Heart's Jeff Segal Explains the Whole Mason Jar Thing

Jamil Williams
Jeff Segal.
As I was writing about Heart for this week's review, I called up owner Jeff Segal to get a link to the manifesto I'd spotted in the bar, as well as to find out more about why he serves wine in Mason jars, cultivates a clubby atmosphere, and seems so determined to shake up every wine-drinking convention he encounters.

As the review suggests, I think the convention-shattering sometimes goes too far. But there's no denying Heart's popularity ― what he's doing is resonating with a lot of people. Speaking to Segal, I also found myself in sync with many of his motives. So I thought I'd reprint a portion of our interview after the jump. If you like what Segal's doing, sign up for Heart's weekly e-mail newsletter, which launched this week.

SFoodie: So how did you decide to open a wine bar?

Segal: Wine bars and wines have been my big passion for the past few years. I moved to S.F. from New York with the idea of opening a wine bar. I moved to the Mission, and saw there wasn't anything like it around here. I wanted to create a place where people could enjoy wine and not be intimidated about it. Not that Heart's wine list is that unique, but I wanted to focus on small-production, unique, interesting wines and then break them down so people weren't too afraid to go up to the counter and order them.

Art is another big part of what we're doing. I also love the way that wine pairs with art. So at art openings, we're pairing wines to the art or the artist's body of work. We're also going to start doing some coursed dinners with wine pairings and invite the people who grow the food to come and speak.

What kinds of wine drinkers are you reaching with your approach, and why do you think they might be alienated from traditional wine bars? I think there are a couple of groups: One is a slightly younger demographic, people who think wine bars are stuck up or not quite as fun ― a little too quiet, or they worry that wine bars will have an older crowd. Heart's more of a wild, chaotic atmosphere. There's a lot of people, it's loud, it's big and spacious, we have more challenging art on the wall. We always have wines that cost $5-$6 a glass.

We also get people ― not just young people ― who are more likely to go to beer or whiskey bars. People who are turned off by wine culture. Rather, they may not know they like wine but are turned off by the Wine Spectator-ization of wine.

What do you mean by that?
One is the price inflation. Also, wine is seen as this commodity that you need to master to become part of the upper middle class in America. It's like buying a new car because it makes you feel like you're part of a higher social stratum. So [wine culture] is a lot of marketing, and fancy tasting rooms in Napa. Then there's what Wine Spectator has done, where the magazine is really about not about wine but the idea of wine, breaking wine down into tasting notes that don't say anything. 

[Wine culture] also means $50-a-glass Riedel stemware. I know ― sometimes you really want stemware ― but many more times you can just grab any glass and enjoy what you're getting. Wine doesn't always have to be contemplated.

Everyone walks into a wine bar and knows that they're supposed to swirl their glass and sniff the wine and read the cork. There are a lot of reasons for these rituals, but people have learned the rituals without understanding them. Wine is just grape juice that's made from small farmers who make wine because they love it.

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