The New York Times

Of all the fine wine lists in the Bay Area, my favorite is the one at Nopa.

Wine Lists That Elevate the Cellar
by Eric Asimov

For wine lovers, a restaurant's wine list is a hallowed key to its soul. The menu may reveal the inclinations and ambitions of a chef, but the crucial questions about the food will only be answered through execution and follow-through.

But the wine list?

Carefully examined, it displays the inner nature of a restaurant. Is it a place of vision and creativity and passion? Or has a restaurant's identity been determined by focus groups? Is the craving for profits placed above all else? Or, worst case scenario, has the restaurant completely abdicated the task, or rather the opportunity, and instead handed over the list to a soulless distributor? For that, I have but one word: corkage.

Personally, I always prefer a list of iconoclastic vision over one aimed simply at people-pleasing, and for that the Bay Area is a treasure-trove, with no shortage of wine lists that express the idealistic intent of their creators.

It's easy to start ticking off names, like the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero, where the wine director Mark Ellenbogen put together a list that courageously paired cool-climate, largely European whites with the restaurant's Vietnamese food, even as Americans were gravitating toward big, domestic reds.

Just as bravely, Shelley Lindgren at A16 in the Marina district created a list that celebrated the largely unknown wines of southern Italy. At RN74 in the Millennium Tower in SoMa - where the list incorporates the vast trophy holdings of the wine collector Wilf Jaeger - Raj Parr, the wine director for all of Michael Mina's restaurants, has sprinkled inexpensive treasures throughout, so that if the 1966 Musigny from Roumier is out of range at $6,400, there's a 2005 Bourgogne rouge from Denis Bachelet for $75, or better yet, a superb 2007 Corbières Campagnes from Maxime Magnon for $54.

But of all the fine wine lists in the Bay Area, my favorite is the one at Nopa, the casual, eclectic gathering spot north of the Panhandle. I'm not saying Nopa has the best wine list in the area. With roughly 200 bottles, and another few dozen half-bottles and magnums, it's by no means the biggest or the most complete. But in the selection of wines, the fair prices and the spirit it connotes, it's closest to my heart.

It takes only a brief glance at the list to see that the wine director, Chris Deegan, has selected bottles that will exalt the simple, clear flavors of the Mediterranean food. These are wines that for the most part are balanced and restrained, complementary rather than dominant. Often that means wines from Europe rather than California, but, while Nopa's list is heavily European, it is not dogmatically so.

I love to start a meal with a glass of dry sherry, but how often do you see sherry on a list outside of Spanish restaurants? Nopa offers not only the ubiquitous La Gitana Manzanilla, but a fine Amontillado from González Byass and both a palo cortado and a dry oloroso from Emilio Lustau.

Often, if you are the persnickety sort like me who grabs the wine list immediately upon being seated and lingers over it lustfully, you peruse a wine list looking for that safe harbor - that one bottle you know you will like among the dozens you cannot abide. Nopa's whole list is a safe harbor full of bottles that I would be thrilled to open, from classic appellations like the 2008 Fleurie from Domaine du Vissoux, to wonderful oddballs like the Vinja Barde vitovska from the Carso region of Italy.

The domestic selections fit right in. I love Truchard's roussanne from the Carneros, and Copain's Monument Tree pinot noir from the Anderson Valley, while Mount Eden's estate chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains will please both white Burgundy fanatics and lovers of big California chardonnays.

If Nopa's list has a deficiency, it's in the lack of aged wines, not surprising in a small restaurant, which may not have the room to store wines for extended periods. The exception is the Riojas from Lopéz de Heredia, which are not released until they are well aged.

Nopa also offers some little-known gems, like the 2007 Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas, a profound old-vines albariño, and the pure, complex 2004 Les Poyeux Saumur Champigny from Clos Rougeard, very good now, even better in 10 years.

Some people might fault Nopa for its lack of pantheon wines, the classic greats that are primarily affordable to wealthy collectors. To me, those special-occasion wines are not necessary. Nopa may have achieved destination status, but it is still essentially a neighborhood hangout. If you must have those wines, I have two suggestions: Corkage, or RN74.

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nopa
560 Divisadero Street @ Hayes
San Francisco, CA 94117
Phone 415.864.8643