There’s no shortage of natural wine shops and bars in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Ordinaire, Ruby, Terroir, The Punchdown (where I work), and a handful of others. With one exception, all have been opened in the last 10 years and fall neatly into the story of natural wine that I’ve heard told over and over and which always sounds something like this: some crazy winemakers in Beaujolais in the 1970s had some crazy ideas and made their crazy wines, and then some cool wine bars opened up in Paris, and then Terroir was opened in San Francisco in 2007 and The Ten Bells was opened in Manhattan in 2008 and that’s when natural wine made it to the US.
That story, while more or less accurate, misses Vineyard Gate.
Alex Bernardo is the owner of Vineyard Gate, a small wine shop in an unlikely location five minutes from the San Francisco Airport in Millbrae, CA. All the way back in 1998—10 years before the above landmark bars first served their first splash—Bernardo opened Vineyard Gate, stocking it full of glou-glou wines and bottles from then little-known producers and regions like Beaujolais and Jura. Bernardo said that in the mid-aughts, “you couldn’t find any place in the Bay Area that had more Jura wine than here, even importers would show up. We were the only shop with Puffeney.” These days, the shop is known somewhat widely by people who work in wine in the Bay Area and is still frequented by importers, but beyond that, Bernardo’s shop seems to be a kind of kept secret. 20 years later, it maintains an exciting inventory that dives deep into geekdom and deliciousness; Bernardo is a wine buyer’s wine buyer.
Most of the wines at Vineyard Gate are obscure by anyone’s standards. There you’ll find back vintages of sought-after bottles and wines made from obscure indigenous grapes. You’ll also find François Saint-Lô’s Cabernet Franc called, delightfully, “Cab-baret” and Antonio Lopes Ribeiro’s Vinho Verde, Air. In addition to wine, there are excellent ciders, beers, and probably the most interesting collection of sakes in the area including some from Matsunotsukasa, a renown brewery that Bernardo has spent time working at. He has seemingly visited every winery whose products he sells or he knows the winemaker and their dog. “I like to carry stuff that no one talks about,” he says. “I’m trying to get the message across that everyone may know one winemaker but there’s someone else who is unknown and who makes something equally as good and that is easier to get and you don’t have to pay a bunch of money for it.”
Like me, most of Bernardo’s customers come from Oakland or San Francisco, a drive that can take 40 minutes to two hours, depending on traffic. The shop is located “down the peninsula” (which is just a Bay Area way of saying south of San Francisco) near Silicon Valley. The area is full of mill- and billionaires but these aren’t the kinds of folks who shop at Bernardo’s store. He says that’s because they’re unwilling to “take chances, and any wine has to be some kind of brand or something their friends drink or something that Robert Parker likes” for them to buy it. “Natural wine is not easy to like for many people because it exposes the faults of wine,” he said, and that most folks who live near the shop “just want to be spoon fed, and that’s what commercial wines do.”
Bernardo isn’t just a wine guy. His knowledge runs deep when it comes to coffee, jazz, photography, sake production, and, I imagine, a hundred or so other subjects. He serves good coffee as well as snacks like Minerva brand tinned fish, cheeses, and charcuterie. There’s always something playing on the record player behind the counter (during visits for this article it was Christmas jazz). Between the snacks, the coffee, and the very reasonable by the glass prices and corkage fee, Vineyard Gate is a pretty nice place to spend an afternoon.
Vineyard Gate is the kind of shop where you go in for a bottle and leave with half-a-book worth of new knowledge. Usually when I hear anyone talking about it, it’s in hushed tones—maybe out of reverence or maybe out of secrecy. It’s a wine shop/coffee shop/temple to hedonism and thoughtfulness. The selection is small but precise and for every bottle on the shelf, Bernardo has 10 or more stories. Go, ask, listen, drink.
Jenny Eagleton is a freelance writer and wine professional based in the Bay Area. This is Jenny Eagleton’s first feature for Sprudge Wine.