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Wine

Drink Your Way Through America’s Natural Wine Bar Capital

February 22, 2024

Story: Jenny Eagleton

photo: Bex Wyant

Wine

Drink Your Way Through America’s Natural Wine Bar Capital

February 22, 2024

Story: Jenny Eagleton

photo: Bex Wyant

An essential guide to the bars and retailers that have turned Oakland into an epicenter of progressive wine culture.

The Bay Area was one of the first places in the U.S. to have a “natural wine scene.” That culture is thanks to a couple of factors: The now-iconic wine shop Vineyard Gate opened in Millbrae in 1998, and the legendary natural wine bar Terroir—the first on the West Coast—opened in 2007. (It closed in 2022.) San Francisco has also long had a robust fine dining culture, and it has been home to many influential wine professionals. 

Oakland is a beautiful microcosm of the whole Bay. It’s a big city of friendly people who like to know their neighbors—and it’s a fabulous place to drink wine (or sake or cider). The city has a rich wine history because of its proximity to regions like Sonoma, Napa and the Sierra Foothills, and there’s a clientele that, in my experience as a wine professional, is guided by curiosity. As a result, the options are broad and the bartenders are sharp. At most local wine bars, you can get a great glass for a fair price, or you can drink the whole bottle there for just $10 or $15 more than retail.

If you want to do what I’ll call The Full Oakland, I’ve compiled the essential establishments to visit. I’ve ordered them as a suggested walking path, factoring in the hours that the businesses are open and their offerings. The total walking distance is only 6.6 miles. You can start at noon and hit them all, if you’re feeling thirsty and ambitious.

As a disclosure: I’ve worked at or done business in some way with almost all of these bars. I hope that makes you feel that I’m extra qualified, rather than compromised, to share some of the best of this natural wine bar capital.

Minimo

Erin Coburn and Sarah Miller opened their warm and quietly run shop in 2015 in the Jack London neighborhood just south of Oakland’s Chinatown. From the beginning, Coburn’s selection has focused on wines that are farmed well, made by people (rather than machines), and have little to no mechanical or chemical inputs. Coburn’s taste is refined and playful, meaning that there are options for everyone, like wines from the Napa classic Matthiasson or playful Eastern European pét-nats. 

Nice to know: Minimo recently hosted the first West Coast edition of ABV, a summit founded by Jahdé Marley focused on building community and rewriting the history of wine. Aligned with the summit’s premise, Minimo stocks hybrids and other nongrape ferments that are worth checking out.

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Kinfolx

Kinfolx opened an all-day coffee shop/wine bar in November 2022 in Uptown Oakland, a neighborhood that’s central for nightlife in the city but has unfortunately seen waves of businesses opening and closing for years. Importantly, Kinfolx is one of the few Black-owned wine businesses in the Bay Area, and they’ve made their space with the intention of being an active and exciting community space. Wine pro Swan Dotson serves a rotating selection of wines and co-ferments that are more often than not produced by Black and brown winemakers. 

Nice to know: Kinfolx is open late (until 11) on Fridays, often hosting DJs and throwing fabulous parties. Head back here at the end of your night for a good time.

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The Punchdown

The Punchdown was Oakland’s first natural wine bar. Lisa Costa and D.C. Looney opened up with just a sliver of a bar in 2010, and the two of them ran the space, with no employees, for many years, becoming infamous with regulars for popping out for a few days to forage mushrooms and camp, leaving only a “Gone fishin’” sign. When they moved into their current spacious location, they started hiring other folks to work for them (including winemaker Martha Stoumen for a little while, and also me!) and now, almost 10 years later, Looney and Costa have a fantastic and capable staff, have moved up north and have opened a second Punchdown in Sebastopol. 

Nice to know: Take a peek into the bar’s inviting, temperature-controlled wine shop (aka Le Cave) and dig for treasure—you’re bound to find something you didn’t expect to see there—or go for one of the flights that they regularly rotate through.

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Bay Grape

Since opening in 2014, Josiah Baldivino and Stevie Stacionis’ wine shop/bar has taught scores of wine professionals how to be wine professionals, and it’s helped customers connect with and explore a thoughtful, expanded version of the classic wine map, including elegantly made wines from such far-flung established winemaking regions as Slovenia and France’s Savoie, and all the way back around to Sonoma.

Nice to know: Bay Grape has been an important location for study groups for the various sommelier exams. If you want to find a place to connect with a tasting group, this is a great first stop. Hot tip: There’s a tasty KBBQ spot next door that charges $10 corkage on wine.

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Ordinaire

Ordinaire is the place that people usually think of when they’re talking about Oakland natural wine bars. The shop has a huge selection of natural wines from around the world and regularly hosts parties, special dinners and nights where winemakers pour their wares. Sit out front to sunbathe and drink pét-nat on a nice day any time of year, thanks to Oakland’s Mediterranean climate.

Nice to know: Ordinaire is also connected to the Bay Area’s most storied natural wine fair, Brumaire. If you come on the night of the fair, you can dance with Catalonian winemakers and some of the U.S.’ most influential natural wine importers while a mariachi band plays.

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Umami Mart

Umami Mart is not a wine bar, but it’s the bar on this list I go to most often. The Japanese goods and beverages shop has a pocket-size bar in the back making fabulous cocktails from the in-house selection of Japanese spirits, and offers flights and glass pours from the wide and thoughtful selection of sakes. Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori are some of the most important West Coast figures teaching consumers and hospitality professionals about sake and shochu—go learn from them! 

Nice to know: Be mindful of their hours. Umami Mart is not a late-night bar, since it’s primarily for retail. If you’re local, check out the monthly sake clubs and quarterly shochu club that come with discounts.

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Redfield

Opened in January 2019, Redfield has taken the spiritual crown of “place where cider people gather to talk about cider” that New York’s now-closed Wassail used to hold. It can be difficult to find a place where you can drink different ciders made in different styles and countries, and have the folks pouring it for you serve up some serious geek knowledge of the drinks. In the Rockridge neighborhood, Redfield has all of that, and it’s a very cute and pleasant place to hang out. The owners, Mike Reis and Olivia Maki, are fabulous cider stewards and in addition to owning the bar, Maki regularly writes on the complex legacy of American cider. 

Nice to know: If you don’t want to do The Full Oakland, you can make a whole day out of hanging out in this neighborhood. Don’t miss nearby staples like Ain’t Normal Coffee, Market Hall gourmet grocery store (maybe the best cheese shop in the whole Bay Area), The Ramen Shop, and if you’re craving tiny tortellini in some fabulous broth, Belotti.

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Snail Bar

Chef Andres Giraldo worked in an outrageous number of fine dining restaurants (wd~50, Mugaritz, Saison) before he opened up his maybe-more-restaurant-than-a-bar-but-definitely-a-wine-bar called Snail Bar in July 2021. If you’ve been there, you know about the fabulous crudités and the decadent snails, and that almost everything else on the menu is a roulette wheel of delicious dishes that would feel at home at much more expensive and buttoned-up fine dining restaurants. The beverage selection, by Carlos Camacho, leans conspicuously natural and also digs deep into wines that enchant even the cleanest palate, but are still natty royalty, including Derain, Valette and the late, great Belluard.

Nice to know: While the wine is excellent, don’t sleep on the thoughtful selection of sake and beer. If you’re lucky, they’ll have Cantillon on draft.

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Tagged: city guide, culture, wine