At Wine & Wall, It's OK to Judge a Bottle By Its Label


Despite the timeworn warnings about books and covers, research has shown that plenty of wine drinkers make their purchases based on the label of the bottle, not its contents. But while many of those who take their wine seriously may decry ignorant consumers who choose a chardonnay with a cute dancing kangaroo over a pristine French vintage with no graphic-design chops, the managers of the Lark Creek restaurant group (a Bay Area restaurant company whose SF spots include One Market, Cupola Pizzeria, and LarkCreekSteak) were confident that they could find wines with cool labels that also tasted great. Last month, they put their theory to the test with the opening of Wine & Wall, a wine bar, bottle shop, and gallery that emphasizes the art of the wine label. 

"I want to feature labels that you might see as a piece of art on someone's wall," says manager James Blackwelder. The focal point of the space is a wall of recessed nooks, each proudly displaying the label of one of the bottles available for sale. Blackwelder has experience in all three of Wine & Wall's specialties: He has a background in galleries, worked as a sommelier at Chez TJ in Mountain View, and was a staffer at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. The labels of the 46 bottles he's chosen for the bar's opening weeks (he eventually hopes to expand to a selection of over 100) span a range of aesthetics, from stylish, typography-heavy designs to paintings of Grateful Dead-esque dancing dogs. But the contents of each bottle are equally important: Blackwelder, Wine & Wall director Jerry Colton, One Market sommelier Tonya Pitts, and Lark Creek VP of Beverage John Houlihan did blind tastings of dozens of artistic bottles before settling on the wines featured in the shop. 

Though it's situated right across the Ferry Building, Wine & Wall doesn't seem to have attracted any notice from tourists; during our visit, Blackwelder tells us that only one has stopped by so far. Instead, the space has become popular as a lunchtime and after-work destination for local business types (Salesforce's headquarters is just upstairs), usually closing just after happy hour and on the weekends. A rotating selection of 12 wines is offered by the ounce, glass, half-glass, or bottle, and the neighboring (and Michelin-starred) One Market kitchen provides bites like wild king salmon rillettes, cabernet-soaked Fiscalini cheddar crackers, and a candy plate with homemade salted caramels and Valrhona milk chocolate ingots. 

One unique feature of Wine & Wall is its NapaTech dispensing system, which preserves wine by displacing oxygen with argon. According to Colton, the system can preserve bottles for up to six months at a time, and master sommeliers are unable to detect any difference. As a result, Wine & Wall is able to offer very small, affordable tastings of wines that might otherwise be out of reach for the everyday drinker, such as the $200-plus Amuse Bouche merlot and nearly-$300 Sine Qua Non syrah and grenache. "I love giving people the ability to try wines that they wouldn't normally get to try," says Blackwelder. But there are also plenty of affordable bottles available for visitors to drink in more copious quantities, including a $10/bottle Spanish garnacha that Blackwelder dubs "one of the best values in the place-- not just a great bottle, but a great wine."

To accompany the artistic labels, the bar features a gallery displaying wine-related art, organized by curator Suzy Locke. The current display features photographer Andy Katz, who's known for his striking images of Napa, Burgundy, and Tuscany. (He also has a few non-wine-related photos on display, including a memorable shot of an old woman smoking a cigar on the street in Cuba.) The collection will rotate every two months, with openings held for each show. 

Once the bar is established, Blackwelder and Colton hope to add more special events in the evening, including focused tastings on specific grapes, and small parties that emphasize food pairings, like dessert wine or wines that pair well with chocolate. They're also looking into offering a wider selection of unique and expensive wines in small tastes, and possibly starting a wine club.

In the meantime, the staff at Wine & Wall are more than happy for you to select your next bottle entirely by its label. "The stats say that's how it goes down, and I'm totally fine with that," says Blackwelder. "No matter what you pick, you'll be drinking a great bottle of wine. We designed it that way."

Wine & Wall, 30 Steuart St. (between Market and Mission Sts.), (415) 243-9465. Monday-Friday, 11 am-7 pm. 

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