Bar Tartine is truly a never before seen, glorious mix of all sorts of culinary influences that really represents the heart of San Francisco’s un-paralleled passion for food, wine, and diversity. The restaurant covers so many creative bases it never ceases to startle me. Hold your breath and follow me here.
Where else have you heard of a restaurant in a very up and coming neighborhood, owned by arguably the country’s foremost small-scale artisan bakery (Tartine), with a pair of chefs who specialize in pickling, fermentation, and creating an enormous spice larder that meets the executive chef, Nick Balla’s, background of being born in Michigan, growing up in Budapest, an externship in the kitchen one of Michael Mina’s Las Vegas restaurants, studying cooking in Japan, and launching Japanese izakayas in San Francisco leads to the restaurant’s forceful heart: the fascinating California by way of the Danube menu, with some Japanese and Scandinavian flourishes. Got it? No, this is not the place for a hefty bowl of bland goulash.
In simpler words, Bar Tartine is San Francisco’s most exciting dining experience. One bite of the grilled tripe, the potato flatbread called langos, or the smørrebrød at weekend brunch, and you’ll know what the city has been raving about for over two years now. However, with all of the spices and funky textures and flavors that Balla and co-chef Cortney Burns’ Eastern European- meets- California dishes present, sommelier Mary Christie has quite the challenge of finding the right balanced, often acidic wines to compliment the vibrant plates. Christie’s list leans towards many Eastern European regions and tends to veer more towards lighter, mineral-driven varietals. Yet, Christie also knows that a great wine is a great wine. She isn’t limited just by the cuisine’s heritage at all. Her staff tastes various wines weekly to make sure diners can learn more about the Sylvaner grape or Oregon Rieslings, or aren’t scared of ordering a wine from Istria just because they can’t point to it on a map.
Originally from Chicago, Christie never attended a formal sommelier school. Far superior than what any degree in wine knowledge can provide, she moved to San Francisco and worked at the restaurant Rubicon for legendary sommelier Larry Stone (consider it the Larry Stone University of Wine, the Harvard of the wine world). After orchestrating restaurant wine programs in Portland, Oregon (where she certainly learned about the Burgundian and Alsatian wine influence) and Chicago, Christie returned to San Francisco to open the now red-hot restaurant State Bird Provisions, with the husband and wife chef duo who were closing chefs at Rubicon (a restaurant many of us San Francisco food writers still miss greatly).
Now, her gracious personality, extensive wine knowledge, and relentless desire for wine novices and collectors to have just the right match with their meal, have arrived across town in the Mission’s “Restaurant Row” at Bar Tartine. Maybe some Furmint with the choy greens in chili oil?
Vino247: What wines right now are you most excited about, both on the list and off the list that you’d like to have on the list?
Mary Christie: Riesling works so well with our food, most of my favorite bottles to open here are Riesling. Our Riesling sekt from Gebrüder Simon in the Mosel is one of my favorites at the moment. It is a really lovely sparkling wine, dry and refreshing. We also use a field blend from Matello in the Willamette that is inspired by Alsatian blends. It is fresh and approachable, but with depth, body, and acid to make it a great pairing start to finish with most of our menu. I would love to add Matoševic wines from Istria in Croatia. Sadly, they dropped from the San Francisco market just as I took over the list at Bar Tartine. I have been making requests to bring the wines back to California!
Which region do you see as the “next big region?” Are old standards like Bordeaux and Napa fading because they’re not “hip” or because they’re thought of as too expensive?
I think California is making a big comeback. It fell out of style at one point but I think labels like Tatomer, Massican, Sandhi, Copain, and Arnot-Roberts are producing stellar wines at a range of prices that are accessible to a wide audience. Regions like Bordeaux may not be “hot” among certain groups but the classics will always have their place and will likely come back into fashion sooner or later.
What are some of the doubts/ myths you’ve heard about Eastern European wines you’ve heard diners talk to you about? Are they true?
Many diners haven’t heard much about Eastern European wines, so we see more unfamiliarity than misconception. Of course there is always the Riesling struggle – some think it is only sweet. Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes. It can be bone dry or syrupy sweet, and anywhere in between with flavors that range from fresh citrus to canned peaches to canvas and rubber. I find it exciting to show people not only that Riesling can be dry but more importantly, the little bit of sweetness they think they won’t like in the wines with some residual sugar actually makes the wine match their food better, and both the dish and the wine improve when they’re put together.
How is the American market welcoming Eastern European/Danube wines right now? Are there generation differences, significant social class differences that you notice?
I would say most people are willing to try something new. I find people willing to taste (and drink!) wines and grapes they’ve never heard of all across generations and social groups. Some are more confident than others going in, but many take the plunge into a region or wine they have never encountered.
As bizarre as it sounds, do you think the complex varietal names and complicated pronunciations of many of the wines really keeps lots of the public from reaching out to the wines?
Perhaps this is true in some settings where people feel a certain knowledge is expected of them. We don’t expect people to know what Žlahtina or Plavac Mali are, and we try to make everyone feel comfortable asking questions or seeking direction. Our service staff tastes wines from our list together every week and we talk not only about the wine itself but how to describe it to someone in terms of wines and grapes that may be more familiar. We encourage people to taste the wine before they order a glass.
Personally, I’m fascinated by these wines and am trying very hard to learn as much as possible about them! I was a big fan of the Királyudvar ‘Sec’ Furmint…what in the world even is the Furmint grape? Or the Plavac Mali grape from Croatia?
I love the Királyudvar Furmint. It is one of the most popular wines we serve and definitely a good match for the menu. Furmint is a white grape best known for it’s place in Hungarian wine, though there is some question as to whether it is in fact native to Hungary. I have had a couple remarkable dry versions from Austria. Furmint is used to make dry wines and is also one of the three grapes blended to make sweet dessert wine in Tokaj. I often compare Furmint to Chenin Blanc. Both make a wide range of wines, from totally dry to super sweet, and can be fresh fruited and lively or mineral, waxy, and nutty with roasted and dried fruit flavor. Plavac Mali is a red grape commonly considered the national red grape of Croatia. It makes medium to full-bodied reds that are earthy with dark fruit flavors. These wines are incredible with grilled meats and mushroom dishes.
With three interesting Sherries on the list, you also seem to love those underrated fortified wines?
I think Sherry is one of the most widely undervalued wines in the U.S. market. I developed a comfort and fondness for these wines having spent a good bit of time in Spain, but I understand why they are difficult for some to approach. I find that a little explanation of how they’re made and what to expect from them goes a long way in helping people enjoy them. And our chef, Cortney Burns, uses Sherry in really creative ways to make cocktails featuring fruits, veggies, and herbs.
What wines would you be drinking for dinner tonight? How about at a special celebration dinner?
That depends on what I am eating! I tend to look to versatile whites for dinner. This summer I drank lots of Scribe Sylvaner, Massican Sauvignon Blanc, and Sandhi Rosé.
How do you think we can defeat wine’s “snobbish” stereotype and reach the younger generation like craft beer and craft cocktails have been so successful at?
Absolutely, I think it all starts by treating wine the way we treat beer or even food. It should be something we enjoy casually, asking questions when we want to learn more, but not being afraid to enjoy it without over analyzing it. I never really understood all the pretension that can accompany wine. No one is born with wine knowledge, we all learn from those that are willing to share what they know and from our own experiences. I want wine to be fun and pleasurable. I am happy to tell a diner as much or as little as they are interested in hearing, so I just let them guide me.
Is it me or do I not see any Australian or South American wines on the list? Any thoughts about regions not served at Bar Tartine?
You don’t see any at the moment but that is not by policy. You also don’t see Greek, Canadian, Portuguese, New Zealand, or South African wine right now, but it doesn’t mean those wines won’t be there at some point. With a small list, I make frequent changes so I can include many different wines throughout the year. Our list does focus more heavily on eastern European grapes and regions and California wines than it does on the Mediterranean to best match the influence of the cuisine. I love French, Italian, and Spanish wine, but we find better matches for foods like pickles and paprika from regions in Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, and Croatia.
What made you fall in love with wine in the first place?
Well, I love wine and it’s natural marriage to food, but I think it was the excitement of the versatility of wine that drove me to pursue it in such depth. It is all made from grapes but it can be so many different things. I have always been an avid student, so the opportunity to learn about such a large topic (from grapes and regions to farming and winemaking) really inspired me.
Finally, it’s never easy to curate a wine list for any restaurant. But Nick’s cooking is full of so many bold, exciting flavors, it must be really hard to pair wines with many dishes. Do you have any secret methods for figuring out the best pairings, like with the langos or the tripe?
We see a lot of Eastern European influence, especially Hungarian, in the menu. It is a natural match to use wines from that part of the world and American versions of wines from those grapes. Acid, tannin, and RS levels are the keys to good pairings. Aromatic whites that are a touch off-dry and light, acidic reds make the best pairings with our food in general. The langos works with pretty much any wine on the list, and the tripe is amazing with off-dry Riesling. Try the Knebel Kabinett with that dish!
561 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94103