Location alone would draw people to Murray Circle, the signature restaurant at the Cavallo Point resort. It occupies the former officer’s club of the decommissioned Fort Baker, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The bridge’s orange towers peek through a forested hillside. Early on a spring evening, sunset colors bathe the San Francisco skyline, visible from the Craftsman-style dining room.
For wine lovers, though, a cellar stocked with 12,000 bottles supporting more than 2,200 selections is just as compelling. Befitting the restaurant’s location, the list focuses strongly on California classics, although all the world’s great wine regions are represented.
“It used to be rare when someone came in because of the wine program,” says wine director Jamie Harding. “Now it’s a few times a week.”
Murray Circle opened in 2007 with 600 wines. Owner Passport Resorts, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner for its Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif., had plans to expand the cellar but delayed investment during the economic downturn. Harding was a bartender before he turned specifically to wine while at Vivande Porta Via in San Francisco, a seminal Italian trattoria. He joined Murray Circle as sommelier in 2010 and got the green light to build up the cellar when he was promoted to his present title in 2011.
The current list offers a wide range of options to fit chef Justin Everett’s ingredient-centered cuisine. Opening pages focus on wines priced at less than $100, including Müller-Catoir Riesling Kabinett 2008 ($75), Tablas Creek Vermentino 2013 ($48) and Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2006 ($60). The 23 by-the-glass selections avoid the obvious in favor of reliable wines to link with the seasonal menus. The minerally tang of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño 2013 emphasizes the earthy side of a smoked duck egg with black truffle, turnips, Banyuls and crispy duck skin—a house specialty.
A wine-pairing option (a $50 premium on the $95 chef’s menu) embraces more esoteric options. Lichen Estate Les Pinots 2014, a white blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Anderson Valley, lights up McFarland Springs smoked trout served with apples, watercress, horseradish and pickled Beech mushrooms. The lean zip of Porter Creek Chardonnay Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 meshes well with seared scallops over lemon-braised escarole enriched by duck-liver mousse.
The breadth and depth of the offerings from California are truly impressive. Chardonnay verticals include Aubert to 2003 ($340), Marcassin to 2002 ($1,500) and Peter Michael to 2002 (Mon Plaisir, $240). Cabernet verticals count 12 vintages of Araujo Eisele to 1991 ($785), 11 Dalla Valle Maya to 1990 ($955), 22 Diamond Creek to the 1990 Lake ($700) and 11 Peter Michael Les Pavots to 1997 ($850). Fans of Rhône-grape rarities from California can find 20 Sine Qua Nons and seven Alban Pandoras to 2001 ($260).
Among Pinot Noirs, 25 Kosta Browne bottlings and 35 from Williams Selyem share space with Cobb, Peay and Clouds Rest, the latter a tiny operation in the Petaluma Gap. The list offers several pages of Oregon Pinot Noirs and 15 vintages of Washington’s Quilceda Creek Cabernets, to 1994 ($450).
International benchmarks are also abundant. Classic French verticals include Coche-Dury Meursault to 1999 ($760), first-growth Bordeaux such as Lafite 1986 ($2,600), Latour 1986 ($1,250) and Margaux 1982 ($2,350), and from the Rhône, multiple vintages of Chave, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Beaucastel and Domaine du Pégaü.
A Sommelier Selections page favors value and food-friendliness. “I’m not pushing an agenda,” Harding says. “If I were running a little restaurant in the [more trendy] Mission District I’d have a completely different list. We have a culture of pleasing the customer. If they want Zinfandel, I’ll give them Zin.”
The laid-back attitude, vibrant cuisine and deep trove of classic wines at a wide range of prices combine to make Murray Circle a wine-country destination, within sight of the city.
Read the entire 2016 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, "Guide to the Growing World of Restaurant Wine," in the Aug. 31, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator.