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Sunday, February 05, 2006

WBW 18: Fav Shop Edition (Soif Wine Bar and Merchant)

bustling 2

Would you believe me if I said the most sophisticated wine bar in the Bay Area is not in the city at all, but all the way down in Santa Cruz?

For the latest edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday -yes, yes, I know it's Sunday now but my cat ate my homework- our wonderful host Dr.Vino asked us to write not about wine, per se, but about a wine shop that is near and dear to our heart. And hey, in a couple of weeks I'm going to be living a few blocks from this one, so it is not only dear but certainly going to be quite near as well. (Oh yes, there's a bit of news for you nosy readers, but a little bit later for that ok? D'abord on parle de vin!)

I'm talking about a spectacular place called Soif Wine Bar and Merchant in downtown Santa Cruz. It's both a wine shop and a wine bar. The shop, also affectionately known as the Bonny Doon Alumni Association, is owned by Patrice Boyle and Hugh Weiler, both expats of the famous Bonny Doon Winery (hence the nickname.)

I was introduced to Soif by David, who had been waxing poetic about this hip little place ever since we met. Frankly, my-city-snob-self wasn't so convinced -hip and Santa Cruz not being particularly compatible in my vocabulary. Imagine my surprise when I was taken to a neat space that could have been at home in the Mission or SOMA, and found a menu that featured a flight of the obscure traditional Burgundian grape variety, Aligoté? Not just any old Aligoté, mind you, but those from famous producers like Ramonet, Arnaud Ente, Jayer-Gilles, and Aubert de Villaine! I could hardly believe my eyes, or my palate, for that matter.

Come to think of it, I shouldn't have been so surprised. The Santa Cruz mountains area is home to some very good and original wine makers. While much of the rest of California race to make the ripest, most extracted, Parkerized monstrosity that –frankly- taste all the same to me, some Santa Cruz wine makers like Randal Grahm of Bonny Doon and Jeffrey Patterson of Mt.Eden dare to be different. Randal Grahm is a fervent supporter of biodynamic growing practice and makes wines that are just as unique as his irreverant personality, while Patterson grows his vines on the barren mountaintop so that the small yield would make complex if under-rated wines. There is a wine culture here that –albeit small- is more than sophisticated enough to support a gem like Soif.

Soif sells more than 350 wines, focusing on small production, terroir driven wines from producers who preserve the traditional and sustainable wine making techniques, the sorts of wine that you might not find at your local Costco. Find one and take it home, or bring it over to the bar and pair it with your choice of delicious small plates ($3.50 a pop) or entrees (ranging from $5-15). Any bottle can be drunk in the bar with your dinner at merely $10 over the retail price. If that's not a good deal I don't know what is. And if you can't down an entire bottle, then you can choose from the nearly 50 by-the-glass offerings to accompany your dinner, or try a well-contructed flight and get a free wine education besides.

At any given night you could find the knowledgeable and affable Hugh pouring wine at the bar, while manning -or woman-ing, rather- the wine shop is the lovely and no less knowledgeable Beccy Breeze. Ask them anything about any wine and they can give you a mini-lecture on the growing region, particularities of the variety, and even peculiarities of the wine maker. That's a lot of fun even if you're not drunk yet!

Patrice told me Soif was intended as her post-retirement project, to keep herself occupied and to have a fun place to go drink wine without having to trek all the way up to San Francisco. Little that she knew that her little project would grow to be busier and even more time consuming than the job she supposedly retired from. I'm glad though, self-servingly enough. The prospect of moving to Santa Cruz would have been a little dire had it not been for a place like this just down the road.

(Yes, I did say moving to Santa Cruz. You guys don't miss anything, do you? No worries, I'm not really leaving San Francisco yet. It's just that I've been –theoretically- using San Francisco as a base and Santa Cruz a satellite. The only problem is I've spent far more time down here and found myself far too often missing my favorite dress in the closet two hours north –yes, I am that shallow- so I decided to swap the cities. (Ok, sure, you know who figured in that decision somehow too.) Santa Cruz will now be the base, with the full content of my closet, while San Francisco the satellite, with just enough space to hang my proverbial hat. I'm going to be in the city a couple days a week, and the rest of time in Santa Cruz, so, no Mr.Skipper, you're not taking back my Urban Food Blog award just yet!)

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