.The Punchdown

Oakland natural wine bar is a 2022 James Beard Award nominee for outstanding wine program

The owners of The Punchdown named their natural wine bar and bottle shop after a harvest term. During the process of fermentation, winery workers push the grapes down as they’re producing carbon dioxide. “Those are the little bubbles that push the grapes to the top,” explained DC Looney, one of the co-owners. Throughout the winemaking process, you need to push down on the mixture, ‘for a healthier fermentation.’”  

When Looney and his wife and business partner, Lisa Costa, first opened the shop in 2010, they racked their brains to come up with a name. The couple had previously worked at a winery together. “Our main task was doing punchdowns,” he explained. They liked the association of doing that work with their new venture. 

In 2022, The Punchdown received a James Beard nomination for outstanding wine program. Twelve years ago, Looney said there weren’t any other natural wine bars in the East Bay. “There was only one in San Francisco, one in Millbrae and one in New York that we knew of,” he said. At the time, he and Costa were only drinking natural wines. And they weren’t as readily available as they are now. It took a great deal of effort to source them then. “We decided that’s what we wanted to showcase in our little wine bar,” he said. 

Looney learned about wine by traveling around the world and through his studies in Paris and at UC Davis. While he was studying the wine business, the producers that resonated with him were the ones using organic or biodynamic growing methods to grow grapes. That often meant a small family farm rather than something more corporate. The natural wines produced on a small farm tasted different to him.

“There’s more variation from year to year,” he said. “It’s just letting the natural yeast and the natural components of the grape ferment into wine without adjusting it.”

When customers stop in at The Punchdown, they can buy bottles of wine or have a glass of wine and a small bite to eat. But Looney and Costa really want people to understand the mindset behind natural wines. “The most important part of wine, in general, is to know and trust what you like,” he said. And not to have someone else tell you that you should like something. 

When he was studying, it was hard for him to understand the subjective approach to the scoring system that wine critics used to rate them. “I would taste the wines and the scores didn’t match up to me,” he recalled. That’s why The Punchdown has specialized in and carried a large selection of orange wines. “Almost every single orange wine is different,” he said. Most weeks, there are four orange wines by the glass on the menu.

Looney said that orange is the natural color that wine will become from white grapes. “White grapes are actually more green and yellow in color,” he explained. When those skins are kept on during fermentation, the wine extracts flavor, the orange color and tannins from them. Orange wine is made in the same way as red wine. “If you just took red grapes and pressed them into a wine, you’d make a white wine,” Looney said. Most of the red color comes from the skins. 

When they first opened, Looney and Costa had to explain to everyone what natural and orange wines were, why they were different and why they liked them. They didn’t budge from that framework. After a couple of years of hard work, The Punchdown gained respect and a following. Several people who worked for them later started up their own wine shops or wine bars in Oakland. “It became a whole movement,” Looney said. 

That surprised them because The Punchdown started as a two-person operation. “It was a dark little space and we were doing what we loved, serving good wholesome food with good wholesome wines that are different,” he said. They wanted to showcase something authentic, to expose people to new tastes and flavors, as well as the history and culture behind the wines. Now, natural wines are more accepted. 

But on some occasions, they’ve encountered customers who are shocked when they find out that wine is fermented. He believes there’s a huge disconnect between some people’s understanding of the winemaking process and the classic (not natural) wines they’re used to drinking. 

“Going back thousands of years, you’re taking a fruit and turning it into this magical beverage that makes you feel good,” he said. “And that evolved into the modern day chardonnay that does not taste fermented. We love and crave that raw, fermented flavor,” Looney said emphatically.   

California vineyards are not leading the natural wine industry. Looney said that France is. There is a demand for natural wine in Tokyo, London and New York, but “it’s really in Paris and France where it’s more prevalent there in the culture.” The Punchdown, though, has always supported local winemakers who are growing grapes that align with their beliefs. He calls that approach “more than organic.” 

“It’s taking organic to the next level, biodynamics essentially, regenerative farming,” he explained. More than organic is a way of farming the land that’s good for the environment and for the soil. If one has healthy soil, then one can grow healthy fruit without having to adjust the levels of sugar or nutrients to the fermentation process.

“There are expensive cabernets in Napa that have added nutrients because the soil is lifeless,” Looney said. “Then it’s going to be lacking in nitrogen, which you’re going to need to add to the fermentation so it doesn’t taste off or funny.”

The California regions that are maintaining organic vineyards, he notes, are places like Mendocino, Humboldt, Sonoma and around Santa Cruz. “It’s mind blowing that wine is not held up to the same standards as food because it is a food product,” Looney argues. “If you knew what was added into your wine, it might influence what types of wines you would drink.”

The Punchdown, open Sun to Thu 3-9pm and Fri to Sat 12-11pm. 1737 Broadway St., Oakland. 510.788.7877. punchdownwine.com.

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