It’s 5:30 p.m. in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood and eight people sit in an apartment drinking micro-lot Champagne and discussing everything from birthdays in Wine Country to art gallery visits. It’s sunny outside, but moody and dark inside, thanks to powerful shades and long rows of wine bottles blocking out the light. People laugh about why they would or would not go to Morocco while others gossip in a private room that was once a bedroom, complete with a shower. Maps of the Champagne region stretch across tables while venture capitalists discuss their newest, well, ventures. “This is a rich tasting,” one guest says. “But we could kick it up a notch.”
That’s because, here at this $75 Champagne tasting, one can always add on tins of caviar, Rechiutti chocolate, or a few more flutes of liquid exuberance to further heighten the already-luxurious atmosphere. For a private event with friends, the San Francisco Champagne Society sometimes charges more than $6,000 for a night of the good life. It’s a wine bar, a private events space, and someone’s literal apartment. Mostly, it’s a one-of-a-kind San Francisco destination for oenophiles with a proclivity for things bubbly and French.
In the Champagne region of France, there are micro-lot producers who create nigh-impossible to obtain bottles of sparkling wine. Bill Marci says he’s the only person in San Francisco who sells many of these bottles and that he’s the only person in the city who can host customers at his place to taste them. In fact, he’s the only person in San Francisco who would be legally allowed to do so because his SoMa loft is also a registered bar known as the San Francisco Champagne Society.
The entrepreneur is tall and thoughtful and cuts an imposing figure in his go-to black tee. Despite seeming to know boundless information about wine, he seems a bit bashful — like he worries he might bore you. But the guests at this one-of-a-kind bar come to see Marci specifically to drink up that knowledge, and they often share his love of three- to five-hour gustatory experiences. “We all look at Champagne as celebratory,” Marci says. “But it’s an aperitif in other countries.”
One rare wine Marci pours is from a family in Champagne that goes back to 1677. The 12th generation makes the wine now but is only the third in the lineage to actually bottle and sell it. Marci says they sell just 50,000 bottles a year — to put that in perspective, some of the bigger producers sell 30 million. Marci’s smallest producer, meanwhile, is with a woman he met while traveling who makes just 2,000 bottles annually. These uncommon bottles sell for $200 at minimum with many fetching much higher prices. But Marci being able to sell his rare finds out of his SoMa apartment — reservation only, thank you — is just one of the things that set his business apart.
It all started when Marci’s neighbors at 1097 Howard Street told him they were running a wine bar out of their unit. He couldn’t believe it, but his neighbors assured him it was all above board: In San Francisco, units in a mixed-use building can be converted into these kinds of hybrid residential-commercial spaces. When those neighbors left, they offered to transfer the liquor license they were using for the bed and breakfast to him. Marci was working in AV installation at the time. “I’d rather drink Champagne than put TVs in your house,” Marci says.
One year later — and an expensive year at that, Marci says — the Champagne Society was born. The bat cave nature of his tasting room and wine shop, as customers can indeed purchase bottles to take home, belies the fact that it’s totally up to snuff and has been since opening in 2014. Marci doesn’t have any formal hospitality training, and he’s not a sommelier. “My expertise is in consumption,” he says.
Marci took an immediate shine to the bubbly wine when he noticed Champagne, which often clocks in around 12 percent alcohol by volume, meant lower odds of a hangover than those reds from up north. But the real fascination began when he and his friend would get together for their semi-regular fancy dinners in San Francisco. They’d cap themselves at $200 per bottle, so they gravitated toward Pacific Height’s Spruce when it opened with $100 Champagnes in 2007. It was the inspiration for a visit to Champagne, the trip that sealed the deal on his newfound obsession.
Marci’s love for Champagne also sparked an obsession with glassware. Again, he says he’s likely the only person in San Francisco with the various imported chalices. Some are wider, others have etchings in the stems that produce maelstroms of bubbles that last for more than a minute without any provocation. For anyone serious about tasting, Marci advises to try them in about four different glasses. He charges a bit extra for that comparison since he says he likely won’t be able to sell the remainder of the bottle after demoing it for guests. Plus, he says these French-made glasses from artisans in Champagne, aren’t available elsewhere in the United States.
The entrepreneur has no desire to stop, nor any desire to expand; he estimates it would cost another $1.5 million to convert another unit in his building. Thankfully, Tock was a life-saver during COVID. Before the platform’s launch, he’d get about a 40 percent no-show on reservations. Now, it almost never happens. Most every guest who pays him a visit makes tiny chairs out of their Champagne toppers while marveling at the exquisite glassware set before them like ballet dancers in repose. “The bubbles are more defined here,” one customer tells Marci from across his bar, tracing their ascension in her etched glass. “Oh,” Marci replies. “They’re goin’ crazy.”