There is no one true home for natural wine in America, no single place upon which a claim of ownership can be laid. But there are certain addresses that help define the culture here, and among them there's none more important on the west coast than that of Oakland's Ordinaire.
In its multi-kit Swiss Army approach—equal parts wine bar and wine shop, local hang and serious destination—Ordinaire exists in a state of mind-boggling multiplicity. It is, at once, one of North America's best natural wine retail destinations; a chill hang; an industry hub for Northern California's booming young wine scene; a fine place to take or hold a meeting; a street-facing outdoor lounge; an example of how good wine can taste when it's served on tap; home to one of the great natural wine fridges known to man; a bottle shop in which you get drunk; and a bar at which you'd be foolish not to leave with a bottle. Regulars call it “The Shop”—a master compliment of understatement.
I'm a great fan of Ordinaire, and so I was thrilled to have the chance to interview proprietor Bradford Taylor, whose vision and influence at the helm of Ordinaire has helped define natural wine in America. Whether you're deep in the tank already or just falling in love, Ordinaire should be on the top of any destination list for natural wine drinkers near and far. Sprudge Wine spoke digitally from Taylor's home in Chicago, where he now splits time between there and Ordinaire's digs just up from Oakland's Lake Merritt.
Hey Bradford, thanks for talking with Sprudge. What's your story with wine? How did you get started?
The short story is this.
I lived in Paris for a bit with my girlfriend. I was drawn to the culture emanating from Verre Volé, Chateaubriand, and Le Baratin. I later learned that these places are all very different, but at the time I lumped them all together. A few years later I was living in Berkeley, writing a dissertation about taste and Modernist literature. I’ve always loved eating and drinking, and it just made sense for me to write about it.
Then I moved to Oakland, which was starting to change in crazy ways. My dad was in town and we hopped in the car to grab a bottle of wine. We sat in traffic for 35 minutes trying to get to Kermit Lynch (in Berkeley) before it closed. My dad said, “Crazy there isn’t somewhere closer to buy a decent bottle of wine.”
At the time, my dissertation had started to focus pretty narrowly on the importance of taste as a sort of everyday praxis—as a way of engaging the world in a critical, potentially revolutionary way. I was getting sick of writing about stuff and doing nothing. My first chapter did not feel very revolutionary. So the shop grew directly out of my dissertation. In a perfect world, I would convince my advisor that it is my dissertation!
I decided to look at spots in my neighborhood and I signed a lease within a month. I started studying wine in earnest. I started a tasting group with three friends from graduate school and my wife. We read Kevin Zraly’s book. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.
We opened and it was a mix of natty stuff, Cali stuff, and stuff I had just seen around. We were carrying a bunch of spoofy shit, but the shop was “natty” in the best sense: no cash till, no payroll, no books, and a sum total of zero days of service experience between the entire staff.
Luckily, I had preserved a very teachable disposition from my many years in the academy. So I just listened to my reps. I started seeing wines I recognized from Paris. I bought those and asked for stuff that was similar.
I soon realized that I was drawn to natural wine. That natural wine was the thing that I had always loved. I’m drawn to radicals, to romantics, to ideologues and idealists. So I’m fine being an extremist. I approach conventional wine like beer or gin. Sure, there’s lots of good ones. But it’s not wine.
Did you have like an “a-ha” moment with natural wine?
In a very plural sense, yes. Natural wine continually surprises me. It’s the great joy of drinking to be confounded, confused, surprised, and maybe enlightened. I’m suspicious of repetition—of things that confirm what I already know. I guess you could say natural wine is epiphanic by default.
Do you think patrons are surprise to discover that you’re also a wine shop? You get called “a wine bar” a lot in the media.
Ordinaire is always confusing to first timers. They walk-in, look around, and say, “So how does this place work?!” At first, I was just annoyed, and I came up with all sorts of two-to-three sentence explanations about our identity. Then I realized that it was what made the place special. People can navigate the space in so many different ways. It’s a bar you can walk into and then leave without buying anything, which is just weird, but kinda cool. Or it’s a retail space where you can just spontaneously get fucked up. Or sometimes it’s a restaurant, but you don’t have to sit at your table all night. You can get up, slam a shot at the bar, browse the shelves, smoke outside, or whatever. It’s very free-form. But I will say, if you want to get on my good side, refer to Ordinaire as “The Shop.”
I love this quote you gave to SF Gate: “I think there’s something productive about how nebulous the term ‘natural’ is, how it opens itself up to debate every time it comes up.” Expand on that for us a bit—do you still like the term?
I like the term natural wine. Yes, it is big and baggy, and only loosely fits around the products, processes, communities, and worlds it is meant to contain. Finding a “perfect” word to describe all that is never going to happen, and thank god. I especially like that the term annoys people, which just means that it is language doing what it is supposed to do, making people uncomfortable, forcing us all to question the concepts by which we define ourselves and the objects around us. I think that natural wines do this on a very base, visceral level—so there’s a signifier-signified coalescence I find very pleasing.
I’ll add that I fucking hate when people claim that natural wine is some sort of subjective term that has no meaning. That’s always a sign they are trying to get away with something. But then that can spark a useful conversation, too, I suppose.
You’re living in Chicago now—how are you finding the wine scene in that city? Will you someday open an Ordinaire there?
Chicago has a great wine scene, and I’m still getting to know it. Like any wine scene, it depends on people, and Chicago has some great people. Nate, Cubby, Paul and Katie at Red & White are a beacon for natural wine, fighting the good fight. Carl at Webster’s is dynamite. Jaime and Tanya at Rootstock. Matty at Parachute. Collin at Income Tax. And of course, Nadim, the rep for Selection Massale, who somehow binds everyone together here. Thank god for Nadim. Also Andy from Cream is a mensch. The list could go on. They’ve all been super nice to me.
Right now I’m helping my good buddy Mac Parsons get a distribution company off the ground. Excited to bring more natural wines to the midwest. Keep an eye out for some real deal natty juice washing up on the shores of Lake Michigan.
I’m also in the process of opening a shop right next to Cellar Door Provisions, which is, for me, the best establishment in the entire city. I wasn’t planning to open anything (I’m raising two toddlers, writing a dissertation, helping to open a shop in LA, and running Ordinaire from afar) but the opportunity to be right next to Tony and Ethan is something I can’t pass up. We’ll just be a shop with tastings. Not a bar, I hope. Not sure on the name, but it won’t be called Ordinaire. There’s only one of those.
Does it feel like you’re in exile from your wine bar? Is it weird to be so far away, or is the change welcome?
Yea, it’s fucking weird. I hate it. I plan to move back as soon as I can. Luckily, Quentin, Diego, Alex, and Kara are amazing. So I don’t fret about the shop all that much. I just want to be there.
You did your Berkeley dissertation in “the concept of taste in early 20th century literature, as it toggles between an aesthetic sensibility and a more gustatory, more physical sense of eating.”—are you finished with it? How did the defense go? Did you discover anything that applies to wine and wine bars in 2017?
Nope, not finished. Still two and a half chapters to go.
I think of Ordinaire as a direct extension of my dissertation, so it’s not so much that there are things that “apply” to wine bars—rather, I think of both the shop and my academic work as pieces in an ever evolving and expanding ideology that encompasses life itself. So my dissertation argues, for example, that taste is a way for people to form communities that exist on the margins of capitalism—criticizing it, breaking it, offering reprieve from it—and my hope is that Ordinaire is that community.
I’d encourage all owners to be more ideological—because we are always already ideological, and being more so just means that we are being deliberate about what kinds of ideas and values were are creating and supporting.
Tell us more about the Kosuke Tada “Bistro” series of pop-ups—how did you get hooked up with Kosuke? Any food stand-outs from those events? What's coming next for food—are you still involved in all that from afar?
Kosuke was the chef at 6 Paul Bert in Paris. Quentin knew him through the Paris wine and food world. Then Kosuke moved here to be with his wife Grace, who is studying at Berkeley. Kosuke wanted to cook bistro food to serve alongside natural wine. It was a perfect fit. That’s that. The food is better than anyone expected. And it’s in true bistro style: we don’t allow sharing and everyone leaves very full. For me, the desserts alone are worth making a reservation. As for my involvement, I discuss the menu with Kosuke each week, design the poster, and send out the newsletter. And we discuss the future. I like doing that kind of stuff.
You opened Ordinaire in 2013—how different is the crowd now? Is Oakland more hip to natural wine?
Hard to overstate how different the scene is now. In 2013, we benefited from the groundwork laid by the Punchdown, but in general people had no idea what natural wine was. Quinn and I had to sell a bunch of conventional stuff just to subsidize the kinds of wines we wanted to drink. Now, we only carry wines we love. People come in asking for stuff that is wild and hazy and crazy. Macerated whites fly by the glass.
The Bay Area is this amazing natural wine hub, with the importers to back it up. Why here?
Yeah. Percy Selections, Selection Massale, Kermit, Farm, Scuola. We are spoiled. And they are spoiled, too, by a broad range of buyers that are able to sell these wines to their customers. I think the big changes will come as more and more winemakers start working without additives. With wine country surrounding the Bay Area, the shift from New York to the Bay is inevitable. It’s already happening.
Is there a great white whale of a natural wine you’ve always dreamed of having in the shop, but couldn't quite land?
Not really. Part of this is because we have crazy access to wines. But it’s mostly for ideological reasons. Lusting after unicorn wines is anathema to how I think about wine. So when Overnoy comes in, we always pour it all by the glass. Sure we could age it, but who fucking cares. I think it’s more important to drink it without thinking.
This is not a question, I just want to say that the Vincent Couche “Chloe” is my favorite Champagne and I really appreciate Ordinaire turning me on to it.
I went through a big Champagne phase right after opening the shop. But I can’t remember the last bottle I’ve drunk. Weird how things evolve. Thanks for reminding me about Chloe. I’ll drink it the next time I see it.
Chicago—a slumbering natural wine titan in the making? Or still too busy dunking its beard in a beer tulip?
Natural wine is about to explode. We are only seeing the beginning. We are just now seeing young winemakers in California working without additives. In 10 years, I think there will 20 or 30 producers working completely naturally, and a broader, more profound culture will quickly follow. Chicago will be one of the epicenters.
You're trapped on a desert island with a mixed case. Which 12 bottles?
Desert island sounds pretty hot, but I'm assuming I could chill them down?
Of course you can.
I’d choose mostly fresh red wines from recent vintages. I don’t understand old wine and don’t really care to. Keep it fresh.
Gamay from Christophe Foucher
Poulsard from Emmanuel Houillon
Beaujolais from Yvon Metras
Visinum from Alain Castex
Soula from Alan Castex
Pinot Noir from François Grinand
Gravotte from Puzelat
Pinot Gris Pigé from Schueller
Caibelles S from Laureano Serres
a blind from Quinn
a blind from Josh
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge Wine.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.