Hidden Grapeness

Part of my Bold Moments series of articles. Note that The Barrel Room not only moved, but also opened a second location that apparently will close soon and the girl on the right was kicked out of the business because she was and still is a horrid Millennial. Times change, sorta.

I was the definition of a regular at the old Hidden Vine. This Tendernob wine bar tucked in to the lower reaches of the Fitzgerald Hotel was full of fond, yet typically a bit fuzzy memories for me.

Some nights were spent playing the San Francisco Special Olympics sport in which I never placed highly called, “the first date”. But, for most other nights, I would be met by the original owners and most delightful human beings on earth, David and Angela Cahill who would pour a splendid glass of wine from some region I’d never tried. It also happened to be where by chance I met my wife on what was very much not a date.

Things change in this city and so did the owners of the Hidden Vine. I tried to embrace the new bar and keep saying to myself, “change is good”, but it wasn’t. I turned in my “frequent regular card” and stopped going. It appears that a great many others did as well and a few months ago, the Hidden Vine closed at its original location to move over to the Financial District which may prove to be a happier home. This left a gaping maw there that screamed, “More wine please!” and former Hidden Vine staff, Sarah Trubnick and Nikki Goddard answered the call of the space to now re-open as the Barrel Room.

And the Carpet Stays the Same

Walking down Cosmo Alley, deftly avoiding the maniacal valets for le Colonial, I come up to the Barrel Room and the old feelings of trepidation arise even though my dating days are long behind me. There’s this rumbling sense of not knowing what to expect as I open the door because I can’t initially see what lies beyond (although the new wall sconces help a great deal). Little pieces of conversations float out, buoyed by the aromas of decanting wines. There’s a slight hint of another aroma in the Barrel Room “nose” that I can’t quite place until I realize that it’s new paint. As usual, I feel the urge to duck slightly just as I come down the last stairs and before me is the familiar yet very new Barrel Room.

Gone is grandma’s living room. While some may bemoan the loss of kitsch, I am happy to see the update which thankfully steers clear of any barrel themed furniture. The space is brighter and the tones warmer despite being darker colors overall. The potentially infamous “date nook” that many a couple might remember is still there as well as two new “nooklets” on the opposing wall that take the place of some painful elevated chairs. The leather couches all beckon to be sat upon and the oak bar, in addition to seeming larger, has been refinished to a glowing luster. Most importantly, there is a working fireplace for those foggy summer nights when you want to curl up somewhere warm and long for white sandy beaches that lie in a southerly direction.

From a Cast of Thousands

I sit in one of the nooklets with a full vantage of the bar as guests continue to fill in during the early hours. Sarah presents me with a menu and explains that yes, the featured monthly regions are indeed back! This opening month is France which is trying hard to pretend it doesn’t want me, although it totally does. Other possibilities include the 120 additional wines (some by the bottle, some by the glass, some both) as well as 12 beers that they have. But no, I keep focused and remember that this is a bar about exploration as I decide to try one of their comparison flights called “Obscure French” as well as their home-pickled heirloom tomatoes–they were able to tempt me just a bit more than the charcuterie plate, albeit the race was close.

Sarah returns with my glasses of Domaine Ilarria Irouleguy, Domaine des Costes Rouges Marcillac, and Domaine de Labarthe Gaillac. She explains each vintage with such detail that I dare not stray from her tasting path and I gradually make my way through each of them, making note of which ones I’ll have to order again. More people have arrived and the bar is full with happy drinkers getting the same excited rundown from Sarah and Nikki. Their deftly culled wine list is from literally thousands of bottles they’ve tasted over the last three months.

I finish my wines and savor the taste of the pickled heirloom tomatoes which were indeed all that they claimed they could be. As I make my way back up from the stairs and out in to the misty night air, I realize that I have a new voicemail on my cellphone. The mobile network coverage inside the Barrel Room is just as spotty and wonderfully non-existent as it has always been. It makes me thankful that in the lopsided course of renewal San Francisco experiences, some of the best things don’t change.

Do it Yourself

You can visit the Barrel Room via the “spy rendezvous point” entrance on Cosmo Alley if you want the full experience or through the Fitzgerald Hotel lobby on Post Street. They’re open every day from 5PM “until late” and they’ll be having new regions and themes every month for those who want to go exploring. With what Nikki and Sarah have pulled together, I highly recommend trying something new and giving them a chance to expand your wine horizons.