On the Glou-Glou Trail
A hop into three local “natural wine” bars
By Nikki Goddard
Don’t call it a trend: Natural wine has existed as a concept for as long as winemakers have had the technology to produce “unnatural” (or manipulated) wine.
Coined as early as the 17th century, the term was popularized in the 1970s, but the style lacks any legal definition or certifying body. If you ask ten sommeliers, winemakers, or wine writers, “What is natural wine?” you are likely to hear ten different explanations. For some, it is strict dogma, others eschew the label altogether, and for many, characterizations lie somewhere in the middle. The simplest summary is “zero-zero”—nothing added, nothing taken away. There’s considerable agreement that natural wine starts with grapes grown organically or biodynamically without the use of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, or even irrigation. Intervention in the winery is minimal—no adjustments are made to sugar or acidity levels, and fermentation takes place using native yeasts naturally present on the grapes and in the cellar. Wines are rarely fined or filtered, often resulting in a cloudy appearance. Little if any sulfur is added.
Flavors are often described as “funky” or “dirty,” and while this is by no means a given, many aficionados find those qualities part of the appeal. Almost always consumed young, natural wine is also frequently characterized by an easy-drinking juiciness, onomatopoeically referred to as “glou-glou” (French for “glug-glug,” the sound one might make while quaffing). A high degree of tartness is common, and the wines often resemble cider or sour beer.
But beyond flavor, there are many reasons to love natural wine. Sustainability and social responsibility are paramount, with growers employing viticultural practices that improve the land and the community for future generations. Most natural wines are sold from small, owner-operated establishments, providing consumers with the opportunity to support the local economy. For the health-conscious, wines made without the addition of chemicals or sugar are a welcome alternative to conventional offerings.
The principles espoused by proponents of natural wine fall right in line with the priorities of people who value food made with high-quality ingredients that are organically, locally, and sustainably grown, so it’s easy to see why the movement has found a strong footing here in the land of Chez Panisse. This region is also home to some of the most educated wine consumers in the world, who are often eager to try new things. Fortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities for the curious oenophile to taste and learn about natural wines, and each local establishment offering them might have a unique and interesting philosophy on the somewhat divisive subject of what natural wines actually are, so don’t hesitate to engage in the conversation!
Going Zero-Zero at the Punchdown
Now in its second iteration after a location change, the Punchdown was the first natural wine establishment in the East Bay, originally opening its doors in December 2011. Owned by newly married couple D.C. Looney and Lisa Costa, this lively Uptown Oakland wine bar has an extensive menu of distinctive wines that run the gamut from easy drinking and approachable to delightfully unusual. Whether you are just beginning your natural wine education or are a seasoned devotee, you can expect to discover a new region, grape variety, or flavor profile here. All wines on the list are offered by the glass or as smaller tastes. Descriptions forego the usual wine jargon and can be quite helpful toward finding a taste that meets your palate. The wines that adhere to the strictest definition of natural wine are labeled as “zero-zero.”
Flights of three wines, grouped by theme or style, are the best way to approach this exciting menu. If you’re feeling adventurous, opt for the Super Natty Reds or a trio of orange wines. The latter are made by the ancient traditional method of fermenting white grapes in contact with their skins, resulting in a texture more reminiscent of red wine. The Punchdown also offers a selection of hearty snacks, including cheese, charcuterie, soups, salads, and sandwiches, which can stand in for a meal for anyone with unfussy expectations.
Looney and Costa are passionate about natural wine and eager to share their philosophy with all who walk through the door. While many patrons work in the wine industry, Looney and Costa realize that the majority of their Punchdown clientele will be new to the concept of natural wine.
“Our list lets you go as deep as you want to go,” says Looney. “Our house wines are easy to drink, and the zero-zero wines are more funky.”
Looney hopes that others will appreciate what he does in the wines, but he realizes that the natural movement is not for everyone. “If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you don’t. It’s all about keeping an open mind and trying new things.” While he and Costa will not compromise on the wines they purchase, they do their best to help those accustomed to conventionally made wines develop an appreciation for this other experience, and they like to help dispel common misunderstandings.
“Sometimes people come in thinking natural wine is always flawed,” Looney explains, but after an evening at the Punchdown, most people walk away having shed those preconceived notions—and perhaps they’ll be toting home a few favorites from the retail bottle shop.
Not Quite the Ordinary at Ordinaire
Bradford Taylor’s Grand Lake wine bar and retail shop has been Oakland’s hippest spot for natural wine since its opening in the fall of 2013. Another industry favorite, Ordinaire takes a more casual approach than Punchdown’s, though the philosophy is similar. This establishment takes its name from vin ordinaire, the French term for everyday wines that winemakers and their friends consume with simple meals in bistros. A rotating selection of wines by the glass or carafe is displayed on a large chalkboard, and custom flights are available as well. Any bottle from the extensive retail selection can be consumed on site for a $10 corkage fee. One of the highlights of the Ordinaire experience is Bistro Ordinaire, a weekly three-course prix fixe dinner prepared by chef Kosuke Tada each Monday.
Like the Punchdown, Ordinaire aims to offer the full spectrum of natural wines: You can get as weird as you want to here, but you don’t have to get weird. Diego Perez, one of Ordinaire’s buyers, makes sure their offerings always include wines that are approachable to those who are not yet sold on the “natural” flavor profile.
“Very few people who come in here are familiar with natural wine,” says employee Alex Leopold, who explains that it can be a challenge presenting these wines to a clientele that tends to know what they want. “People like the idea of a wine made without additives, but they expect it to taste like a wine that has additives,” Leopold says. He explains that natural wine is often confused with organic wine, and though they certainly share many characteristics, the flavors can be quite different. However, anyone coming to Ordinaire with an open mind and a healthy dose of curiosity is in for a night of great wine and enjoyable conversation. It doesn’t take long to feel like part of the family here—the vibe is fun and social, and anyone spending an evening at the bar is liable to make new friends.
Wide Open Waters at Bay Grape
If you ask the folks at Bay Grape for a natural wine, your question might be answered with another: “What does natural wine mean to you?” While they do carry many wines that fit the tenets of the movement, husband-and-wife proprietors Josiah Baldivino and Stevie Stacionis prefer not to abide by labels. They opened their Grand Avenue bottle shop in 2014 with the goal of creating a community gathering place and bringing great wine to their neighborhood. There is no pretense or snobbery here. Guests can sit at the counter or communal table and enjoy any bottle from the shop for a $5 corkage fee, and low-key educational events are scheduled nearly every day of the week.
While Baldivino and Stacionis have no dogma about the wines they sell, they do stick to a few important principles, particularly highlighting, as Stacionis says, “small producers working mindfully to preserve and improve the planet for the next generation.” So you are bound to find plenty of overlap here with the natural wine movement.
In addition to their backgrounds in running a diverse range of restaurants and retail shops, Stacionis and Baldivino went through the Court of Master Sommeliers. “We gained an appreciation for pretty much all styles of wine from all over the world.” If you want something funky and “natty,” they’ve got it. An oaky, buttery chardonnay? They have that too (albeit made by a small, sustainable producer).
Of their shop’s neighborhood—which the couple also call home—Stacionis says, “We’re one of the most diverse places in the entire world, and all walks of life come into the shop. We try to let our selection reflect that diversity so that everyone feels comfortable and can find something they like.”
To understand what someone requesting a natural wine is looking for, Stacionis will ask, “Do you have any requirements for how the wine is made? Otherwise, let’s move beyond that term and talk about what you want your wine to taste like.” Despite this sentiment, she does appreciate that the popularity of natural wine has inspired the conversation and is getting consumers to think about what actually goes into their wine.
Whether you choose to put a label on it or not, natural wine is here to stay, and for those of us lucky enough to live in the East Bay, there has never been a better time to explore it. ♦
Nikki Goddard is an Oakland-based wine writer, educator, illustrator, and consultant. A world-traveling wine enthusiast, she particularly enjoys finding exciting new wine discoveries in her own backyard. Twitter: @nicklesg