An innovative shop offers a world of wine, shot by shot

Wine tasting is a funny business. A six-winery Saturday afternoon in the Napa Valley strikes me as torture — your comparison of the eighteenth big Cab of the day with the second isn’t worth a fig. Still, it would be nice to be able to sip a few Cabs or Pinots side by side, to find out what you like. Wine bars are good for this, but you generally can’t take home your favorite bottle.

So VinoVenue, a new tasting room and shop in San Francisco, caught my attention. There’s nothing else like it in the West. Equipped with wood-and-steel dispensers that preserve open bottles of wine with argon (an inert gas that has no effect on the wine), VinoVenue pours more than 100 wines at a time, grouped at stations by variety or style, from all over the world.

Actually, they don’t pour; you do. Insert a “tasting card” into a dispenser (which deducts the price, from $1 to $28), push a button, and an ounce of wine burbles into your glass.

With professional tasting logic, I start with Light Whites (and $20 on my card). I can’t help but try a Müller-Thurgau from Chateau Benoit in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and a Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc from Boekenhoutskloof, South Africa. “A variety usually grown in northern Italy,” the sign says about the first. “Light, barely sweet, but racy.” I agree. It’s a steal for 9 bucks a bottle. “Crisp,” “mineral,” and “citrus” are descriptors listed for the second. All true, but I get a little barnyard musk on the nose too (a good thing). After the first sip, I’m ready to buy — it’s only $10 a bottle — but after the full ounce, I’m done. I don’t want even a glass. The beauty of it is, I haven’t bought one; I can move on.

At the Full Whites station, I hit the Chardonnays, which, I admit, I’m suspicious of. I’m afraid of running into a big, oafy one. I go for the Molnar Blaise (Napa) because it was “selected for its balance of fruit, oak, and spice.” That word “balance” is my security, but one sniff and I suspect it’s a little like real-estate speak; all I detect is oak. A sip changes my mind — I taste beautiful pear, citrus, and acid. It’s a find.

And on it goes. Nearby, Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the Willamette Valley, the Sonoma Coast, Australia, and Italy(!) circle a station. And Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot — in myriad blends and from surprising places sit side by side, ready for your thoughts.

Mingle while you learn

Is this education, or is it entertainment? I ask Mary Lynn Slattery, VinoVenue co-owner, with Nancy Rowland. “Both,” she says quickly. “Educational fun.” It’s a business proposition — a chance to taste before you buy, to avoid investing in a bottle you don’t like. But the biggest crowds are coming in on weekend nights. In fact, the place is looking like a new venue for singles. There’s comfortable occupation for the solitary taster, and a ready opener when needed: “Have you tried this one yet?” seems a much more natural line than “Do you live around here?”

INFO: VinoVenue (686 Mission St., San Francisco; or 415/341-1930)


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