The Polk Street corridor of San Francisco stretches from the edges of the rougher Tenderloin District to the bottom of Russian Hill, one of the city’s more elite residential neighborhoods. Somehow Polk Street connecting the two has emerged as a “balance” of the two, often considered a “frat row” of sorts for its dense concentration of bars. More specifically bars that aren’t dives but aren’t exactly bars with the most precise Vermouth measurements or darling microbreweries on draught. Wine by the ounce often is more important than the wine’s label. Think a more urban and somewhat mature “Animal House”—twenty-somethings dressed nicely and celebrating their first major job (almost always related to something in the tech field).
There are, however, a few oases on Polk Street of refined calm. Two of San Francisco’s finest dining rooms reside here, La Folie and Acquerello. Less elegant but just as beautiful and charming would be the eight-year old wine bar run by Germain Michel, Amélie.
Germain knows how important good food and wine should be. He grew up in Valence, France, located in Northern Rhône Valley and home of one of the country’s most esteemed gastronomic experiences, La Maison Pic. The numerous cafes and bistros around town serve the full of life food that seems to be disappearing around the country these days. The wine flows at meals and isn’t just an excess-grapes afterthought. Family meals at the table matter.
And a world away, here you have Amélie setting up shop on one of the most diverse thoroughfares of one of the most diverse cities in the world. Not to be out done, a second Amélie is located in the more artsy, perhaps slightly less culturally diverse West Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
After meeting Germain and seeing him hold court at Amélie, discussing the subtlest of differences between appellations, you’ll instantly become a wine lover if previously just enjoying Polk Street’s late at night pulse. You’ll also wonder why the French have such a snobbish reputation when so many of them like Germain are…just the opposite.
Not surprisingly, Amélie’s list is strong on the French labels. But by no means is it just a French wine bar. You’d be hard pressed not to find a wine-growing country on the list. As more wine bars should but too often don’t, almost every wine is available by the glass. Several flights are available too, usually named for creative songs to add a little jazz to the offerings.
Germain arrived in the U.S. in 2003, not exactly planning run a wine bar. Now he’s in the works on a new project in Oakland (Oakland = the New SF these days!) that will have nothing to do with Amélie. It will focus on France. The heart of French cooking, not the tired “bistro classics” that faux French restaurants serve in this city. As well Germain now is working working with a wine-maker in Minervois on a program that suits his specific palate’s passions. Hopefully we get to sample the results.
Amélie, the beloved 2001 French film, is about unwavering creativity and imagination. On purpose or not, Amélie the wine bar shares the same traits.
Hey, this is an approachable wine bar that is also a smart, sophisticated wine bar full of character. How often do you hear that? It’s not often that you get to meet someone as passionate for Mourvèdre, wine in general, and the joie de vivre as Germain.
Vino247: What wines, both on and off Amélie’s list, are you most excited about?
Germain Michel: I am most excited about what is on my list, as well as what is to come. (All of them, of course, because I chose them all!). My goal when I am looking for wine is to find great wine, from small appellations and small wineries, and with a great price.
Anyone can choose an exciting wine at $200, this is not difficult.
What’s hard is to find a wine that will give you a new perspective about wine without costing you an arm and a leg. Right now there is a small, new appellation from France, which I really like with one of my favorite grapes. It is a Gamay, and is from an appellation called “Pays d’ Urfe Côte du Forez.” It’s located close to the city of Saint Etienne et Clermont Ferrand, with great volcanic soil. A great wine, for less than $40 here. I am from Valence, in the Northern Rhône Valley, so one of the wines I love as well is a wine from there imported by the great importers at Selection Massale : Saint Joseph la Tache Cuvée Guillamy 2007.
Of course Amélie is a wine bar with a distinct French influence…yet you cover the world in terms of selection. Why did you choose to not just pour French wines?
For multiple reasons, beginning with the fact many of my staff members are from different countries in Europe: Italy, Spain, Catalonia, England.
I know a lot of French people who say only French wine exists. But this attitude is already happening inside France. For example, people in Burgundy only drink Burgundy, in the Rhône valley only Rhône, and in Bordeaux the same thing. Amélie’s clientele is very international as well. There are a lot of Europeans, most likely because the ambiance reminds them a bit of a bar in Europe.
I often call my friend Jordi, manager of B44, for recommendations on Spanish wines, for example. I personally love South America, not only for its wine, but especially for Chile and Argentina the countries themselves, which I visited recently. I will soon be importing a Malbec made by a very talented winemaker from Mendoza, Matias Fraga. We did a very small project together different than his own winery called “MAAL.” His wine will be coming to our market for the first time very soon! This will be a truly amazing production. I’m really excited about it.
We will always have wine from Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, South Africa, Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and of course, the USA.
What makes a wine bar different in your opinion from a “bar” besides the focus on wines?
The most important thing is the vibe and the atmosphere. Alcohol can make really smart people really stupid, but with wine you are more in control, and you drink slower. Usually when drinking wine, the goal is not to get wasted as soon as possible, but rather have an enjoyable experience. That is what we are creating at Amélie.
Food-wise, you certainly go well beyond wine bar classics cheese and charcuterie!
Yes we do.
Even our cheese selection is not classic. French tourists are often impressed by the selection we offer. We have more than 10 imported cheeses to choose from and they’re mostly from France (personally, I’m crazy about cheese). We do not have a full kitchen, yet with one oven, we manage to create a relatively extensive food menu. We attach a lot of importance to the quality of our food. We get our fruit and vegetables from local, organic farms in Marin County (north of San Francisco). Farms like Josh at Cecilia’s Garden (a fruit stand in Tennessee Valley). We have the classic French dishes like beef tartare , quiche lorraine, and gratin de raviole. The raviole being the most famous dish from Valence.
What’s the background of the wine flight selections and the musical names with them?
For seven years the customize flights have been a hit. It is indeed a great way to discover wine. You get to create your own flight with our wine by the glass list. You can choose 3 sparkling, 3 reds, 1 sparkling and 2 reds etc… We offer this deal every day from 5.30 to 7. Some days during this hour and a half, we make over 100 customized flights.
The musical theme is only for fun. The “Knight Rider” from David Hasselhoff (who was really on top of chart with his singing album for a while in Germany) is my favorite J.
Would you say your Polk/ Russian Hill audience tends to be younger? How experienced with wine? Do tourists ever visit?
Middle Polk St. has very few places listed in tourist guides. This is also why Polk is my favorite street in San Francisco. You can find anything on this street. Some European tourists come to Amélie because they hear about our cheese and wine selection. I truly think that people in San Francisco are very well educated with wine. Generally people know their grapes pretty well, and most importantly, know what they like.
Do you think a big obstacle for the younger drinking set often in this neighborhood is the stigma of wine with formality and being expensive? That notion that if you can’t taste the flavors in the tasting notes, you’re not “worthy” of this wine?
This is what Amélie is not. We do not want to give attitude to people who just want to learn about wine. A thing I want to keep and I think is really important is that we serve our wine always in Riedel glasses. These are beautiful Cabernet-style Riedel glasses. They represent a real cost for us. I have been ordering more than a case of glasses every week for the past 7 years. But the quality of glasses is key. We offer these glasses when you order a $100 bottle of wine and we offer the exact same glasses with a $24 bottle of wine. No difference!
I always find it annoying when I see a bartender giving a lot of attitude to a customer because the bartender read a cocktail book in the morning. This is crazy. Maybe the person you are giving attitude to didn’t know the difference between 2 grapes, but happens to be a nurse or doctor who just finished her 8 hour shift, or is a teacher and just wants to relax, but instead, somebody gives them a lesson at the bar. I find it quite disturbing.
Our goal is to serve wine with a nice ambiance and atmosphere. Our customized flights are a great way to get introduced to multiple wines.
What are some differences/ preferences between Amelie in SF and NY? Which is superior !?
They’re the same! Amélie NYC offers a bigger dinner menu and cocktail selection than San Francisco. But both are really similar. The wine list is really well done in NYC and composed by my childhood friend, Olivier Filograsso. We have more options regarding European wine on the East Coast and the prices are better. West Coast wines on the other hand are more expensive .
Let’s choose a few dishes from the menu and a few wines from the list to mix and match…(feel free to choose anything you desire). Maybe the escargots, the Saint Nectaire fondue, the gratin de raviole du Royans, and the duck leg confit?
We serve a chicken liver mousse with confitures d’oignons that goes very well with a vin naturel from Languedoc based mostly on Grenache called “Trinquette.”
I always love as well Sherry with cheese.
Gratin de raviole marries perfectly with all wine from the Northern Rhône base of Syrah.
Being so close to Napa and Sonoma, do you find it hard to convince people to give Old World wines a chance?
It is actually the contrary at Amélie. People come here mostly for Old World wines.
What are the up and coming wine regions you’re excited about most? What wine are you drinking tonight?
A grape I love and I think is underrated is Mourvèdre or Monastrell in Spain.This grape creates a very nice wine. I’m actually realizing one of my dreams, and I just purchased some land in Minervois in France. There are young vines of Mourvèdre and Syrah growing on the land. I’ve partnered with a very young and talented wine maker from the area, Francois Fabre. Right now I’m drinking the Minervois from his Domaine du Somail that I brought back with me from my last trip to France. I love this appellation and I love Francois’ work. The soil and the perfect location, I am certain, will create an amazing wine.
I am really excited as well by some really talented wine makers doing great work in Ardeche, where I’m from. During my last trip in France I drank a lot of wine from there. I can see Ardeche becoming soon a better known area for quality wine.
Just in general speaking for the France area, I see a new wave of wine maker. They’re young and ambitious, with a lot of talent. These wine makers cannot afford land in Burgundy, Bordeaux area or the Rhˆone Valley, so they go to less expensive areas and work very hard on the quality of winemaking. Areas like Languedoc, Ardeche, Central France, Savoie… It’s only a personal opinion but I can see that France is having a great revolution in its wine and we are going to see more and more great wine coming from new appellations.
Finally, I’m very excited to see the Prinz Spatburgunder Rhiengau Trocken on the list by the bottle…you almost never see German Pinot Noir in SF! Why did you select it?
The German wine reputation is already really well known, thanks to Riesling. Sometimes I have crazy theories, but I think that the German Pinot Noir is benefiting from the climate change (editor’s note: !).
Visit Germain at
Amélie Wine Bar
1754 Polk St., San Francisco, CA
Open Nightly 5:30 pm to 2 am