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Thirst for Knowledge

Soif co-owner Hugh Weiler likes to get under the assumptions about wine to the kind of truths you can taste

By Steve Billings

Walking past Soif Wine Bar-Restaurant on Walnut Avenue on any given evening, I would always see this tall, brown-haired guy with glasses, neatly dressed, attending casually to all the bar business, and think, "What is that guy doing here all the time? God, he works a lot."

He always moved through the space quietly, smoothly, taking care of those at the bar, handling orders for the staff servicing the dining room, assessing each piece of stemware before filling it with wine. You could tell that he felt comfortable in that space--he either really liked his job or he owned the joint.

Turns out his name is Hugh Weiler and, in partnership with Patrice Boyle, he does own the joint. And there's a reason he's there all the time.

" I mean, look at this," he says, gesturing to a menu that features 60 options for wine by the glass. "It's crazy. There's no better place to learn about wine that I've ever been. There's so many choices, it changes all the time, we offer different themes and the cuisine is fantastic. The neophyte can do wonderfully to come here."

But, you may ask, what about the neophyte's pocketbook?

"I don't think that people have a very good sense of what a great value it is here," says Weiler. "I think there is a perception that we're expensive. But, you know, the truth of the matter is, for what you get, we're an incredible bargain."

Weiler quantified this for me, relating that one of the same wines Soif sells for $6 a glass has been spotted by one of his co-workers for $10 in San Francisco.

In addition, if you look at the price charged for a bottle in the restaurant, compared to what they retail it for in their merchant section, the markup is very modest.

The bottom line for me is that Soif offers an unparalleled array of distinct wines at a time when wines and wine styles are becoming increasingly homogenized. The other night I partook of their Grenache Blanc white wine flight ($13.25), sampling four different iterations of this obscure grape varietal sourced from France, Spain and California. And for those of us attempting to deepen our scope and appreciation of wine without deep pockets, this type of tasting experience can be had for a reasonable price without having to buy whole bottles of wine.

No matter if you already enjoy wine and know well your tastes or if you want to begin enjoying wine, you need to pull up a chair at Soif's bar, peruse the list, ask Hugh (who has been involved in food and wine for more than 16 years) a couple of questions, or maybe just trust him enough to ask him, "What will I be enjoying tonight?"

"I want to make people comfortable," he says. "I don't think it's terribly interesting when someone knows something about wine. I think that it's all about the pleasure and you don't have to know anything to experience the pleasure. I don't get off by talking to people about what kind of fruit they should find in the wine--that doesn't interest me one iota. We're different people, with different noses, we have different experiences, but when I put someone on to something that they've never had before, and they love it, that totally makes me happy. I dig that."

Weiler loves all types and styles of wine, he says. But when pressed, he admits his passion lies with white wines, particularly those of Germany, Austria and the chenin blanc­based wines of France's Loire Valley.

"I think white wine is more complicated than red wine. Red wine can be like a wall of sound, too much to harmonize with food sometimes," he says. "I find myself drinking German wines more than anything else, for nothing compares with a great variety of foods as well as rieslings."

In our conversation he described the appreciation of wine as an arc that each person experiences individually, finding the things that satisfy one's self at the moment.

"There's this evolution of wine appreciation which seems to happen with people--it certainly happened with me," he says. "You get put onto wine, and somewhere along the way someone tells you sweet wines are unsophisticated, they're for people that don't know about wine. I thought that was true once upon a time.

"Turns out that there's nothing wrong with white wine--in fact, I think it's more complicated than red wine. And there's nothing wrong with sweet wine--in fact, it's pretty compelling. It's pretty delicious."

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From the October 20-27, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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