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Wine Galleries

Blending Wine Bars and Art Galleries

How many times have you strolled through an art gallery or a museum wishing it were less stuffy and more social? Longing for a flatteringly lit bar with cushy chairs sans tacky neon beer signs? Thanks to savvy artists and crafty business people who love wine and art, your wishes are granted. Raise your wine glasses to a new trend in bars: the hybrid wine bar and art gallery combo.

Maybe it's because wine consumption in the U.S. is at an all-time high, or that the local art scene is alive again; whatever the reason, the wine-art connection is a natural segue. It's cultured without being snobby, low key and intimate while still being social, and it is evidence that art appreciation and alcohol can go hand in hand. Spend hours in a unique space, that's cozy and modern at the same time, sipping wines, savoring gourmet bites, grooving to mellow beats, and even buying art. One caveat: friends don't let friends drink and buy- make sure you get a second opinion before taking anything home.

Hotel Biron

Hotel Biron (45 Rose at Gough), named after a historic Parisian mansion, is the perfect hangout for a fun, trendy (in the anti-establishment sort of way) starting place. The alley location (behind Zuni), small round sign with the letter "B" hanging above the entrance, and exposed brick walls enhance its rustic, beatnik allure. It's the sort of place that only if you know where to look, will you find it. The crowd varies from groups hanging out, perhaps celebrating a birthday, to intimate get-togethers. The copper tables and leather chairs lead you to the bar, which can get a tad congested as it's the only place to order drinks. The varied wine list features French wine, but spans the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe. Prices range from $8 per glass to $315 for a bottle of Roderer "Cristal" 1996 champagne. Paying homage to the anti-establishment trend, you'll find PBR and 40s of King Cobra among the 15 beers offered. If you have the munchies, cheese, olives, salami, and caviar are available in abundant portions. The modern art displayed throughout the bar rotates each month, with premiere parties every first Thursday. Lay claim to the leather sofa in the back room, then sit back, sip your wine, and dream about which painting you'll take home.

Nectar Wine Lounge

Come to the Marina if you're looking for a ritzier scene where people-watching and clean, modern art vie for your eye. The energy at Nectar Wine Lounge (3330 Steiner at Chestnut) is refreshing thanks to the airy atmosphere, the down-to-earth, approachable waitstaff, and the wine-connoisseur bartenders. Style triumphs here- obvious in the sleek lines and minimalistic design. Unwind in a chic, cushy chair separated by marble-topped tables or sit atop one of the smooth wood stools at the bar. The art, curated by Tangent Contemporary Art, is displayed prominently throughout the bar and lounge. And the last page of the menu lists the artwork, complete with dimensions and pricing info. The menu itself is a must-read not only because it's informative but also for its eloquent, descriptive language. Pair small plates, "nibbles", with wine, choose from flights like "anything but chard" or "the bad-assed red", or sip by the glass making your selection from among 42 choices in categories like "aromatic beauties" or "playful yet thought-provoking reds". My favorites were the 2002 Cold Heaven Viognier ("a rich & extroverted white") and the Marston Family Vineyard 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ("the hedonist's red"). If you're overwhelmed like I was, just ask the knowledgeable bartenders- they can advise and even offer tastes. In fact chances are that at least one of the three owners, who all met at a Monterey Sommelier's program, is behind the bar. If you discover a wine you can't live without, check out the retail list, which offers more than 600 selections. The good news is if you can't afford the art, chances are you can afford a bottle of wine.

Varnish Fine Art & Wine Bar

Art is the major focus at Varnish Fine Art & Wine Bar (77 Natoma at Second), with wine, sake, and beer as close runner-ups. Sculptor and co-founder Jennifer Rogers envisioned this space as "a gathering place for artists and collectors." That explains why this is the most gallery-like setting of them all. And its success speaks for itself; Varnish recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Walk east on Natoma from Second, and you'll be surprised to find a sensational all-glass facade showcasing a two-level loft with exposed brick walls. Upon entering you'll notice how open the space feels, skylights above, steel throughout, and brick and wood details create an industrial, yet inviting appeal. Contemporary art hangs along every wall on both floors, and sculptures, featuring cast metal sculpture, are placed all around. A museum-like setting is created with benches situated for prime art gazing. The mezzanine level also boasts an art library; however, the main gallery on the ground level is where you'll find the steel-counter bar. Join in on discussions about fine art, wine, and the up-and-coming winemakers featured on the list. The bartenders are knowledgeable, yet they remain casual and keep the discussion from getting overly technical. Whether you do a sampling of different wine flights, stick to one (I recommend the Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc), or try some sake, you won't leave broke. The selections cover the globe, and wines start as low as $3 per glass or $12 per bottle.

Bacchus Wine and Sake Bar

Small means super intimate, in a good way, when describing shoe-box sized Bacchus Wine and Sake Bar (1954 Hyde at Union), a classy Russian Hill lair. It's not spacious, but what it lacks in space, it more than makes up for in style and atmosphere. Outside, the cable car rolls by on its journey along tree-lined Hyde Street to Fisherman's Wharf. Inside, dim lights, flickering candles, extravagant floral arrangements, and soft beats lull you into a state of luxurious ease. This romantic den is the place to bring the one you want to impress (but probably not on a first date). The expert lighting is bright enough for you to take in the local art, yet dim enough to give you a luminous glow (especially important if it's that romantic evening). The art, for sale by local artists and photographers, rotates on a monthly basis. Sit in one of two soft leather loveseats by the window, perch atop one of the eight stools at the bar, or slip into a spot by the wall. The extensive wine list emphasizes smaller wineries, offering about 50 different bottles or 15 wines by the glass or half-glass. They also serve inventive sake cocktails (like the Sakejito) and sushi lovers can order from Sushi Groove next door. Thursday nights turn it up with a DJ spinning down-tempo tunes.

Photo credits: David Rice (top photo)