Oakland bar The Punchdown offers natural, sustainably produced wine
on March 9, 2011
If winemaking is an art, consider The Punchdown Oakland’s newest gallery. The uptown bar, which opened its doors at 2212 Broadway in December, offers wine connoisseurs and neophytes alike a polished, unpretentious space to sip, nibble and chat. But be warned: there’s no Yellowtail on tap at The Punchdown—the bar only carries natural, sustainably produced wines.
“We realized that was kind of the direction we were headed for in our personal consumption,” said D.C. Looney, who co-owns the bar with his partner, Lisa Costa. “It’s healthier for you, and we like the taste more. We also liked the message of it—usually the natural wines are made by small farmers, and we liked the whole farm-to-table concept.”
Altogether, Looney and Costa, who are both 30, have held jobs at nine wineries—in 2007, they met while working at Williams Selyem, a pinot noir producer in Sonoma. The two bonded during a portion of winemaking known as “the punch down,” a process that forces the cap, or a layer of grape skin that rises to the top, back into the fermenting wine. This increases color and flavor, prevents bacterial issues and got Looney and Costa talking about opening their own wine bar (and gave them inspiration for a name, as well).
Looney, who grew up in Illinois and holds a master of science in wine management, says opening a watering hole like The Punchdown was always on his mind. “It’s been a lifelong dream,” he said, “we’ve been working on a business plan for quite some time.” When the space, which used to house Franklin Square Wine Bar, opened up last year, they jumped on the opportunity.
Now, Looney and Costa have transformed the space into a wine lover’s paradise. High ceilings, a long, wooden bar with metal accents, and a smattering of tables, each decorated with a single red flower, give the space an airy yet cozy feel. In a corner near the back, Looney’s personal collection of wine books is showcased for customer perusal, as is a rack with wine for sale by the bottle. The two plan to eventually expand the retail side of the business, and perhaps even make a signature Punchdown wine, but for now, the focus is on their nascent in-house service.
The Punchdown’s menu gives customers the rundown on its owners’ definition of “natural,” starting with the vineyards. Grapes must be grown sustainably, using, for example, good pests instead of pesticides to combat bad pests, and hand-harvested fruit is a must. Once the wine begins fermenting, Looney and Costa prefer as little chemical manipulation as possible. If a wine is toyed with too much, it becomes what Looney (sort of) jokingly calls a “Frankenwine.”
“Frankenwine” is the result when flavor, color, water, and tannin enhancers are added or other chemical alterations are made to the wine, according to Looney. While he said he understands the need of a vintner to preserve the year’s crop if something goes wrong, Looney and Costa prefer wines that let the grapes speak for themselves. Wines are better, they contend, unadulterated, and made without a formula.
“I love the idea that you don’t have to follow a recipe that’s the same every year,” said New Jersey native Costa. “In fact, it’s a lot more fun and a lot more rewarding to experiment. You just take what nature gives you that year. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
The selection born of this philosophy is diverse—The Punchdown stocks the grapes you’ve heard of (Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel) and some you haven’t (Melon, Obaideh, Seperavi). The bar has a selection of a rare breed of orange wines, which appear opaque in the bottle and are amber in color when poured into the glass. Customers can try these by the glass or in a flight (a tasting of three wines), which is how Looney recommends doing things if you’re serious about assessing taste.
The Punchdown’s wine comes from all corners of the globe: There’s German Reisling, Spanish Cava, French Muscadet, Lebanese Cuvee Blanc, and Georgian wine called Pheasant’s Tears that’s made using an 8,000-year-old technique. On the other end of the spectrum, The Punchdown carries Northern California wine, including wines from the Natural Process Alliance in Sonoma, which delivers its product in reusable canteens in order to cut down on waste. They also stock wines by Donkey & Goat and Edmunds St. John, wine producers both located in the East Bay.
The Punchdown offers a selection of bottled beer, as well as a short but sweet menu of “bites”—cheese, charcuterie, panini, soup, and the like—that changes based on the local famer’s market offerings. Looney and Costa not only serve up the drinks, but they cook the food and do the ordering—The Punchdown is an entirely two-person operation.
“In a lot of ways, this place is Mom and Pop,” said Looney. “It’s the same thing you’d find in the mountains in Slovenia, where it’s just run by two people and they do everything. We’re just a little more urban than that.”
This low-key vibe is one of the things that makes The Punchdown attractive to its ever-growing base of customers, which consists of wine industry insiders, folks who work nearby, pre- and post-theater patrons (the Fox and the Paramount are both within walking distance), and San Franciscans coming across the bridge to sample Oakland’s new hot spots.
John Herdstritt, who works at Vintage Berkeley, a wine shop, was sitting at The Punchdown late one Thursday afternoon, enjoying a wine flight and a plate of cheese with a friend. For him, this is the ideal neighborhood bar. “This is the kind of wine that I’m really excited about,” said Herdstritt. “I can come here and I know that I’m going to be able to find something that I’ve never tasted before.”
This level of comfort is something Looney and Costa hope to achieve with all of their customers. They’re here to make wine—particularly natural wine—accessible and enjoyable.
“In Europe you see these old cellars that are just covered in mold, and the farmer is the winemaker. He’s a real person, his hands are dirty, and he’s wearing boots and a flannel shirt,” said Looney. “Then you compare that to someone who’s serving wine with a serviette on their arm. They’re trying to bring this pretension to wine that just shouldn’t be there.”
The Punchdown offers happy hour specials—$5 glasses of wine, $3 beers and a cheese plate—from 4 p.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. every day. For more information, visit punchdownwine.com.
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