A Wine Lover’s Guide to Oakland, California

Woman holding a bottle of wine at a small wooden bar
The wine bar at Ordinaire / Photo by Terri Loewenthal

Across the bay, as tech-rich neighbor San Francisco seems to go from strength to strength, Oakland has long endured economic struggles. A working-class city, it’s home to a historic, vibrant African-American community and its Chinatown neighborhood is home to generations of immigrants from throughout Asia. But lately, Oakland has drawn an influx of new residents.

Out of this heady mix, a new Oakland is emerging. Some young chefs have realized their dreams to open their own places, as have some urban winemakers. These venues often occupy repurposed warehouses and factories that laid derelict for years. A city that’s a no-BS, no-airs kind of place, many of its wine shops and bars place a focus on natural wines. Much like the city, these wines tell it like it is.

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Wine Bars

The Punchdown

Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney, the couple who own this natural wine-focused bar, restaurant and bottle shop, have participated in their share of punch-downs. Between them, they’ve worked at nine wineries, first meeting at one in Sonoma. Their business, located in Uptown, the confusing name for Oakland’s downtown, draws a festive after-work crowd that competes to name wines in blind tasting flights. Those who can solve all three mysteries don’t pay.

As patrons play wine sleuth, they snack on conservas (tinned seafood), chicken liver mousse and roasted marrow bones. There are a dozen themed flight options (big reds, orange wines, Georgian bottlings) and about 25 wines available by the glass from bottles found in a climate-controlled, walk-in cellar opposite the bar.

CDP

The son of a mother who worked in the kitchen of a local Thai restaurant, James Syhabout has helped put his hometown of Oakland on the culinary map. He’s earned two Michelin stars for his flagship restaurant, Commis. In 2017, he took over the other half of the building on the pedestrian-friendly Piedmont Avenue to open this significantly more affordable wine bar.

Some of the award-winning Commis menu can also be had here, which includes a five-course prix fixe for about $75. Mark Guillaudeu, the beverage director, says that Syhabout tries not to use the same ingredient twice in the course of a meal. Likewise, he tries never to use the same variety or same country of origin twice in wine pairings. “You find some unlikely, but strong combinations that way,” says Guillaudeu. The menu also offers a section devoted to picks chosen by Assistant Sommelier Timothy Sorek.

Left image of a crowded restaurant, right image of a vegetable dish
Dinner at Mama Oakland / Photo by Emma K. Morris

Restaurants with Great Wine Lists

A16

Shelley Lindgren, co-owner/wine director of the acclaimed San Francisco Italian restaurant, has earned a James Beard Award for the wine list with a focus on Southern Italy. She’s spent this summer visiting vineyards along the Naples-to-Bari highway (for which the restaurant is named) in research for a book, The New Italian Wine, scheduled for release in 2021 from Ten Speed Press, to be coauthored with Kate Leahy.

Sommelier Noah Kenoyer, a winemaker with Blue Ox Wine Co., helps diners navigate the large list at this Oakland outpost located on Rockridge’s main drag, College Avenue. There are 200 reds, 125 whites and 25 rosés offered, many from small wineries crafted from lesser-known grape varieties.

AlaMar

Dominican-American chef Nelson German’s seafood-centric canteen has brought life to a formerly dead zone of Uptown. Mussels, clams and shrimp are available by the pound, drenched in curry sauce, including one named after Golden State Warriors star point guard Steph Curry.

Featured prominently on the list is wine from a newer winery run by a Kenyan-American woman: Wachira, which has a floral-scented sparkling wine. “To state the obvious, there aren’t a lot of African-Americans in the wine business or that many women,” says German. “We wanted to represent their work. And these wines stand up to the bold flavors in food I go for.”

Man serving two patrons
Brooklyn West, close to famous Jack London Square, is one of Oakland’s urban wineries.

Mama Oakland

This new California-Italian restaurant near Lake Merritt doesn’t have to look far to source its wines. Proprietors Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino have long run Bay Grape, a shop just a few doors down. The long list attaches symbols to the featured wines, like a big ‘T’ for tannic, one of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” for natural wines, and a cassette tape for classics. A shifting set of adventurous bottles are offered on the list’s last page, called the “Baller List.”

With a three-course, $30 prix fixe and preppy colors, the restaurant is a popular first-date destination. A portrait of Stacionis’s great-grandmother presides over the open kitchen to ensure that no one takes too many liberties with the family recipes.

Shinmai

Yingji Huang, born in China, partnered with Andy Liu to pour his love of all things Japan into this restaurant, located in the neighborhood behind City Hall. As is typical in Huang’s favorite part of Tokyo, the Roppongi district, there’s no signage. Inside this low-slung industrial building is a sleek, well-stocked bar sits to the left of a mural of kimono-clad women in traditional geisha makeup—with one consulting her iPhone—and a diverse crowd occupies low tables to the right.

To accompany sophisticated versions of Japanese classic izakaya dishes and ramen are California wines like a Chenin Blanc-Viognier from Amador County. There’s also a small, strong saké list with cedar keg-aged Kikumasamune Taru from Kyoto and marigold yeast-accented Amabuki from Saga. If a pre-dinner cocktail sounds appealing, try the signature Old Fashioned made with a blend of shochu and Mars Iwai whisky.

Left image of wine on shelves, right image of the Ordinaire storefront
Ordinaire helped drive the Bay Area’s natural wine movement. / Photos by Terri Lowenthal

Wine Shops

Ordinaire

Former Berkeley literature doctoral candidate Bradford Taylor founded this shop/wine bar on lively Grand Avenue in 2013, and it’s helped drive the natural wine movement in the Bay Area. Opposite of the bar is a wall of bottles with prices scrawled in white marker. The bottles share space with books from Taylor’s collection: recently Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas sat next to a bottle of biodynamically farmed French Sauvignon, while F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited brushed up against a Beaujolais made from organically grown grapes.

The store features primarily small producers from France and California. The tasting crowd is youthful, eager to learn the lore about the shop’s wines. Taylor also co-hosts Brumaire, the annual natural wine festival held in March, while occasional pop-up dinners with local chefs tend to fill up early and Saturday winemaker-run tastings can get crowded.

Minimo

Minimo is Italian for “minimal,” and it speaks to both the decor and the style of wines offered. Located not far from the waterfront square named for a local hero, writer Jack London, the shop has a selection of natural wines from the Old World. Georgia and Austria are well represented, as are New World producers including North America and Australia. There are also three tables filled with wines less than $20.

The airy space resembles a gallery, with exposed brick and walls and abstract black-and-white mural. That’s no coincidence: For two decades, Erin Coburn worked at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Sarah Miller, her life and business partner, teaches art history at Mills College. “We don’t have a lot of labels on the shelves and walls,” says Coburn. “We want you to talk to us.” On weeknights, locals drop in to try the often-unusual wines available by the glass, and there are occasional winemaker-led tastings on Saturdays.

Left image of chalk board drawing about the winery, right image of woman pouring wine
Campovida has its own organic vineyard in Hopland, CA. / Photo by Olivia Smart Photography

Oakland Yard

Co-owners Max Davis and Daniel Schmidt met while they worked at a wine store in Brooklyn, New York. The shop they opened together in Temescal mixes the rough and the smooth. Neighbors include a restaurant devoted to posh mac and cheese and a lumberyard.

Davis is an alum of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, and the shop carries a good selection of the Bandol rosé from Provence beloved by that restaurant’s founder, Alice Waters. Schmidt, meanwhile, worked a couple of grape harvests for wineries in Sonoma. These experiences are reflected by European wines in the canonical styles and California bottlings known to insiders. The shop’s Instagram feed broadcasts themes of the frequent early-evening flight tastings, which tend to spill out onto the patio.

Paul Marcus Wines

Rockridge Market Hall is a temple to food. It houses a baker, butcher, fishmonger, cheese shop, fruit-and-vegetable store and this little wine shop. Staffers here are adept at recommendations to pair alongside the bounty of their neighbors. Clerks have the passion often associated with record stores, which should be no surprise. Paul Marcus helped run one of Berkeley’s flagship vinyl retailers before he switched over to wine in the late 1980s. Three-quarters of its 1,600 bottles are sourced from Europe, with particular depth in rosé, sparkling and high-end Italian wines.

Image of a storefront in a refurbished warehouse
The micro-winery Prima Materia in Temescal

Urban Wineries

Brooklyn West

Though Brooklyn and Oakland differ in many ways, both have drawn hordes of new residents who fled pricier zip codes across the water. “Oakland’s always been this gritty place, with makers in it,” says Brooklyn West winemaker Stewart Epstein, whose parents came from New York. “That’s part of why I’m here. [Also] we’re within reach of many good grape-growing areas.”

With grapes sourced from vineyards around Northern California and Amador,the winery has a deft touch with reds. It produces polished, well-balanced Tempranillos and Barberas. Its Zinfandels are jammy and big, yet elegant. “Our Old Growth Zin divides people,” says Epstein. “Those who find most California Zins overblown, they like ours.” The wines poured in its tasting room, housed in a repurposed old factory near the waterfront, may be restrained, but the wine-club dinners tend to the epic. An event will be at the Oakland Museum of California in September.

Campovida

Campovida makes its wines largely from grapes farmed its own organic winery and farm near Hopland in Mendocino County, as well as grapes sourced from other sustainable Mendocino vineyards. The husband-and-wife proprietors, Gary Breen and Anna Beuselinck, longtime Oaklanders, moved their young family to the country in 2010. But they kept a toehold in the city with a tasting room in the same West Oakland building that houses Old Kan Beer and Linden Street Brewery.

In the evenings, the building forms an island of light and conviviality in a mainly shutdown industrial area near the Port of Oakland. The emphasis here is on Italian and Rhône varieties Try an earthy Negroamaro or the Rhône-inspired Campo di Blanca, made from a mix of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Prima Materia

This micro-winery’s name is Latin for the raw material that alchemists hoped to transform into the philosopher’s stone. “Their goal was to use this mythical agent to change base metals into gold,” says Pietro Buttitta, winemaker for Prima Materia. “We’re doing a more ordinary transformation, from grapes into wine, but it’s not without a mysterious element to it, too.”

The grapes mainly come from the Kelsey Bench American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Lake County. Look for its Sagrantino or Sangiovese, both served at a tasting room off the Temescal Alleys. Just off the arterial Telegraph Avenue, the alleys are lined with old stables that now house businesses like a succulent nursery, jewelry maker and assorted boutiques selling locally made clothing. Also a chef, Buttitta hosts monthly themed alfresco wine dinners in nearby alleys. The dinner scheduled for August highlights wines inspired by The Odyssey.

Published on August 5, 2019
Topics: Travel


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