November 18, 2015 – Maritime Wine Tasting Studio: a taste of something unique

Maritime Wine Tasting Studio: a taste of something unique

Updated 10:30 am, Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Photo: John Storey, Special To The Chronicle

Manager Katie Guiney talks with a couple at the Maritime Wine Tasting Studio in San Francisco.

On a recent evening, attempting to gain entry to a wine bar, I found myself standing outside what looked like an office building in North Beach, bewildered by a security code box that seemed determined to keep me out. What a brilliant spot for a speakeasy, I thought — not inside an unmarked, windowless shack in a dark alley, but hidden in plain sight among skin-care salons and bespoke dressmakers. And the impenetrable code box, San Francisco’s 21st century bouncer.

Wrong. Maritime Wine Tasting Studio, located in the 222 Columbus Ave. building that also houses Brioche Bakery and the clothing shop Urban Sidewalk, is neither furtive nor exclusive. An exceedingly gracious manager rushed out to open the door for me, apologizing for the malfunctioning code box (a more accessible entrance is under construction).

“You look like you could use some bubbles!” she exclaimed, before I could look at a menu, as she began to remove the foil from a bottle of crémant.

The bar exudes warmth and light, with exposed brick and pipes, big oriental rugs and refurbished vintage mirrors. The seating options — bars, tables both communal and individual, couches, even desks — are myriad. It’s an unusually comfortable vibe, and indeed, Maritime Wine Tasting Studio is an unusual wine bar.

Technically, though, it’s not a wine bar: It’s a tasting room, meant to showcase the wines that Maritime Wine Trading Collective produces, imports and distributes (in itself an unusual combination). And in practice, the wine studio operates as even more than that. It’s a wine shop. It’s a cafe — on any given afternoon, there are people camped out at the vintage desks and on the sofas with their laptops, intermittently sipping glasses of wine.

Until the wine studio opened, a little over a month ago, the space was Maritime’s headquarters, lined with cubicles. The conversion into a pseudo-bar is a typically unorthodox move for the amorphous, many-tiered company founded in 2009 by friends Chris Nickolopoulos and Elijah Pfister. Is it a négociant? Wholesaler? Retailer? All of the above.

According to its tasting room liquor license, Maritime Wine Tasting Studio can’t serve food, but they’ll place an order for you at adjacent Brioche Bakery. You’ll be presented with a Brioche menu noting its perennial offerings — cheese and charcuterie, olives, panini — but be bold and ask what else is available today (and pray that they say quiche). Brioche will deliver the food to you at the bar, and they keep your tab separate. Outside food is OK, too.

As I glanced through the wine list, I tried to get a sense of Nickolopoulos and Pfister’s taste in wine — are we dealing here with a Kermit Lynch? A Terry Thiese? — but the portfolio eluded categorization. There’s Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and Grillo from Sicily, grand cru Alsace Riesling and value-priced Napa Cabernet. They distribute Cune — one of the great estates of Rioja — and import Il Palagio, the super Tuscan brand owned by Sting and Trudie Styler. If you ask Maritime staff what governs their wine selections, they merely say “small producers.”

Try a glass of Cune Monopole Blanco 2014 ($8/glass), a zippy, mineral-driven expression of Rioja’s white Viura grape. Or the Rieflé Brut Rosé NV ($10/glass), a pink sparkler from Alsace that’s as crisp and toasty as any in Champagne. Ask if they’ve got an open bottle of the Seven Sinners Petite Sirah, from Lodi, rich and chocolaty ($15/bottle). The partially botrytized late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc ($18/bottle) from Jules Taylor, in Marlborough, New Zealand, is surely the best deal on a dessert wine I’ve seen lately. Thick and unctuous, it practically oozes honeysuckle. Prices are marked in chalk on bottles; the retail price is not marked up if you want to drink it here.

Like the company that runs it, Maritime Wine Tasting Studio — a tasting room, bar, shop and co-working space all at once — bends genres. It’s not like any urban winery or tasting room currently in San Francisco; it’s original. And it achieves originality in the best way: by keeping things low-key and casual.

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine, beer and spirits writer. E-mail: Twitter: @Esther_mobley

To order: Rieflé Crémant d’Alsace NV Brut Rosé ($10/glass), Cune Monopole Blanco 2014 ($8/glass), Jules Taylor Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($12/glass).

Where: Maritime Wine Tasting Studio, 222 Columbus Ave. (between Broadway and Pacific), S.F. (415)

When: Wednesday to Sunday, 1-9 p.m.