For many sommeliers, The French Laundry in Napa Valley represents the pinnacle of wine service. But where does a sommelier go from there? For Michael Ireland, whose impressive Bay Area restaurant credits also include Quince, Benu, and Meadowood, the answer was to step away from fine dining altogether. Some might call that move High Treason, which is just how Ireland likes it.
“Working at The French Laundry,” says Ireland, “I’d see people come in who would save up for months and months just to go to dinner there. And they’d be so nervous”—especially when it came to ordering wine—“it would just ruin their entire experience.” Customers on a budget were actually Ireland’s favorites, though: The allure of selling another multithousand-dollar bottle to a millionaire had started to wear off. Helping guests find an affordable option that delighted them was way more rewarding.
“I thought, wine has given me so much,” Ireland says. “How do I give that back to people in a way that they’re going to not be nervous about it.”
The long, intense work hours at high-end restaurants were also taking their toll, and when Ireland’s daughter was born in 2012, he started talking with his friend John Vuong (then wine director at Ame at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco) about becoming their own bosses.
They envisioned a place where neighbors could meet for a great $9 glass of wine while listening to good records. Vuong and Ireland hoped that it would become an industry hangout, a place where their friends could gather, but they also wanted to make sure that wine newbies would feel comfortable, too.
Last year, the two opened High Treason in a former discount store on Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond district. It’s not the most likely spot for two top-tier sommeliers to situate their ideal wine bar: the surrounding blocks feature Irish pubs interspersed with takeout dim sum, and bakeries with markets offering massive jackfruit from streetside bins. “I grew up hanging around Clement when I was in middle school, playing video games at the old 7-Eleven” says Vuong, who lives a short drive away, in the Sunset. “I always found this area enticing.” Ireland, who has a quick walk to work through the Presidio, says that neighbors kept telling him they couldn’t wait for the bar to open. There are several beer bars in the neighborhood, he says, but “we’re really the only place to get a decent glass of wine.”
While the space is pretty spare, Ireland’s goal was to help guests feel as if they’re chilling in his living room. To that end, the longtime record collector placed his record player, a Technics 1200, right on the bar, which means, he says, “you can drink great Burgundy and listen to hip hop at the same time.” That said, he emphasizes that putting together a wine program for this more casual spot isn’t all that different from what he did in his fine-dining days.
Of course, the program has some financial restrictions. “So yeah, I can’t buy that horizontal of Selosse I’ve been eyeing,” says Ireland. He does have a small inventory of verticals from favorites, though, including Pierre-Yves Colin Morey, Ceritas, Rouget, Sandlands, Terroir al Limit, and Quintarelli, and he plans to acquire more blue-chip wines as the business becomes more financially stable. But he’s quick to point out the flip side of the situation: “I feel like I have a lot more freedom. I remember a [sales rep] showing me a really killer wine at Meadowood, but it was [too] inexpensive. Had I bought it, I would either have had to gouge the guests or the GM would have crucified me. Here, we have no rule other than it has to be delicious and worth it.”
In stark contrast to the owners’ fine-dining experience, neighbors and folks on dates tend to order wines by the glass rather than the bottle. As much as 90 percent of High Treason’s business is in glass pours. Ireland and Vuong opened the bar with a large by-the-glass list, figuring they’d pare back once they saw what people really wanted to drink. “But people drank everything,” Ireland recalls. Today the by-the-glass list usually has 40 to 50 selections, including still and sparkling wines, sherry, vermouth, sake, cider, and beer. And, surprising both Ireland and Vuong, they move through the bottles, which means they can buy three or five cases of each wine at a time and pass along the price break to customers.
This by-the-glass focus has shaped High Treason’s service: Vuong says that after a few questions to get a sense of the guest’s palate, “it almost becomes dealer’s choice.” He likes to say that there’s not just one but three wines for everyone. “We have to be strategic about what we pour first, because if [a guest likes] it, they’ll usually ask, ‘What’s next?’” It’s important to have a natural progression between the wines. For example, Vuong might start someone with a tart, fresh glass of Angelo Negro’s Arneis, say, and then move to soft, peppery Trepat from Succés Vinícola, then finish up with a mature wine like the 1999 Balgera Rosso di Valtellina.
Giving guests a chance to try wines with some age is important to the bar, and the Balgera, which is available by the glass for $14, is particularly emblematic of that mission. “It’s the kind of wine that I always wanted to pour here,” says Ireland. “It’s drinking beautifully now, it’s super fragrant, there’s lots of umami” adds Vuong, noting that for now, the program at High Treason is built on wines that are “ready to go” since there hasn’t been much time to build up a cellar of aged wines.
The owners do, however, have pretty extensive storage space just waiting to be filled. Right now, their limitations are mostly budgetary—and due to their short time as wine bar owners. High Treason currently has an inventory of about 1,300 bottles, which Ireland describes as “minuscule” compared with the $1 million cellar that was onsite at The French Laundry when he left.
Along with older wines, Ireland and Vuong have been pouring some allocated wines by the glass. As of this interview, they were down to their last three bottles of Jolie Laide’s Valdiguié Rosé. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” Ireland says, “But we think it’s delicious and we want to share. That’s what it’s for!”
This share-the-wealth mind-set extends to pricey bottles too: On acquiring an allocation of 2006 Rayas, they started a Big Bottle Club, inviting in a small group of people “who like to to drink the nice things” to open up—and split the cost—of higher-end bottles. Most recently, they gathered to compare the wines of Quintarelli and Dal Forno.
A substantial amount of work goes into catering to neighborhood drinkers, but High Treason has become an industry favorite too, for obvious reasons. When local sommeliers need space for tasting groups or certification study sessions, Ireland and Vuong are happy to help, heading to work early to open up their upstairs area and provide Riedel glassware. Says Ireland, “The wine world has been incredibly kind and generous to us, and we feel the need to pay back what we can.”
Lower-key industry gatherings occur every Monday, when the bar hosts an event called TCA Somm-System. Each week a winemaker, importer, or local sommelier pours bottles that aren’t normally offered by the glass—and brings his or her own records to play.
Yes, Ireland cringes if a visiting producer spins country music, and he might have laughed a little at Shelley Lindgren of A16’s devotion to 80s night, but he says there’s an unexpected bonus to spinning records over hitting “go” on an endless playlist: “A record is only so long, so you have to take it off and switch it,” he says. “We’ll look around and think, ‘Okay, there’s four people here, so let’s play something kind of mellow, or there’s 50 people here and we’ve got to play something kind of upbeat and exciting.’ We end up being much more involved in the experience guests are having. I didn’t really anticipate that.”
One thing the two did know: It would be a great day when they could finally hang up their suits. “I grew up on a skateboard, so getting to be who I actually am is nice,” says Ireland. The casual attire helps guests feel at ease too: “When they walk in and see a dude in a Bauhaus shirt, they say to themselves, ‘Oh, he’s normal-ish, maybe he’s approachable.’” It all figures into Ireland’s larger goals: “Any time you can cast away the image of stuffiness from wine [it’s] a good thing. If people can be themselves instead of trying to act like Frasier from the TV show, then they can really experience the wines as themselves.”
Maggie Hoffman is the author of “The One-Bottle Cocktail,” coming in 2018 from Ten Speed Press, and the former managing editor and drinks editor of the website Serious Eats. She is based in San Francisco.