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New Wine Bar in SF a Hip Place to Sip

Mills College Weekly

Set back in the alley behind Zuni Caf‚ in San Francisco, with only a small orange sign with a white “B” in the middle to mark the spot, Hotel Biron may be easy to miss. But maybe that’s part of the plan. What makes this wine bar so popular among the under-35 set is its down-to-earth atmosphere.

Unfortunately for Mills, the East Bay is sorely lacking in hip places to sip. At Albany’s 26-year-old Solano Cellars Wine Bar, the average drinker is friendly but forty-something. Beyond that, there simply aren’t many other places to drink wine outside of restaurants. Across the bay however, the three-year-old Hotel Biron is one among a growing list of wine bars that cater to a younger clientele.

The bar’s success can be measured by the large number of female patrons, according to owner and full-time bartender Chris Fuqua, who estimates that 80 percent of his customers are women.

Hotel Biron is characterized by exposed brick walls adorned monthly with edgy art by up-and-coming local artists and its indie-rock sound gently pumps through the speakers track–the Arcade Fire is currently in heavy rotation. This is not your father’s wine bar.

Standing behind the bar wearing a faded “Hog Island Oyster” t-shirt and nerd-cool black-framed glasses, the 36-year-old former Zuni cook is worlds apart from other wine bars’ suit-and-tie wearing staff. Chatty and happy to let his customers taste from the list of about 50 wines to their hearts content, Fuqua actively avoids wine snobbery and its trappings.

From screw caps to wine carts at A’s and Giants’ games, to magazines like Wine X with regular sections like “Sex, Wine & Rock N’ Roll” and “X Rated Wines,” wine is not just for snobs anymore. A growing number of 20-to 30-somethings prefer wine to beer or hard alcohol, and they don’t feel the need to put on French accents to discuss it.

According to Wine X magazine, 21 to 35-year-olds are the “fastest growing market of wine consumers.” A national survey released in 2003 by trend watcher Scarborough Research indicated that 25 percent of American wine purchasers are ages 21-34. Among the 75 cities ranked, San Francisco weighed in as the biggest wine drinking town, with 56 percent of consumers “most likely to purchase wine.”

In keeping with his relaxed attitude, Fuqua aims to create a comfortable space for people to sit, drink some wine, munch on cheeses and olives, and have actual conversations – not shout over the music or navigate a sleazy pick-up scene. The comfy couches tucked into nooks and the candle lit tables also add to the conversationally conducive ambience.

Says Fuqua, “For me, drinking a glass of wine is infinitely more interesting than doing a shot of anything in a crowded bar. The thing I find interesting about alcohol is it lowers your inhibitions, but I don’t need to hear guys yelling “Woooooo!”

Explains Fuqua, “Getting drunk on wine takes longer than getting drunk on hard alcohol. It’s a good environment to go out on a date…actually get to know somebody. It’ll lower your inhibitions but not make you do stupid stuff. You’ll get sleepy before you take your pants off.”

Wine aficionado Wendy Stanford, an outgoing 32-year-old weekly imbiber at Hotel Biron, says she started coming when she was looking for an alternative to the loud, drunken bar scene. “I find that a lot of places like that tend to be too pricey or too yuppie, and I think that this place really has a good vibe about it.”

Marlo Ross, a 33-year-old pharmacist at a biotech company and weekly regular, enjoys the laid-back atmosphere. An admitted wine novice, he said, “Biron is a great place to learn and ask questions and not have to feel self-conscious. It’s one of those tucked away jewels of the city. It has great wine without being a pretentious wine bar.”

Jessica Mikels, a 27-year-old with dyed black hair and rocker chic style, says that she first started drinking wine while studying abroad in Hungary. “Wine is so commonly imbibed in Europe; it’s almost unavoidable,” says Mikels. “Drinking wine in Hungary was an entry point to seeing what else I might like.”

While the heart benefits of drinking red wine are probably not of much concern to younger drinkers, wine has gotten a lot of promotion lately from the carb-counting craze, such as the South Beach diet. Mikels says, “That diet increased my wine drinking because that’s the only alcoholic beverage you could drink. Just reading in that diet book about the differences in calorie intake, wine drinking felt endorsed.”

Although red wines are by far the most popular at Biron, Fuqua hasn’t heard anybody mention diet or health as the reason. He has, however, heard a lot of talk about the movie Sideways. Everybody is ordering Pinot Noir, the wine the film hailed, and nobody is ordering any Merlot, the wine the film derided. (The main character, Miles, screams “I am not ordering any f – ing Merlot!” at one point.)

Despite these two cultural trends, Fuqua seems to think that the more sensual aspects of wine are the real crowd-pleasers. “Wine has an infectious quality to it. The first time that you pick up a glass of wine and you smell it and you say, ‘I smell vanilla,’ and someone says, ‘Yeah! Exactly!’ You kind of get a little rush from it.”

Says Fuqua, “I do believe that wine is a fascinating and beautiful thing that has amazing depth and complexity if you want to pay attention to it that way. But because you can, or because you are interested in paying attention to it that way, doesn’t make you a better person than anybody else. For anybody that comes up to the bar, all I want is for them to get something that makes them happy.”

Hotel Biron is located at 45 Rose Street, San Francisco. Open daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Phone: 415-703-0403.