic to bring in customers, often have a “see and be seen” vibe, contemporary décor and menus with plenty of familiar choices. The Barrel Room has none of those and yet since opening in August of 2011 has quickly built a loyal following.
Just beyond Union Square in San Francisco, The Barrel Room is located in the back of the 54-room Fitzgerald, a Victorian-style, boutique hotel that caters to budget travelers. The only street access is from an alley, and down a set of stairs, giving it a hideaway feel. The Victorian décor carries into the bar where cream and brown walls are accented by red and gold touches with comfortable seating, tasteful antiques and vintage wine prints and maps. Working with concierges has helped put the location on the map for visitors who mingle with locals and regulars.
A New Take
The bar feels cozy, informal and old fashioned, but the three young owners might be described as modern wine geeks and evangelists. Nikki Goddard has an advanced Wine & Spirit Education Trust certificate, Carolyn Johnson has a certificate from the Sommelier Society of America and Sarah Trubnick has certificates from both. Each have worked at wineries, in retail and at the current location under previous ownership. The small scale of the bar allows them to have greater interaction with guests, and to showcase their passion for obscure varietals and unfamiliar regions.
Every six weeks the bar features a different region with wines by the glass as well as comparisons and flights. Flights are three glasses while the comparisons are a blind tasting of two half glasses. Says Trubnick, “Our best selling wine from the French rotation was an obscure pick, Domaine Ilarria Irouléguy ($11). That’s success for us.”
The wine menu has about 48 wines by the glass and 160 bottles, priced from $27 to a high of $107. The bottle list grows as bottles of wines that were offered by the glass from the previous region go into the cellar. Wines are organized by profile such as light and crisp, aromatic, bold, plush, spicy or earthy making the esoteric menu more approachable. The owners and a third member of their team tasted more than 4,000 wines in two months before opening in August 2011. So what makes it on their list? Says Trubnick, “It has to be quality and if it’s older it has to be incredible. Uniqueness is one of the major requirements. It has to be representative of where it’s from.”
The menu includes one wine-based cocktail, based on the featured region and a diverse list of 12 beers from around the world. Featuring beer at a wine bar may be unusual, but according to Goddard, “Our customers want it. We wanted to feel like there was something for everyone. Sarah and I brew beer at home and didn’t see any reason to exclude it.” In addition to Japanese, German and Belgian beers, priced from $6 to $19 for a 750-ml. bottle, they also offer a couple of local beers including Almanac, which offers seasonal brews using local fruit.
The wine bar format allows for flexibility in pricing. Says Trubnick, “We try to do less than a restaurant markup.” Glasses range from $6 for 2010 Quinta da Azevedo Vinho Verde to $15 for 2008 Blue Rock Baby Blue (a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and merlot from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma), but generally hover around the $12 mark. Likewise the bottles range from $27 for 2006 Mildiani Katsiteli from the Republic of Georgia to a high of $107 for 2001 Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot Premier Cru from Burgundy with around $40 being the sweet spot.
Complementing the wine and beer is a food menu put together by local chutney producer Alison McQuade. It features charcuterie, cheeses each paired with different tangy fruit chutneys (many of which change seasonally) and flatbreads, priced $3 to $12. A local baker provides the flatbreads and the toppings change to match the regional rotation such as chorizo, piquillo pepper and honey to go with the Iberian theme. Offering food and beer in addition to their lengthy wine list encourages customers to linger longer, which is sure to please guests and owners alike.