James Carrière
David Lynch at his St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Merchant in San Francisco.
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Juice Couture

Lauren Ladoceour / July 2013

Lauren Ladoceour traces the career arc of one man who has woven together the heart of a writer and soul of a sommelier to create a successful business.

David Lynch knows how to spot an asshole. It’s something his father, a former busboy, told him you learn working in service. And so, on stage before an audience who’ve gathered to listen to his and other industry folks’ kitchen confidential stories at San Francisco’s Verdi Club, the magazine writer–turned–restaurateur spins a yarn about a customer with a bad attitude, smoking at the table during his time as general manager of Babbo in Manhattan. Long story short: After several bad-cop glares, Lynch threw the guy out. “So don’t be an asshole,” says Lynch.

The laughs turn to applause, and any anxiety Lynch—normally a confident, self-described combative type—had before his performance dissipates. He’s used to speaking to the public, first as wine director (and eventually gm) of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s flagship, then of Michael Tusk’s Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco. But performing in front of a crowd, unrehearsed and without a bottle of wine in sight, is new territory.

As a storyteller, Lynch has good chops in print, where his byline appears in issues of Bon Appétit and other publications, as well as on classic wine guides The Wine Snob’s Dictionary and Vino Italiano. But it was publishing the latter with his old college roommate Bastianich in 2002 that led him to step out from his desk in the role of wine editor, then into the choice position of wine director at Babbo, all without any sommelier accreditation. “It was a different time. I was just coming off this amazing wine full immersion in Italy, and those guys put an offer on the table,” he says, chalking up his start at the top to his ability to talk the talk. “Admittedly, I wasn’t a qualified candidate, but they were still a very fledgling empire.”

About three years in, when he took on more responsibility as gm, he began to fantasize about opening his own place, something he could put his stamp on. But it wasn’t until after he moved to San Francisco and completed his wine director stints at Quince and Cotogna that the writer officially turned business owner. In 2012, Lynch opened St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Merchant in a 1,300-square-foot former wine bar on the tail end of the restaurant-laden Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. He grabbed chef Bill Niles (Bar Tartine) to create and execute a small but refined American menu characterized by classic French techniques and British and Italian hallmarks. Highlights include pickled eggs with beet and horseradish, dry-aged sirloin, goat meatballs with smoked tomato, bone marrow with smoked chiles and grilled bread, and grilled tripe in a smoky tomato broth with baked cape beans. In late May, Lynch was particularly excited about going into succotash season, so Niles obliged with a succotash of butter beans, artichokes, and corn butter. Lynch also hired a staff full of wine-buying and sommelier experience, promising servers the chance to help him create an ever-evolving list of 200 domestic and international bottles (mostly boutique labels like La Clarine Farm, some blue chip like Storybook Mountain) under $100, each available by the half bottle.

Going to St. Vincent without asking what’s open is a missed opportunity for any juicehead, says Lynch, who carries a $40,000 inventory at any given time. Or just tell that guy behind the eight-seat bar you want to try some stuff. He’ll uncork anything for you, even for tastes, and Lynch will “just figure it out” later. “We’re not programming the wine list. It’s this very personal, free-flowing kind of thing,” he says. “I fall in and out of love all the time, still get excited about these discoveries, and still very much consider myself learning all the time. I’m always hammering for the best price, but one of the things that we do to our detriment is, if we get a good price on something, we pass it along to our customer.” Call it imbibing high quality on a lower-than-usual budget.

A super satisfying Syrah from La Clarine Farm is $48. A crisp, mineraly Carricante from Firriato Etna Bianco is $30. And a dark, concentrated Zinfandel from Storybrook Mountain is a near steal at $95, thanks to his relationship with the vineyard. “David brings a wide range of experience and knowledge to the San Francisco wine scene,” says Jerry Seps, CEO and winemaker of Storybrook Mountain Vineyards in Calistoga, California. “His independence in thought and selection allows him to evaluate wines on integrity and content, rather than reviews and puffery. When making his choices, he takes the time to question how the wines are produced as well as winemaking goals. In short, he cares about what he’s doing, and the patrons at St. Vincent are better off because of it.”

A year in, St. Vincent’s 25 seats do an average of 80 covers nightly. Marketing efforts have been minimal, keeping to social media posts on Twitter and Facebook by Lynch. On Saturday afternoons, the doors open for themed beer and wine tastings (anything Italian draws the biggest crowds), a small bar menu, and retail shop (though anyone can buy a bottle at any time). It’s been a year of slow growth, he says, with Lynch playing all three roles of gm, proprietor, and wine director with nary a day off.

But in the next year, he’ll be stepping away from the day-to-day operations for a three month tour of Italy to research and completely rewrite Vino Italiano (to be released sometime in late 2014 or 2015). He’ll revisit Valle d’Aosta, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, and Sardinia to discover what’s new, while also hitting up regions he didn’t get to cover the first time around, including Alto Adige and Lombardia.

It’s an update worth looking forward to, says Delfina co-owner Craig Stoll, who’s made Vino Italiano required reading for his staff at all his San Francisco restaurants. “The way it’s written as a road trip to Italy makes it very readable. He takes the subject of wine and brings it to life and makes it personal. It holds my waiters’ interest a lot more,” says Stoll. Of Lynch and St. Vincent, near neighbors to the original 18th Street Delfina, Stoll continues: “It stands out. I think of it as a gastro wine and beer spot. The last time I was there, he was carrying as many beers as wine. It’s really nice to have such an authority there. A lot of restaurants have wine directors who may or may not be on the floor. But David’s always there. It’s very personal.”

Indeed, as a first-time business owner, Lynch is also feeling the challenges of the restaurant all the more. For one, he admits he spends too much on wine and has yet to learn to curb his enthusiasm for buying. With limited capital to spend, he plans to explore consignments in the future to build up the list without the cash outlays.

The other challenge is as an “ornery, irritable writer” (his words) learning to increase his stamina for service after a full day of behind-the-scenes work, when the doors are just opening for dinner. “Luckily, I can rely on my staff to kind of pick up the slack when I fall,” he says. “I’ve got a bunch of great people whom I can throw out on the floor, so I don’t have to run around being the sommelier every night because often, after a day of doing all of the stuff to run the business, I don’t have the energy to deal with it. So I can’t be like the sommelier that I used to be, so they are.”

To be clear, it’s not that service doesn’t matter to him. It does. “It’s just not something that I need,” says Lynch. “There are some waiters and sommeliers who get territorial. I used to be like that. But now I’m like, ‘No, you got to talk to them.’”