Terroir is known as THE wine bar not to miss in San Francisco, it was the first to take the risk to offer a natural-wine-only list in California, a region which was late to embrace the uncorrected wines compared to New York or Montreal, and this article in the San Francisco Chronicle praised the opening of the venue in 2007, when Terroir slipped quietly through the back door of the city's wine scene. This was friday and Terroir was open from noon to 2am but I had called Luc and said I'd be there at around 5pm so as not to disturb in the peak hours.
We avoided the high costs of staying downtown San Francisco by staying a couple of nights just outside of the city, namely in the very nice Lake Chabot campground near Oakland, a suprising haven of peace just at the door of the Bay Area's tumult (see picture at bottom). The heart of the city was just a few minutes away through the majestic Oakland Bay bridge.
Terroir is centrally located and we found a convenient and affordable parking nearby for the day, the Silver Parking on 7th street (12 $), with all of this vibrant city of San Francisco at walking distance. As this was the morning we had a breakfast in a relaxed coffee shop near Terroir, the SoMa Inn Café, for me it was a short stack (3 pancakes) at 5,5 $ (didn't I suspect this city to be expensive ?). Their lunch and dinner menu is also very diverse and good value, it seemed to me from reading the menu (but for the wines I suggest you go to Terroir...).
Here I was at Terroir, a place I had heard about for a long time, and it was as if I had met Luc the previous day, he poured us something to quench our thirst and we chatted in between his addressing the patrons' needs.
I was impressed by the room first, the venues are roomier in the U.S. compared to France (just think to Racines) and while Terroir is not disproportionally huge, there's a lot of potential room on the street level and upstairs in the mezzanine overlooking the bar. In Europe the lack of room is often an arduous handicap for restaurants or bars but here the plentiful of it can threaten (from what I felt here and there) the natural balance of the place, call it Fengsui or space ergonomics. Terroir has the right equilibrium, you can feel at ease and cozy at the same time.
Luc says that from the start he chose this unpolished-planks decor on the walls, something that I guess reflected best the unfiltered and uncorrected wines he was to offer to the San Francisco public, but also a way to make people feel at ease, in a country where wine connoisseurship is often associated with exclusiveness and luxury. This is San Francisco anyway and people know the difference between content and fancy decor, otherwise they'd live in Carmel, a former charming small town that has now everything you wish to stay away from - sorry for my eventual readers who live there...;-)
A small precision, the glass on the picture is my glass, don't think she drinks on the job...
I thought that since Luc Ertoran has opened this place, he was somehow cut from the French natural-wine winegrowers, at least geographically, but I was stunned to learn that he had met Helda Rabaut, the young winemaker I wrote about recently, as early as last october. If a guy operating a wine bar at the other side of the world precedes me on visiting young nascent wineries, I better quit... Actually Luc was visiting a caviste in Chinon, Patrice of La Cave Voltaire and Helda was there, I guess to deliver her wines, and they chatted and had some wine there until 3am the next morning...
Asked how it all began Luc says that he came to the United States in june 2001 and years after that in november 2007 he opened Terroir in San Francisco, the interesting thing to note is that before 2005 he didn't drink wine...
In 2001 he wanted to leave France because of lack of opportunities and dynamics there [no need to say that things have largely worsened 12 years later], he was a substitute teacher in Paris suburbs, in areas the French Newspeak call zones en difficulté [in other words crime-ridden muslim neighborhoods]. Luc knew a bit the U.S. through previous visits in 1991 and 1997, he had some family living there and he made the leap in 2001, doing what few people do in a country with steadily-high unemployment, he quit the half-security of a state job. In the U.S. he worked in restaurants which put him unknowingly slowly on the path.
As for his wine sensibility, it's only in 2005 after tasting the cuvée Crépuscule 2004 by Domaine Peyra (an iconic and early natural-wine farm that closed since and whose heir today is Jean Maupertuis). The Gamay d'Auvergne of the cuvée Crépuscule was an awakening moment for Luc, if wine could yield this kind of experience he could look at wines differently. The Peyra wine was brought back here by Guillaume Gérard, his former business partner who now runs with Cory Cartwright Selection Massale, a wine-import company specialized in artisan and natural wine. Guillaume had the idea at the time to open a wine bar with Luc, who wasn't particularly excited about it because he wasn't into wine, but through this particular wine he discovered entirely new horizons and the wine-bar idea made its way.
All the while they were looking around in San Francisco and saw that nobody had opened a venue solely centered on these natural wines and on these winegrowers, and there was a pioneering concept here. So they lauched the project in 2007, at a time when natural wine was still little known and little explored in California.
They opened Terroir not only as a wine bar, but also as a wine shop, and the real name of the venue is Terroir Natural Wine Merchant : this is a wine shop where you can just walk in and pay the price to go. When they opened they had 600 different wines and now it's rather 200 but you won't find a list because some of these wines are rare in the US and they want everyone to have a chance to get a bottle (If they had a list they'd regularly come across people with large means who want to buy several cases of a given wine). Unlike other venues where natural wine can be found aside commercial wine (for business security reasons), they decided to only offer the uncorrected wines and no conventional stuff. Some of their friends in the trade told them they were crazy because they said there was barely more than 20 producers making such wines that were available in the US then, and because, they said, these natural wines weren't tasting good most of the time and the public wouldn't follow them. But they sticked to the idea because they loved the wines and everything that was behind, and the wave taking momentum throughout the U.S; they had rapidly more available such wines as well as more young vintners following this philosophy, they soon had 600 different wines because they'd take all the cuvées of these artisan wineries and Terroir could offer an expanded list of wines hard to find elsewhere in town. At the beginning they had all the initiators of natural wine like Dard & Ribo, Foillard, Lapierre then new names kept showing up on their wine list (so to say, as there isn't an official wine list). From the 150 000 $ spent at the start of Terroir, 60 000 was spent on buying wine and the rest on remodeling the venue. The importers of these wines were not selling natural wine as briskly as today and Luc and his associates paid prices that were a fraction of what they'd pay today for the same cuvées.
Speaking of wine importers, one of them, Joe Dressner can be seen on a picture here on the wall, holding pious candles like the one on the right that I spotted in a corner of the bar. Joe came here regularly during his hops on the West coast and he had tastings there, like you could read on an entry dated august 24 2008 on his blog :
Members of the Exciting California Wine Trade Can Meet Me and Taste our Wines on September 9th in San Francisco! Jesus, that's one long headline! That's right though....our wholesaler Estate Wines Ltd. is hosting a big portfolio tasting on Tuesday, September 9th and I'll be there pouring lots of wines. I'll be joined by the recently married and multi-faceted Shawn Mead.[...] I'll be the guy behind the Louis/Dressner table who looks like a Rabbi from suburban Philadelphia. Shawn Mead will be standing immediately to my left. She's clearly a gentile.[...]Some people call me The Wine Importer. Others call me "le plouc distingué." Both Personalities will be doing an exciting tasting at Terroir Natural Wine Merchant and Bar on Saturday, September 6th, from 2 pm to 5 pm. This is open to consumers but the details are vague to me. Maybe it will cost you a lot of money, maybe it is cheap. I'm really not sure, but it is probably somewhere in between. Really, do you expect me to go all the way to San Francisco to serve you wines for free? Regardless, it is going to be great fun. Your best bet is to call Terroir to reserve a space. They can be reached at 415.558.9946. They are located somewhere on Folsom Street. Try a Google seach. I'll be the hipster who looks like a Rabbi from suburban Philadelphia. I'll be signing copies of someone's new book. Send me e-mail for details.
As for the wines by the glass, you can choose at Terroir from 2 sparklings, plus 2 still reds and 2 still whites. Here are the wines that were on the chalkboard that day, with what I think was the price per glass :
NV Lusenti "Guttusino" Emilia Romagna 9 $ -- 2002 Tour grise Saumur Brut 13 $ -- 2011 Sabre Bourgogne Aligoté 13 $ -- 2012 Binner Alscace "Saveurs" 10 $ -- 2012 Saumon "Mineral +" Montlouis 14 $ -- 2010 Brin "Pierres Blanches" Gaillac 11 $ -- 2010 Plageoles "Muscadelle" Gaillac 9 $ -- 2006 Ostertag "Fronholz" Alsace 19 $ -- 2011 Tirepé Bordeaux 12 $ -- 2009 Cowhorn Syrah Oregon 14 $ -- 2012 Sablonnettes "Copains" Loire 11 $ -- 1999 Clmos Siguier Cahors 11 $ -- 2010 Alonso "Marnes Jaunes" Ardèche 14 $ -- 2011 Bobinet "Greta Garbo" Saumur-Champigny 15 $.
But Luc says that he opens regularly wines that are not on the day list, he knows he'll sell the rest of the wine in the bottle, so I guess that if you know what you like and what you're looking for, he may have something for you in store.
incidently, Luc opened a bottle that was not on the chalkboard, from someone I didn't hear about, it is a Chinon 2012 cuvée "Les Galuches" by Wilfrid Rousse, imported by Savio Soares.
As I ask about the way the public and the consumers now receive these atypical products in California, he says that you just have to look at the figures, there is a growing popularity for natural wines even here in California and the initially-small number of winegrowers working along this philosophy is now growing, pushing back the specter of a shortage in uncorrected wines, at least in the middle term. He likes to joke with Overnoy and Fanfan (Ganevat) in Jura about possible price wars or allotment wars in the future as a consequence of the high demand for their wines and their production not being stretchable in terms of volume, but with new people joining the fray evey year there's hope demand will be kept in check with new supply. He still remembers when they could buy dozens of cases of natural wines from importers in 2007 and 2008, the wines were there in the U.S. but weren't moving and the importers were happy to sell with no restriction; but today as the demand has exploded including from business-minded people trying to profit surf on the craze, it's often difficult to get more than 5 cases for certain wines, that's also why Luc looks to import directly from winegrowers that are not yet distributed here.
He says the amazing thing with most of these wines is that they're pretty affordable for the work behind them, it's like if you bought fashion design at discounted prices.
But by the time this story goes online they should serve food prepared by PetitPot, a small catering business runned by Maxime Pouvreau, a French cook based on Folsom street right near Terroir (Facebook page). Maxime lives here for a few years and he worked at Coi, one of the best tables in town.
We're speaking again about his motivation and inspiration to start this wine bar and Luc says that his mother had warned him because she knew he was not a businessman at heart, and he acknowledge that he didn't open terroir with in mind to make big money, he could have instead worked in finance or real estate, or to stay in the wine field, do like people he knows and who import junk wines from France and make a huge profit on this side of the Atlantic. It reminds me of Joe Dressner who joked in his blog that he'd me much richer if he had chosen to deal with designer sake and cheap Chile wine, and this life philosophy is shared I think by all these winegrowers who make these beautiful wines, business profits aren't their primary purpose.
But all the while keeping this philosophy of sharing the work of artisan vignerons with the San Francisco wine amateurs, he says he's confronted with mounting pressure on the prices driven by intermediaries and competition, and certain wines that you could find at 22 $ not long ago on the shelves (like Foillard's) now reach 35 $, and small wines from the Loire vinified for easy drinking go from 6 € in France to 22 $, 24 $ or even 27 $, and he says it's quite a lot for a wine you're supposed to drink easy and relaxed with friends. The pressure is particulaly high for the early pioneers of natural wine, like Dard & Ribo and Overnoy for example, he thinks to a particular cuvée of Poulsard from Overnoy which ends up at 75 $ on the shelves (to go) when it's at 10 $ at the door of the winery...
The conversation changes and Luc says that Chaussard came here at Terroir, he remembers that Christian wanted him to join the AVN, the natural-wine structure, and Luc said no, joking that he prefered to stay alone in his corner, and I think I had the same reaction when Laetitia who was then at the AVN offered me to join, I remember adding that when I'll say stupid things they'll be happy that I'm not part of it...
Christian Chaussard came here in 2008 when Joe had his tour with the vignerons. Speaking of Joe Dressner's wine tours, Luc remembers that he went once with them in Chicago, when they were travelling on a bus, it was crazy with bottles of rhum going around and Pierre Breton doing his always-unexpected performances. He'd been invited to join the tour in Chicago in 2008 because Terroir was basically Dressner's only client on the West coast and they flew there with Dagan and Cory, experiencing a stretch of this wild tour, with Puzelat, Texier, Breton, Marc Ollivier, Franck Peillot, Descombes plus the Italians, this was a great experience. And when these producers dropped at Terroir the same year he told them that for him it was like if he was a soccer fan and the Equipe de France was visiting his place. The wine bar was still open to the public for that event but everything was informal, no tags on the shirts and many patrons probably didn't know who these guys were.
At this point __ it is always important to have your glass full when you discuss important world issues__ Luc pours me a 2010 Alonso "Marnes Jaunes" from Ardèche. Cyril Alonso, Luc says, has associated with a former légionnaires (Florian Looze I guess) to make this wine, buying the grapes to two 80-year-old brothers in southern Rhône, growing on 70-year-old grenache vines and vinified with 15 days of pre-carbonic maceration and then raised 15 months on lees in concrete tanks. The label says all, like volatile : 0,32, max authorized by EC norms : 0,98, Total SO2 : 19, Max authorized total SO2 in EC : 150, alcohol : 14,58 %...
This Alonso wine is very suave with fruity aromas of cherry, clafoutis
I later regretted not to have walked outside and shot a few pictures of these exotic fire trucks and firefighters in phosphorescent coats busy chasing a mystery fire up there in the building.
After a while all this agitation vanished and the nice jazz music resurfaced, sending its healing vibes in the background... When we left Terroir the street seemed eerily empty and quiet and there was this cute old car from the late 1940s' waiting for a portrait.
This very evening, en route for our Oakland campground, we drove by Punchdown, another top wine address in the Bay area (tipped by Jason) but failed to find a parking spot near there and ended driving away. I even shot a picture from inside the car of what I thought was the venue (it was full of people) but realized later that it was actually the Plum Bar (PB sign on the window), next door to the Punchdown. We'd have found Punchdown if not with this parking problem but that will leave stories to make next time...
Eric Asimov visits Terroir
Alder's 2008 piece on Terroir (Vinography)
San Francisco Chronicle's 2008 article on Terroir as well as this 2009 one