French wine is by far my favorite—a bad French Bordeaux is better than a good California Meritage, and a stinky Burgundy is better than a perfumed Oregon Pinot Noir any day. So when I heard a new French wine-oriented restaurant was opening in Nob Hill, I about wet my pants. To the benefit of my pants and my pride, I was able to pull myself back together when I discovered that Michael Cooperman (creator of the somewhat bloated but nonetheless chock-full-of-great-finds wine menu at Scalo) crafted the wine list at La Provence. Given that brasserie or brewery usually implies a more comfortable and laid-back environment, I thought I would reserve my judgment.
Now for a quick aside. I once had a friend who was dating this mildly annoying guy. We've all known someone like him—he tried so hard to impress us that he came off as self-absorbed when, in reality, he was a really nice guy who was just a little misguided and nervous. Well, La Provence’s wine menu is that guy. What seems to be a simple layout—white wines on the left page and reds on the right—is complicated by separating the wines into French wine regions, a detail that means little to the average drinker. Underneath each heading is a description of the region and the wine it produces. The wines are stratified with the least complex wine on top to the most complex wine on bottom (trust me, you'll also notice the price). While the menu succeeds at being cutesy and authentic at times, the overall effect can be confusing. A wine menu should allow you to easily select a succulent wine for your meal, then let you move on with the rest of your evening—not tie you down with extensive reading and deciphering.
My date examined the menu with a puzzled look for quite some time, put the menu down, looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said: “I have no clue.” This was troubling as my padawan wine learner, while still having much to learn, was making great progress thus far. His reaction pretty much summarized what I was thinking—like my friend’s boyfriend, the wine menu tries so hard to impress you that it comes off as slightly overbearing and can make you feel lost.
But that’s not to say this isn’t a good menu. At its core, La Provence's wine menu contains great—dare I say, spectacular—wines that cannot be found anywhere else in town. They also have a cache of wonderful white wines, namely white Bordeaux and white Rhône. You can even sample some excellent Rosé (don’t be scared of the pink color, French Rosé has nothing in common with the pink nemesis—White Zinfandel). And don’t even get me started on all the great reds.
Let’s also not forget that while the wine menu may be overly complicated, the prices are actually appealing. You can find a bottle of wine anywhere from $19 to more than $100, so you'll be able to find something to fit your budget and taste. You may need to swallow your pride, however, and ask for some guidance. The staff here was eager to guide me through the wine menu and to make recommendations. They were well-trained to ask, “What are you looking for?” (Let me tell you, honey, that is an entirely different question with an answer that would have been inappropriate for the current milieu.) Wyndi Johnson, an extraordinarily friendly bartender and one of the reasons I stuck around long enough to try some of the wines, was a breath of fresh air and a wonderful contrast to the somewhat stuffy environment, created in part by the manager who stood in the hallway the entire time staring at us like we were going to shoplift. (Maybe he was just building up his nerve to say hi? After all, I am stunningly handsome. Cough, cough.)
If you love everything French, are French or are a member of a French club, you will love this place. If you're an average vato, you'll need to swallow your pride and ask for help in order to unlock the mysteries of La Provence's wine menu. And I would recommend that you do, because these wines are worth trying.
Recommended Pairing: An open mind and your Sotheby’s wine encyclopedia.
Lurton 2001 “Les Bateaux” Syrah, VdP d’Oc ($5 glass)
VdP (for 99.9 percent of the people reading this) stands for Vins de Pays (country wine) and “d’Oc” specifies the regional tier. Basically, it's a French government classification or label under which nontraditional French wines are produced. (Jeez! I've got a headache now—see, this wine list requires way too much explanation.) Let’s get on to the drinking, and this wine is delicious enough to make you forget that the wine list made you feel dumb. Surprisingly lush and round, this Syrah will please oenophiles and wine novices alike.
La Vielle Ferme 2004 Côtes de Ventoux Rosé ($5 glass)
This herbal, crisp, fresh Rosé is delightful and a perfect way to get in the mood for summer.
Georges DuBoeuf 2003 “GD Red” VdP d’Oc ($4 glass)
Simple, fruity and forgettable, this wine is for alcoholics on a budget and the reason I wanted to try it.
Santa Duc 2004 “Vieilles Vignes” Côtes de Rhône ($8 glass)
Spicy, earthy, approachable—this is a classic Côtes de Rhône.
Domaine de Gournier 2005 Merlot, VdP de Cevennes ($6 glass)
This ain’t no jammy California Merlot—it’s packed full of earthy goodness that'll make you rethink Merlot.
Brasserie La Provence
3001 Central NE, 254-7644
Hours: Open every day. Lunch 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner 5–10 p.m.
Breakfast on Saturday 8 a.m., brunch on Sunday 10:30 a.m.