I was the definition of a regular at the old Hidden Vine. This Tendernob wine bar tucked into the lower reaches of the Fitzgerald Hotel was full of fond, yet typically fuzzy memories for me.
Some nights were spent playing “the first date,” the San Francisco Special Olympics sport in which I never placed too highly. But on most other nights I would be met by the owners (the most delightful human beings on earth), David and Angela Cahill, who would pour me a splendid glass of wine from some region I’d never been to. The Hidden Vine also, by chance, happened to be where I met my wife.
Things change in this city and so did the owners of The Hidden Vine. I tried to embrace the new bar, but ended up turning in my “frequent regular card” and stopped going. A few months ago, The Hidden Vine closed its original location to move to the Financial District, leaving a gaping maw there that screamed, “More wine please!” A couple of the former Hidden Vine staff, Sarah Trubnick and Nikki Goddard, answered the call and opened The Barrel Room.
Sarah and Nikki are super serious about all things grape, but like most of us, it didn’t start out that way.
Originally from Ohio, Nikki was majoring in textile and apparel design at Cornell when she took a chance on the introductory viticulture class offered there. This in turn led to working on a winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. She eventually found her way out west to work in Napa, got laid off, and just recently received her Wine & Spirit Education Trust sommelier certificate.
Sarah is an LA native who has a master’s degree in physics. That actually should have been a PhD, but while working on it she took some courses at a local culinary school that exposed her to the greater world of wine. She decided to go abroad and work at wineries in France, Italy, and Australia before coming back to California to get her sommelier certification.
Walking down Cosmo Alley and avoiding the maniacal valets for Le Colonial, I come up to The Barrel Room and the old feelings of trepidation arise even though my dating days are long behind me. There’s this rumbling sense of not knowing what to expect as I open the door because I can’t initially see what lies beyond (although the new wall sconces help a great deal). Little pieces of conversation float about buoyed by the aromas of decanting wines. There’s a slight hint of another aroma in The Barrel Room – a “nose” that I can’t quite place – until I realize that it’s new paint. As usual, I duck slightly just as I come down the last stair, and before me is the familiar yet very new Barrel Room.
Gone is grandma’s living room. While some may bemoan the loss of kitsch, I am happy to see the update that thankfully steers clear of any barrel-themed furniture. The space is brighter and the tones warmer despite being darker overall. The potentially infamous “date nook” that many a couple might remember is still there, as well as two new “nooklets” on the opposing wall. The leather couches beckon to be sat upon, and the oak bar, in addition to seeming larger, has been refinished with a glowing luster. Most importantly, there is a working fireplace for those foggy summer nights when you want to curl up somewhere warm.
I sit in one of the nooklets with a full view of the bar as guests file in during the early hours of opening. Sarah presents me with a menu and explains that, yes, the featured monthly regions are indeed back! This month they're spotlighting France. Other options include 120 other wines (some by the bottle, some by the glass, some come both ways) as well as 12 beers. I stay focused and remember that this is a bar about exploration, and decide to try one of the comparison flights called “Obscure French.” I opt for the home-pickled heirloom tomatoes as well – they were able to tempt me just a bit more than the charcuterie plate, though the race was close.
Sarah returns with my glasses of Domaine Ilarria Irouléguy, Domaine des Costes Rouges Marcillac, and Domaine de Labarthe Gaillac. She explains each vintage with such detail that I dare not stray from her tasting path. I gradually make my way through each of them, taking note of which ones I’ll have to order again next time. More people have arrived and the bar is full of happy drinkers getting an excited rundown from Sarah and Nikki.
The Barrel Room’s wine list is deftly culled from literally thousands of bottles Sarah and Nikki have tasted over the last three months. For those who have been following their Twitter and Facebook updates, you’ve been privy to the fact that they’ve been tasting wines from all over the U.S., France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Italy as well as from more uncommon regions like Slovenia, Croatia (which I’m partial to both for familial as well as culinary reasons), and Georgia – the country, not the state.
All of the wines have been paired with a massive food list (which will expand even more once the kitchen in the basement of the hotel is completed). The menu is hyper-local and lovingly guided by Alison McQuade of McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys. The chocolate dipped figs are made by Alison, the almonds and other nuts come from Alfieri Farms at the Ferry Building, and the flatbreads are from a local Iraqi fellow who is making a special allotment just for Nikki and Sarah. Additionally, there are pickled vegetables the two have been working hard on preserving.
I finish my wines and savor the lingering taste of the heirloom tomatoes, which were indeed were all they were chalked up to be. As I make my way back up from downstairs and out into the misty night air, I realize that I have a new voicemail on my cell phone. The mobile network coverage inside The Barrel Room is just as spotty and wonderfully nonexistent as it has always been. It makes me thankful that in the lopsided course of renewed San Francisco experiences, some of the best things don’t change.
You can visit The Barrel Room via the out-of-the-way “secret spy rendezvous point” entrance on Cosmo Alley if you want the full experience, or just enter through the Fitzgerald Hotel lobby on Post Street. It’s open every day from 5:00 p.m. “until late” and new regions and themes will be the focus every month for those who want to explore. Given the impressive wine list that Nikki and Sarah have pulled together, I highly recommend trying something new and giving them a chance to expand your horizons.