Every time I visit San Francisco (about once a year), I always stop by to see Debbie Zachareas. The owner of Bacar, one of the city's hottest dining spots, sets trends with her wine selections, unearthing little-known gems, buying what she likes, spending only what she thinks they are worth, and inducing fear in some producers.
You see, if you get your wine on her list, you've made it - so said the San Francisco Chronicle, a while back.
And Zachareas had some big news for me - she has opened a new place. Called the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, it combines retailing and a wine bar, all smartly wrapped up in the new Ferry Building.
The Ferry Building itself is reason enough to come to San Francisco. Located on the Embarcadero, at the bottom of Market Street, it had been looking a tad shabby in recent years. It was and, as the name suggests, still is the main ferry terminal servicing the Bay Area.
Then developers spotted its potential. The famous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market nearby had outgrown its (uncovered) home and needed more (covered) space. Now it is even more of a food Mecca than it was before. "About 20,000 people come through here on Saturday market-day," Zachareas tells me.
On non-market days, there are permanent outlets in residence, spread over 67,000sq ft of floor space - such as the Hog Island Oyster Company, Cowgirl Creamery and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, plus a Japanese deli, a home-made ice-cream manufacturer, and a chowder specialist. And, of course, the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.
The idea is that you buy your food from one of the stalls or shops, then wash it down with wine in the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. If Zachareas is there herself (she divides her time between Bacar and the new place), she'll even find you a wine to match. Others (me included) browse the shelves, choosing from more than 600 different wines, leaping excitedly from one new find to another, before taking a bottle home, or drinking it in the adjacent 20-seat wine bar.
The funny thing is, we Britons tend to think that we offer the most exciting wine selections in the world. Mostly, we do, but Zachareas has wines on her shelves that this wine writer had never heard of. "I pick them up on my European trips - like this one," she explains, pouring an unpronounceable Spanish white (Txomin Etxamis). It's good. "But this is my latest find," she says, "Kerner - it's a cross between Riesling and Trollinger." It's great.
And if you're of the opinion that many top Californian wines are overpriced and lacking in complexity, let Zachareas show you differently. An exquisite Cabernet called T-Vine, listed at $45 (a steal, I assure you), opens eyes, as does a 1999 Cabernet by the legendary Kathy Corison (at $60). "It has such soft shoulders, doesn't it?" Zachareas purrs.
But Austrian wines will always be at the top of her wish list. Later, at top Vietnamese eatery the Slanted Door she chooses a Grner Veltliner from Nigl (the Privat is one of her all-time favourites) to accompany chef Charles Phan's signature Shaking Beef. It works.
|### Shorts An end to alcopops? Hurrah! Alcopops may finally have had their day, as Diageo reports a drop in sales for its ready-mix drinks, down by 12% on last year's figures. But sales of its Gordon's Gin were up by 4% by volume in the six months to December, compared with the same period last year. Champagne list competition Champagne Gosset announces that it will be opening the net far wider in the UK for this year's Troph‚e Gosset Celebris, by targeting any establishment, however large or small, which has a strong representation of Champagne on its wine list. Last year, for the first time, the competition targeted gastropubs, and was won by the Inn at Whitewell, Clitheroe, Lancashire. The annual contest aims to raise the profile of Champagne by rewarding those establishments that place strong emphasis on Champagne and have a wide range available to customers. "We will be looking for innovation in the establishment's particular sector, and any initiatives it has undertaken that demonstrate the strong partnership of Champagne with food," says Gosset chief executive officer Beatrice Cointreau. The winner will get a visit for four to Gosset HQ, with a slap-up meal. The closing date is 5 May and the shortlist will be announced in June, with an awards ceremony to be held on 27 September. For entry details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call Alison Jee at Golley Slater on 020 8744 2630. Real ale concerns Britain's 15 million beer drinkers are sure to be a tad miffed that Scottish & Newcastle, Britain's biggest brewer, closed its Fountainbridge Brewery in Edinburgh last month, ending 255 years of brewing on the site. Of course, the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has had its say, voicing concerns over the future of real-ale brands such as McEwans 80/-, which will now be brewed at Caledonian Brewery as part of the deal. "Will it get the same high levels of marketing support, or will it be left to wither?" asks worried Camra director John Holland. "S&N has a history of broken promises and brewery closures, so what's next for the UK beer industry?" What next, Indeed.|