San Francisco may be home to more wine enthusiasts than any other city in the U.S.. Stop in nearly any San Francisco wine bar and you are likely to find an outstanding wine list, a knowledgeable staff, and a clientele that knows its wine. CAV Wine Bar is one of the most unique wine bars in San Francisco as it focuses -not strictly on the obvious California wines up the road in Napa and Sonoma- but on wines from all over the globe. Nestled conveniently next door to Zuni (a beacon for San Francisco foodies), CAV is both central to locals and easily navigable for tourists seeking a real California wine bar experience (Market Street, where CAV resides, is San Francisco's main artery). IntoWine recently had the pleasure of talking wine and Mets baseball with CAV Co-Owner and Wine Director Pamela Busch.
First, why the name "CAV"?
The name CAV comes from the French 'cave', meaning a place where wine is stored (cheese too) but if we wrote 'cave' people would pronounce it as 'cave' the English way, as in caveman, so I decided to ding the 'e' at the end.
You have a long history - sales, sommelier, wine bar entrepreneur- working in wine. How did these experiences contribute to making CAV the unique wine experience that it is? What criteria do you use to choose your wine?
Everything I've done has contributed to shaping the list, not only my work in the wine industry. Putting a wine list together is about personal expression but also about trying to please people. If I said I'm only going to put a wine list together that included only wines I drink that would narrow the field, you have to get a sense of where your customers are coming from. The different things I've done over the years have allowed me to get to know people. There is a bit of psychology involved and I've drawn the conclusion that people are way more open minded and experimental when given the right, or a safe setting.
I think people feel that wine bars do this, or at least that is the expectation. I don't believe in being esoteric for esoteric's sake, though. Every wine has to be good, end of story. I try a lot of stuff and because I seem to have this rep as having a penchant for obscure wines some salespeople think I'm going to go for the weirdest wine they show me and that is just not so.
Basically, it's about choosing good quality wines that are worth the price, having a range for different preferences but also having enough on the list to help our customers take chances and push the envelope a bit. Learning how to do this well comes from doing it enough. Sorry, it's not brain surgery. I think I also answered question six here too.
A big part of the CAV "wine adventure" is your emphasis on wines from around the globe. Share with us some of the underrated wine regions of the world that you have discovered.
The table wines of the Douro don't get much attention but there are some great wines, both reds and whites. Everyone knows port but there are actually more table wines made in the Douro than ports. I won't say under rated but when it comes to Australian wines, I'm a big fan of the red wines from Victoria, more so than the Barossa, which gets more attention. But that is also my taste, I prefer cool climate wines in general. Also underrated, Verdicchio. People don't realize how well Verdicchio can age and it becomes more complex overtime. It is probably my favorite Italian white wine grape.
The marketing of wine over time has distorted the perceived value of wine to where the wine public often equates value with high cost. While there are certainly instances where the best wine is the most expensive, what changes are you seeing -both as a buyer and seller of wine- in terms of "perceived value"?
I had a discussion with Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John about this yesterday. I told him he could, not that he should, raise his prices. I have a lot of respect for him that he is not trying to gouge people. The price to quality ratio is so off kilter, especially with California wines that it's not funny.
There are also folks in places like Spain, a country known for its values, which are making ridiculously overpriced wine. We could sell more expensive wines here but I refuse to sell these $80 California Pinot Noirs that are not nearly as good as premier cru Burgundy at the same price, or less. I know I sound like a Francophile snob, and I'm not, but it's true. Am I seeing changes? Not really but I’m thankful for wines like the Ben Marco Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza that at $33 on our list is as good as $75 California Cabs you will see elsewhere.
You offer wine classes quite frequently. What are you trying to achieve with these?
What am I trying to achieve with the classes? I'm not on some big crusade to educate the masses about wine, there are way more important things out there people need to figure out. However, a lot of people who come in wish they knew more about wine and I think we provide a pretty good forum for learning. The classes are a more focused way of doing this. Also, if I can get a few people out there to realize there are other grapes in the world besides Pinot Noir, that Merlot doesn't have to be bad...just to keep an open mind and trust your own palate, then I've accomplished something, at least for one afternoon.
CAV offers a menu of small plates, cheeses, and desserts. With such a diverse wine list, share with us your food and wine pairing thought process.
Food and wine pairing is very subjective and if someone wants to drink red wine with crudo, fine. When you make customers feel like they are doing something wrong it is eating away (no pun intended) at their enjoyment and that is not what we want to do. Sometimes I'll find the absolute, Holy Grail food and wine pairing but more often there will be several wines that will go with a dish and several dishes that will match a wine. It is a matter of taste and what you are trying to get out of the experience. We try to suss out what our customers want.
CAV hosts a number of unique events geared towards wine enthusiasts and novices alike. Events such as your Homage to Baseball aren't the typical event one associates with a wine bar. What is the inspiration behind these unique events?
I'm not sure which event was baseball inspired but let's get this out of the way, I'm a big Mets fan and have been since they lost to the A’s in the ’73 World Series. We had the 'hot dog' stand because we were doing sausages to go with Alsatian wines at the last CAVeteria. Inspiration...I don't know. I get an idea, or Christine's gets an idea, or someone does for an event and we go with it, sometimes. We've been trying to get Zuni to play us in dodge ball since we opened but so far no go. Not all ideas come to fruition.
What are your thoughts on the "Parkerization" of wine?
I don't think of it as the Parkerization of wine so much as the homogenization of wine. I tasted with Parker two years ago and found him to be really down to earth. While I don't always agree with him, I respect his work and I don't think he expected to become the phenomenon that he has become. I have more of an issue with other publications in truth but I won't go into it.
Here is the problem. Too many producers, especially newcomers, think if they make over extracted, high alcohol wines that they'll get the scores and unfortunately, that is often true. Part of the problem though is in the way tasting panels function, one reason why I don't sit on them anymore. When you taste a lot of wine in a short period of time and go from one to the next from minute to minute, after a while the ones that will stand out will be the bigger, more alcoholic, fruity wines. This doesn't mean that they are better though and often the more subtle wines with complexity get lost in the shuffle. What interest me are wines that have a sense of place. I'm fine with a fruity California Pinot Noir, I don't expect it to taste like Burgundy. I just want the quality to be there and for it to be priced correctly. I wish people could figure out other ways to taste. I think if a broader spectrum of wine was seen to be worthy of high scores then we’d see more diversity in wine.
As a San Francisco wine bar owner with a diverse wine list, there are likely few people with better insight than you as to the latest trends in wine. That said, what are consumers asking for?
People love their sparkling wine. We sell a lot of Cava, not just Champagne. We also sell a lot of Malbec. But really, most people ask for a recommendation meaning they may end up with a Slovenian Chardonnay, a German Muller Thurgau or a ten year old Rioja Reserva. However what seems to move...Rioja, Malbec, Champagne and other sparklers, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, crisp white wines...and we also sell a lot of Madeira.
Lastly, fill in the blank: The best part of being San Francisco's coolest wine bar is________________________.
I get to meet some really good peeps. Having an all-consuming job doesn't leave me with much of a social life but at least I'm doing something I like and get to talk to a lot of people all the time. Now the best part of owning it is that I get to write the Mets scores on the chalkboard but only when they win.