Good lord, the grape. Living in a world-class wine region (or rather, living so close to several) literally drenches one in delightful tannins and myriad notes of blackberry, chocolate, tobacco, apple, and plum. But while we've definitely forgone our youthful tastes for brown-bagged Mad Dog breakfasts in favor of a late-night glass or two of Lavis Langrein at Bar Bambino (www.barbambino.com ) or a dinnertime flight of fantastically obscure German whites at Cav (www.cavwinebar.com ), we admit that when it comes to which fashionable corks to pop for fall, we haven't quite graduated from "oh, whatever" to outright oenophiles. Sure, we dip into the media stream enough to know what's hip in the bars and clubs these days (rose and sparkling wines are so over; Lambrusco is on its way back), but honestly, if you asked us the difference between syrah and shiraz, we'd probably answer, "Doesn't one of them have a yellow kangaroo on the label?" So we took it upon our taste buds to go straight to the source, and ask a few of our latest favorite wine bars and stores for the juice on what's big. Chin-chin!
This funky little wine bar in West Portal specializes only in delightful small production wines, but proprietor Stephanie McCardell tells us that in the overall big picture her clientele's tastes are trending toward syrahs, white Rhônes, Roussanes, and viogniers. (White Rhônes and viogniers are especially attractive to those among us suffering from Chardonnay fatigue.) A current hot seller right now is the Vin Nostro Syrah, grown in Red Hills, Lake County, which McCardell describes as smoky, with dark fruit notes and that slight bacon aspect inherent to most syrahs. Que Syrah also carries wines from all over the world and is currently featuring two from Croatia — Bibich Reserva, a Dalmatian red with a subtle fruit and red pepper quality, whose main grape is a relative of Zinfandel, and a Croatian Malvasia, a dry, crisp white with peachy and other stone fruit characteristics.
230 W. Portal, SF. (415) 731-7000, www.quesyrahsf.com 
Ottimista Enoteca is a gorgeous Italian wine bar and restaurant in the Marina with an outdoor patio to die for and a menu to match. (Hello, fontina-stuffed risotto balls. Hello, nutmeg-sugared ricotta doughnuts.) Ottimista's Melissa Gisler tells us that requests from her clientele for Sicilian wines have been off the charts lately, and a recent rise in import volume has allowed Ottimista to offer a much wider breadth of options from the region. (Two hot Sicilian labels: Nero d'Avola and Cantine Berbera.) Due to the volcanic nature of Sicily's soil, these wines tend to have a tang of acid and notes of minerality, but also come bearing a powerful fruity flavor, with a very clean quality. The trend toward Sicilians has been noticeable, Gisler says, because Ottimista usually focuses on Northern Italian wines — like those produced in the Piedmont region, or from areas near the Austrian and Slovenian border — where the days are hot and the nights are cold.
1838 Union, SF. (415) 674-8400, www.ottimistaenoteca.com 
Carrie Smith of Biondivino, a sleek Russian Hill wine boutique that offers a mind boggling array of labels (yet provides enough comforting atmosphere and information to guide you through it all), has also noticed an upswing of interest in wines from Sicily, especially those from Etna. But another "strange surge" of interest, she says, is in the return to classics from the Tuscany and Umbria regions. A big winner among Biondivino winetasters this year has been the intensely fruity and now near impossible-to-find Valdicava Brunelo di Montalcino (brunello is closely related to sangiovese, another hot grape this year). Smith's favorite white at the moment is Piedmontese Timorasso — lush and rich, creamy without being oaky or buttery, with a golden acidity. "It's a good brain slap that makes you think, and want some more," she says. Her favorite red is Vigneti Massa, from a Croatian varietal. With the power of a brunelo and the structure and elegance of a borello, she says, this wine is dark and rich, with nice-ending tannins.
1450 Green, SF. (415) 673-2320, www.biondivino.com 
"Tiny production California wines as well as pinot noirs and Argentine Malbecs are going to be all the rage this fall," according to Jerry Cooper, one of the owners of this spiffy wine shop. According to him, the tiny productions most in demand are coming from Santa Barbara and Mendocino Counties. Increasingly popular are organic and biodynamic wines, whose producers employ a holistic, "metaphysics meets Farmer's Almanac" approach to growing and harvesting. The reason for this popularity? "The qualities of these wines are of an artisan nature, with more flavor. They taste more of the regions they hail from." Cooper also notes that while Bordeauxs have waned in popularity, Burgundies have maintained their place on the trend roster, especially in anticipation of the arrival of the 2005 vintage. Also hot: South African wines from the Cape. But mostly he sees wine becoming a more localized affair, including the way in which it's encountered and purchased. "The wine bar has become the new neighborhood institution," he says.
572 Castro, SF. (415) 864-2262, www.swirloncastro.com