Oakland: The Natural Wine Capital of the West

People say that Oakland is the Brooklyn of the West, and if you compare the adjoining Downtown and Grand Lake districts to Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick, there are similarities. One striking likeness is that both have become natural wine hubs.

The Punchdown

On the West Coast, it started in 2010 when Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney opened The Punchdown at 2217 Broadway, making it the second natural wine bar in the Bay Area and the first in Oakland. Then in August 2013, Ordinaire broke ground at 3354 Grand Avenue. After taking a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, The Punchdown re-opened at 1737 Broadway, just a few blocks from the original space but closer to the heart of downtown. A few months earlier a new retail venue, Oakland Crush/Minimo, sprung up near Jack London Square, also with a focus on natural wine.

While the overriding philosophy of carrying wines made without synthetics, commercial yeast or additives is shared by all three venues, each has its own identity that should make this city a worldwide attraction for wine drinkers.

 

The Punchdown, 1737 Broadway (19th Street)

Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney met when they worked harvest at a winery in Healdsburg. Both were tasked with the morning punchdowns, hence the name of their business. In 2007, they moved to San Francisco and paid their dues in wine bars and tasting rooms until just a few weeks before opening in the first location on Broadway off of Grand Avenue. A smaller spot than the current incarnation, it had an inviting, down-home feel. I missed the opening act of more than one show at the nearby Fox Theater because I lost track of time whilst imbibing. The breadth of natural wines poured by the glass was unparalleled, and when they closed down it was a loss. Luckily for us, they re-opened in a larger, brand new space just a few blocks from the original location.

There are several things that make The Punchdown one of the premier spots for natural wine not only in the Bay Area but probably the entire country. To begin with, they have a great variety of wines, ranging from highly esoteric wonders including the 2004 Shavnabada Rkatsiteli from the Republic of Georgia ($17 gl/$65 bt) to some more familiar names such as Dashe “Heart Arrow Ranch” Zinfandel ($14 gl, $50 bt) made by Mike and Anne Dashe, whose winery is just a few blocks away. There is also a host of flights so you can do a comparative tasting without getting polluted. When I asked D.C. what guides their wine program, he said, candidly, “We try to design it so everyone will try something that will be intriguing. But at the end of the day, we only carry wines we will drink.”

Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney behind the bar at The Punchdown

And what would that be? What seems to be the salient qualifier is the authenticity of each wine. For them, the vinification process is just as significant as the farming. Many of the wines are made without SO2, and without exception the wines are fermented with indigenous yeast, even the Champagnes. They feature numerous local producers and are supportive of early efforts such as the Caleb Leisure Wines made by Tony Coturri’s assistant (Caleb Leisure).

D.C., in particular, is reticent to name The Punchdown’s strengths, but I’d say the first one is that authenticity also describes who he and Lisa are as professionals. They walk the natural wine walk but they are not preachy or pretentious. Wine can intimidate people in general and I believe that is even truer of natural wine. Given its proximity to Oakland’s business and government buildings, my guess is that many of their customers did not come in at first because it is a natural wine venue but have been won over by their demeanor as well as the selection. When they are off camping, which could be any given Sunday – Tuesday, their staff, which in the past has included industry superstars such as Martha Stoumen, emits a similar chill yet passionate and attentive vibe.

The food at The Punchdown is mostly Lisa’s domain. She created the menu but is usually on the floor, jumping into the kitchen only when it’s necessary. Having been to Georgia several times, D.C. and Lisa have taken some cues from this country, which is famous for its cuisine, with a host of vegetarian dips that pair well with many of the wines. A few months ago I tried a Rafa Bernabe rosato with the walnut and beet dip and together the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Honestly, I don’t love beets but the funky earthiness of the wine made a perfect pairing.

While The Punchdown may look more like a bar, it is also a retail venue, a top-notch one at that with close to 500 bottlings available at any given time. I will go on record as saying that they have the most independently minded selection of natural wine in California and that has been the case since the get-go. The new space has a temperature controlled wine room where you can choose a bottle to take out or drink in-house for a $10 corkage fee. Located right above the 19th Street BART station, there is no reason not to make a trip across the Bay to come here and have a natural wine experience that is as educational, challenging and enjoyable as any venue in New York or Europe.

Hours:

Monday – Thursday: Noon – 10 pm

Friday & Saturday: Noon – Midnight

Sunday: 2 – 9 pm

www.punchdownwine.com

 

Ordinaire, 3354 Grand Avenue (Mandana Blvd.)

Ordinaire

When I first met Bradford Taylor I thought he looked like a 1930’s movie star, not someone working on his Ph.D. in English at Berkeley. But Errol Flynn be damned, he is more of an intellectual than a swashbuckling actor and his approach to wine has a cerebral bent. “I study taste and literature, and part of my larger argument is that taste has the power to reshape our experience of everyday life in very concrete ways.”

This is not to say he is dispassionate. On the contrary, he has an ardent, almost romantic, belief about natural wine that permeates his place. “For me, it’s about wine’s potential to transform the way we experience ordinary life. And natural wine in particular—because it is so tenuous and surprising. At its best, it requires us to renegotiate our expectations, change our minds, admit we were wrong—and then hopefully it gives us a glimpse of a future that is somehow different and better than the one we had previously imagined. My hope is that Ordinaire is a space where this can happen.” And there you have it.

Taylor opened Ordinaire four years ago. He was already well versed in the natural wine scene in France, having spent a lot of time there as a student, so he came into the industry with a good foundation. To this day, Ordinaire has an extraordinary selection of French natural wine, especially when it comes to the Jura, Loire and the South of France.

The 400-plus bottle wine cellar has branched out quite a bit over time to include other parts of the world, in a discerning and uniquely producer-oriented fashion. Taylor explained, “We are a producer-centered shop, so we try to buy as many cuvées as we can from each winemaker we support. We encourage people to drink this way.” While this approach signals a certain level of support and loyalty on the buyer’s part, it also requires the consumer to actively participate and think about what they are drinking.

This said, Ordinaire is a fun place to knock back a few. They offer at least 15 wines by the glass, including $6 glasses of organic keg wine and $2 wine shots. You can open any bottle on the premises for a $10 corkage fee. On most Monday nights they run a price a prix fixe “Bistro Ordinaire” with different chefs. Should you want a snack they offer cheese and charcuterie, but the culinary highlight is the extensive selection of Jose Gourmet canned fish from Portugal. Seriously, do not even think “chicken of the sea”…this is epicurean poisson and you might end up taking a few cans home.

Hervé Villemade’s wines at Ordinaire

Ordinaire has Saturday afternoon winemaker tastings. For $10 you get your money’s worth and are likely to learn a few things as well. Since these attract a lot of people, Ordinaire has become a popular spot for weekend day drinking, adding even more vibrancy to east Grand.

Taylor now spends most of his time in Chicago, so Diego Perez, who worked at Ten Bells in New York, runs the day-to-day operation. This was a coup, as you could not find a more genuine, down-to-earth or a helpful person behind any bar in the Bay Area. When I heard he was moving west to become the manager it brought a big smile to my face. The rest of the staff is also friendly and their love for the wines, this place and what they do is palpable.

Hours:

Sunday – Thursday: 12 – 10 pm

Friday & Saturday: 12 – 11 pm

Closed every first Tuesday.

www.ordinairewine.com

 

Minimo (formerly Oakland Crush), 420 3rd Street (Broadway)

Minimo Tasting Area

Mea culpa. When I first went to Minimo, which was at the time called Oakland Crush, I did not give it enough credit and include it in a round-up of best natural wine venues in the Bay Area. I do think that the selection has gotten stronger, but admittedly, I was remiss or perhaps was having a personal “root day.” At any rate, Minimo most definitely belongs in the company of Ordinaire and The Punchdown, as well as the natural wine shops and bars in and near San Francisco.

The owner, Erin Coburn, worked in the art world at the Getty in Los Angeles for 14 years and then at the Met in New York before shifting gears and opening up her shop. Raised in the Central Valley and Central Coast, Oakland was already somewhat familiar to her yet part of its allure was how much it was changing. “I was watching it change when I was in LA and New York. When I came here I wanted to be part of a city that was changing and be a locally-minded, community-oriented business owner who could keep things real and interesting and diverse down here.”

While Coburn worked in digital media during her museum years, the way the wine is displayed, in a somewhat minimalistic manner with ash shelves and table tops, a zinc bartop and a concrete floor, suggests the feeling one might get in a Venice Beach or Chelsea gallery. It breathes sophistication but not haughtiness or sterility. The bottles are organized geographically for the most part, with the rosés and under $20 wines getting their own little nooks.

Minimo holds tastings on Wednesdays and Saturdays, often with winemakers and distributors. These usually cost $15. Customers can open bottles of wine at no extra charge and drink them on the premises. However, Coburn is emphatic that Minimo is a store, first and foremost. “We don’t pour wines by the glass intentionally because we like the idea of gathering around a bottle as opposed to being a bar. We really are a retail shop.”

European Wines on Display at Minimo

The 225 wines at Minimo represent a diverse international group. It might be a little more California-heavy, at least proportionately, than Ordinaire or The Punchdown, but you can easily find a Loire Valley Chenin or amphora-aged wine from Georgia if they haven’t sold out. Most of the wines are priced between $15 and $45, but if you’re looking to splurge, that can be accommodated.

Hours of Operation:

Tuesday – Friday: 12 – 8 pm

Saturday: 11 am – 8 pm

Sunday: 11 am – 7 pm

Closed Mondays

www.minimowine.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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