Wine Friday

Friday was Veterans' Day, and Bill had the day off from work. Taking advantage of the fact that we were both off on the same day, he and I went to San Francisco. He had seen a TV show (Wine Country Living) earlier in the week that talked about his cool wine place in the city, so we decided to check it out. We took Caltrain up, because we didn't want to worry about driving in case we enjoyed ourselves at the wine place.

The place is called Vino Venue, and it's on Mission Street, really close to the Metreon and the Yerba Buena Center. It's basically a place where you can go crazy tasting a whole lot of different wines without breaking the bank. They do this by metering the "tastes" in one-ounce portions and charging as little money as possible for them. If you like the wines you taste, you can either step up to the bar and buy a full glass or just buy a full bottle to take home with you. You can also buy meat and cheese platters to eat while you drink. It's a very neat concept.

You walk in, go to the cashier, and purchase a smartcard that you "load up" with a dollar amount of your choosing. I believe $10 is the minimum amount you can load up. Along with your card purchase, you'll get a clean wine glass. Armed with your card and glass, you go around to the different wine shelves to start tasting. The shelves are organized according to varietal or type (cabernet, pinot noir, whites, miscellaneous, luxury, etc). The wine bottles are in these high-tech looking machines that look like super-sleek fountain drink dispensers.

Above each bottle is a digital readout displaying the price of a one-ounce taste. In the middle of each machine is the card slot. You insert your card and the machine displays how much money is loaded up in it. Place your glass next to the wine you want to taste, push the button, and out comes the wine! The price of the taste is then deducted from your card. Like I said, it's a very good concept, because it enables you to taste a whole lot of wine for not a whole lot of money. Oh, by the way, they have stainless steel buckets to use if you want to avoid getting drunk by swallowing everything you taste. I have a feeling spitting into the buckets is frowned upon, so just swallow whatever's in your mouth and pour the rest out into the buckets. Plenty of drinking water is also available to cleanse your palates.

Vino Venue has a wide variety of wines for tasting, across a very wide range of prices. As far as I saw, most of the wines cost around $2 to $4 per taste. Some of them even dropped down to just a little over a dollar per taste. There were a handful of cabernets and pinot noirs that were in the $5 to $7 range, as well.

One thing that really makes this place shine, I think, is its luxury wine shelf. In it, they have various reds that sell for about $70 on up per bottle. So it's a really good chance for people to try a wine first before they commit to spending big bucks on whole bottles. Or, in the case of some truly rarefied wines, to get a taste even if they have no intention (or capability) of ever buying a whole bottle.

Case in point: they had a 2002 Opus One cabernet ($15 a taste, or $170 a bottle). Opus One is the famous collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, marrying classic bordeaux winemaking with Napa Valley grapes. Wanting to see what the fuss about this wine was all about, Bill bought a taste. Verdict: eh. It's definitely a big cab. Smoky, earthy, and very tannic. I guess that's because it's young and still has some aging to do. Then again, what do I know. I'm just a schlub. Bottom line is that neither of us liked it much. There was another cabernet in that shelf called Galleron, the 1999 vintage from the Rutherford area of Napa. It tasted similar to the Opus One, but slightly better - less tannic, more fruit to temper the earthiness. At $68 a bottle, it was definitely a better deal.

While we were lingering in front of the luxury wine shelf, some guy struck up a conversation with us. He encouraged us to try the wines and take advantage of this one-ounce tasting. He said that the place changes the wines available for tasting every so often, and that sometimes you can even get a Chateau Margaux! Wow.

The real star of the Vino Venue lineup, however, was... are you ready for this? Chateau d'Yquem sauternes!!! They had the 1997 available for tasting! Holy cow! I mean where else are you going to have the chance to buy a taste of this ultra-premium nectar? Restaurants don't sell it by the glass, and a half bottle will set you back almost $200 at your friendly neighborhood wine shop. They were charging $25 a taste, so I hesitated a bit but ultimately decided to go for it.

We had tried other sauternes before, and were a bit put off by the residual taste left in the wine by the noble rot, so I wasn't sure if I would like this one. Wow! It is fantastic! Its nose is completely dominated by pear smells. It's almost like it smells like pear tart, one with very ripe pears and lots of butter. The taste is very similar to its smell, and I'm happy to report that I didn't taste any moldiness at all. It feels very soft in the mouth, and is very sweet but not cloyingly so. Definitely recommended! If you can afford it, that is. I certainly can't. Bill liked it, too. Hmmm... I still think I prefer a good riesling eiswein, though.

Other wines we tasted and liked: A 2003 Prinz kabinett riesling from Germany and a 2002 JK Carriere pinot noir from Oregon.

We also went to the cartoon art museum and the Metreon. And on the way home we were able to catch one of the baby bullet trains, so it took less than an hour to get back home. Good times.