At Nopa, a Wine List That Proves the Virtue of Constancy

Why the San Francisco institution’s wine list remains one of the country’s most exciting, in 10 bottles.

San Francisco today is a city that’s basically defined by change. Disruption was the word, I guess—until all things were disrupted. Now the city has moved into a state of sustained alteration, a constant state of moving fast and breaking things.

That has presented San Francisco’s intrepid restaurateurs with a challenge or two. No different for the city’s wine culture, which keeps growing its curiosity but also seems to be in a constant state of flux. Yet some things remain unbowed, like Nopa, one of the city’s most esteemed restaurants, which will celebrate its 13th birthday in April.

Why reconsider Nopa? Because as much as Uber and Airbnb and everyone with dreams of an office tower want to fuck shit up and change the world, constancy matters. Nopa’s wine program has been archetypal enough over the years that it helped to define what I describe as the New Casual approach to wine service. It isn’t a place that requires our attention any more than Gramercy Tavern in New York or Spago in Los Angeles might. And yet its wine program is the strongest it’s been in years—perhaps ever.

Right after it opened in 2006, Nopa became synonymous with San Francisco’s dining culture. Laurence Jossel’s cooking was about simple things done irresistibly. The restaurant quickly became a spiritual successor to the legendary Zuni Café; it provided a carrier tone for how the Bay Area ate: purity of ingredients, willful simplicity and wild-eyed hedonism. Nopa also signaled the start of a reimagining of the city’s geography. Its location on the corner of Divisadero and Hayes catalyzed the revival of the whole Divisadero corridor—albeit not without a grumble or two about gentrification.

Similarly, from the start, the wine list was a stunner. Managed by Chris Deegan, who had been not a professional sommelier but a wine-curious server, it offered something for everyone—from old France to new California and well beyond: tons of Jura, at the time that region was peaking; enough riesling to keep nerds in bliss; sherry just before sherry hit its revival; and a fair share of démodé classics, like aged zinfandel.

As the recession came and went, Deegan moved on and Nopa became a middle-aged restaurant in a sea of Instagram-shiny newcomers. And in a way, it’s complicated for me to revisit it today, in that I arrived in the city just after its opening and began a long, intertwined history with the restaurant. Like many San Francisco wine lovers at the time, my wine maturity grew with Nopa’s.

San Francisco now isn’t San Francisco then, of course, and the city has its share of exceptionally fun places to drink at the moment. There are other longtimers like La Ciccia and the Slanted Door; newly wine-centric spots like Delfina; wine bars like High Treason; and newcomers like Tartine Manufactory, Del Popolo, The Morris and the recently opened Besharam. But Nopa has long provided a worthwhile barometer for San Francisco’s drinking habits, mostly because it always attracted a large industry crowd. More informed eyes have been on its wine list than nearly any other.

Candidly, that role as a barometer of the city’s wine culture hasn’t always portended great times. At moments in recent years, Nopa’s list seemed to be meandering. Exploration is good, of course, in that a great wine list needs to always evolve and to test its limits. And to be fair, Nopa started with a ridiculously high bar; its early lists, the work of Deegan and co-owner Jeff Hanak, were stunners almost out of the gate, with equitable, harmonious selections that most sommeliers envied (and, at times, copied).

But even icons can waver. Bay Area wine people have for decades been confounded by the variability of Zuni’s two-page wine list. (It’s currently in the very good, Burgundy-philic place it’s been for a while.) Same as elsewhere—say, Balthazar. So there’s deeper meaning in the fact that Nopa regained its sense of equilibrium.

Currently the wine program is overseen by Dennis Cantwell, a longtime manager who might well have sketched out a path straight to that job. A Philadelphia native who worked for Jose Garces, Cantwell came to the West Coast and took a first job at Zuni—often drinking at Nopa after his shift. After a brief detour to Gioia Pizzeria on Russian Hill, he was hired on as a captain at Nopa, and spent six years working up to this current role. He still chats regularly with Deegan, who now co-owns a Bay Area import company.

Early on, Hanak and the other Nopans had the smart idea to start buying wine and stashing it in Nopa’s large bank vault in the back. Improbably, that practice continued through the recession, when no one clamored for now-rare bottles like Clos Rougeard. Today, we can all drink the results of that work: A small reserve list has grown to two full pages, offering things like, yes, Rougeard ($361 for a 2008 Poyeux), back-vintage Hermitage from leading producer Jean-Louis Chave, selections from Umbrian talent Paolo Bea and aged Ganevat. If prices on these fancy wines are a bit higher than Nopa’s old ways, well, it’s San Francisco 2018, and (some) people have the wallets for it. But that hasn’t come at the sacrifice of another longtime Nopa habit, of offering well-aged wines at compelling prices, as with the 2002 Qupé Marsanne ($79), a classic California wine that reliably blossoms after 10 or 15 years in the bottle.

In fact, Nopa’s wine prices remain a model of affordability—and have, counterintuitively, been subject to less inflation than the food menu. The restaurant’s beloved pork chop, which clocked in at $18 in 2006, may now be $34, but a bottle of cru Beaujolais still won’t top $60. Seen one way, this constancy might also be a shaming mechanism for some of Nopa’s San Francisco brethren, which are admittedly struggling with higher costs, but also capitalizing on the boom economy. (A bottle of Thibaud Boudignon rosé that’s $46 at Nopa costs $80 at a popular restaurant nearby.)

Cantwell does have some ideas about how Nopa’s list might evolve. But he’s generally adamant that the first rule of Nopa’s wine list is that tradition be preserved. “There is a trust that’s already established,” with a lot of longtime customers, he says.

That’s the side of restaurants, and wine lists, that perhaps we don’t talk about enough: The ability for great ones to roll with tidal change in a city as dynamic as San Francisco, yet not be overwhelmed by it. So, not that Nopa ever went away—but it’s back, demonstrating the virtues of constancy. And, crucially, proving that great wine programs only get better with age.

Wine List Nopa SF

Good Things, Small Packages

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 2015 | $31
Lots of restaurants put effort into magnums, or double-sized bottles. Far fewer expend effort on half-bottles, even though it’s a perfect size for a single diner. This has always been a strong suit for Nopa, and the current roster has nearly 30—perhaps a sign of a city with a lot of single people, dining alone. And if halves are a place to soak a diner, not here: This is exquisite, tangy riesling from one of the best Mosel sites, and a near-perfect vintage. But you could easily opt for the Hirsch San Andreas Pinot Noir ($42) or a couple dozen others. And yeah, there are also magnums, like Daniel Bouland’s Vieilles Vignes Corcelette from Morgon ($122).

Steal This Bottle

Chateau Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2006 | $348
If you know the cost of Rayas, the finest Châteauneuf and one of the most elusive, and you find a decent markup, you buy it. Doubly so for the white, which exemplifies big, epic, age-worthy white wine. This is almost retail priced, a sign of that vault program paying off. And I’ve said too much already.

The Crowd Pleaser

Vigneti Massa “Terra Petit Derthona” Colli Tortonesi Timorasso 2015 | $11/glass
Timorasso is one of those little-known outperformers among Italian grapes—a bit rich and oily, yet plenty fresh and mineral. All the good things in one. Walter Massa is the master of this grape, in southeast Piedmont, and as the cheapest glass pour on the list, this is evangelism for the undiscovered and good.

Bubbles!

Under the Wire “Wentzel” Anderson Valley Sparkling Pinot Noir 2014 | $72
Cantwell has edited a tight set of Champagnes, but alternately there are a lot of other fizzy choices. This is the super-allocated project from Bedrock’s Chris Cottrell, an attempt to make single-vineyard California sparkling with no artifice. It’s tangy and berry forward thanks to its pinot base, and a rare treat.

Classic for a Reason

Domaine du Collier Saumur Blanc 2012 | $86
Collier is the project of Antoine Foucault, the would-have-been heir to Clos Rougeard. This has been his place to fine-tune the standout winemaking that goes into one of the Loire’s best wines, and it’s got depth and piney magnitude that’s making Collier one of the new star names.

The Oddball

Arbe Garbe Sonoma Valley White Blend 2015 | $48
Enrico Bertoz and Letizia Pauletto, both Friulian natives, wanted to bring their homeland’s sensibilities with big white wines to California. Arbe Garbe remains one of California’s hidden gems and this is just a downright ridiculous price for a Friulian-style wine that’s perennially one of the state’s best.

Rosé All Day

Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé 2016 | $66
Serious lovers of rosé, this is Bandol in its most epic form. Old-fashioned, classic pink wine, of the sort France rarely makes anymore. Drink it with that pork chop.

B-Side Hit

Matthiasson “Matthiasson Vineyard” Napa Valley Schioppettino NV | $83
The Cal-Friulian hits are everywhere on this list. Here’s Steve Matthiasson, one of Napa’s top talents, making bright, white-rose-scented schioppetino, literally in his backyard. It’s not only the perfect food wine (and virtually impossible to buy), it’s also a side of Napa you’ve probably never tasted.

Dark Horse

Montesecondo “Il Rospo” Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 | $49
Nopa has always committed, more than it needed, to the beauty of cabernet. The Kathryn Kennedy Small Lot, one of the most unique wines in California, is often there. And there’s even new-wave Bordeaux like Clos du Jaugueyron. But I always remember my friend who insisted, in the anti-cab days, that if he had to put one on a wine list, it would be the Il Rospo from Chianti: mostly steel aged, earthy and sanguine, naturally inclined. This is the wine that turns Super Tuscans on their heads, at Chianti prices.

The Failsafe

D. Ventura “Viña Caneiro” Ribeira Sacra Red 2015 | $52
Nopa’s is a list with a lot of failsafes, and a lot that have been there a while, like Green & Red’s Chiles Mill Zinfandel ($49). The Viña Caneiro is another, from the days when Ribeira Sacra was an unknown Galician backwater. While it’s nice to see the Ventura get island-style Iberian company, like Envinate’s “Benje” ($58) from the Canaries and Azores Wine Company’s “A Proibida” ($69), it’s also hard to beat the sheer smoky delight of a classic mencia-based red.

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