If you talk to D.C. Looney about wine, you might hear him describe products of a non-natural origin as “spoofilated crap.” He may talk about the production of natural wine as “alchemical and transcending,” or discuss how the “ancient spirit of this magical beverage” pulled him in to the world he now inhabits. The Punchdown, the Downtown Oakland natural wine bar he owns with his wife, Lisa Costa, is beneath its calm interior the physical embodiment of Looney’s crackling energy and enthusiasm for a product he dearly loves.
He and the staff of The Punchdown are not simply natural wine salespeople, they are enthusiasts and educators, ardent fans of the strange and wonderful flavors a glass, or bottle, of natural wine can provide. In The Bay Area they are, with a small selection of other shops, the carriers of the natural wine torch, the light in the darkness of an area renowned for its adherence to conventional wine.
Looney comes from a background in conventional wine, honing his focus on what natural wine is through years of working at wineries and getting a Masters in Science in Wine Management at OIV.
“I couldn’t believe how seriously some of the people took wine,” Looney says. “They pretty much took the fun out of it.” After working through four harvests at various wineries in Northern California’s hallowed wine country—where he and Costa met—Looney moved to San Francisco and started working at wine shops, trying to excavate what natural wine was and what it meant to them.
“We put it together that there is no real definition of ‘natural wine,'” he says, “so we took it upon ourselves to define it based on our experiences.” The original Punchdown opened in 2009 with Looney and Costa’s thoughts on the most important parts of the “natural wine process” outlined on the back of their menus.
Today, the second iteration of the warm-toned, high-ceilinged shop sits dead-center on the main stretch of Downtown Oakland, a calming, relaxed space for natural wine aficionados and newbies alike to sample and learn about the increasingly wider range of natural offerings.
“We take our selections of wine very seriously,” Looney says, “and we focus on educating our patrons about the grapes, regions, growers, styles, etc.” He and Costa mix their studious knowledge of wine—Costa is a certified sommelier—along with being “natty and honest” about the beverages they’re pouring. “Our tastes have evolved to actually crave the wilder, more ‘raw’ and fermented flavors in wine,” Looney says. “We only pour things we drink.”
Which, as it turns out, is a wide variety of offerings. The Punchdown offers 30 different by-the-glass wines, from a wide range of regions and styles.
Of the shop’s go-to style of wines, Looney explains: “glou-glou chilled reds, a core of selections from the Loire Valley, wines from the Republic of Georgia, orange wines, Jura wines, wine made in clay pots buried in the ground, and some local stuff,” but adds that, really, whatever's exciting in the moment makes the menu. And it’s always changing.
Of course, all wine served at The Punchdown has to be natural, with the menu highlighting the most “natty” of its selections with a øø. But, Looney wants The Punchdown to be a place for anyone interested in trying and learning about natural wine, so the menu is aimed to both push boundaries and include lower budget options for those less familiar to the natural wine world.
At the heart of The Punchdown is their retail sales room, or “cool room,” in Looney parlance. “We are kind of obsessed with keeping it cellar temp,” he says. “Proper temperature acts like a preservative, so when you have fragile living wines, it’s good to keep them on the cooler side.” The room's 55 degree thermostat also allows them to offer rarer wines for longer periods of time then their Bay Area natural wine cohorts like Ruby, Terroir, and Ordinaire. “It’s nice to have the option to lay down a wine for a few months,” Looney says, “and then bring it out after the other wine shops have already crushed through all of their allocations of it.”
The retail room isn’t huge, so Looney and Costa are forced to be extra selective in terms of what they stock. Aside from a few standbys the owners always like to have on hand, there’s no strict set of rules for what they stock. Looney explains that they tend more towards “everyday” priced wines because, “we like to drink a lot of wines and I’d rather sell a few bottles to take home than just one.” The curation of their cellar is what Looney describes as his “skilled trade.”
The road for Looney and Costa hasn’t always been an easy one. “Going the ‘natural wine’ route was certainly not the easy route to do a wine business,” Looney says. “Maybe that’s the reason we were drawn to it.”
He, Costa, and The Punchdown staff don’t sell natural wines because it’s easy, but because it’s what they believe in. Looney is excited for the future of natural wine, and excited that people are enthusiastic and ready to sample, and learn, about a product he truly believes in.
“All I know is what happened to us,” Looney says. “Once you go natty and you learn the taste and energy and let it take hold, there is no going back to drinking conventional wine. It’s as simple as that.”
Noah Sanders (@sandersnoah) is a contributor based in San Francisco. His writing can be found in SF Weekly, Side One Track One, and The Bold Italic. This is Noah Sanders' first feature for Sprudge Wine.