Brendan Tracey, left, a small producer making wine in Sainte Anne, France, chats with customers at a recent winemaker tasting at Vintage Berkeley’s Elmwood store. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Brendan Tracey, left, a small producer making wine in Sainte Anne, France, chats with customers at a recent winemaker tasting at Vintage Berkeley’s Elmwood store. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Wine is having its time in the East Bay, especially in Oakland, which has seen a recent spurt in boutique wine shops, urban winemakers and tasting rooms — even a walking wine trail.

But the wine stores, such as relative newcomer Bay Grape and nearby Ordinaire, both on Grand Avenue in Oakland, aren’t your typical wine retailers with bottles on racks along the walls and tasting notes reflecting a point system. These stores offer classes and host tasting events, all to attract neighbors and build a wine community.

Quirky, not stodgy, is how you might often describe this new breed of wine shops. And they just might be re-imagining how people buy wine.

At Bay Grape, for example, there’s a tiny sitting area in front with books and a faux fireplace, and bottles are marked with words like “Let’s get Styne-ous” or “She Sells Seashells.” A vinyl collection and turntable, which supplies the music grooving over the sound system, have a prominent spot in the back next to a shelf of wine.

Bay Grape owner Josiah Baldivino (far right) leads one of its weekly blind tasting wine classes. Photo: Benjamin Seto

“That was the crazy thing about when we opened the store,” said Bay Grape owner Josiah Baldivino, who has worked with both the Daniel Boulud and Michael Mina restaurant groups. “We said, ‘Let’s make a place that we’d personally like to go to,’ and that seems to be working. Other people seem to dig it as well.”

Baldivino said he and his wife, Stevie Stacionis — who are both certified sommeliers — wanted to create a fun environment where people could learn about wine.

“An increasing number of guests, both young and mature, are seeking shops where they can talk to someone, learn a little about wine and find a bottle fit for them rather than picking a wine based on someone else’s score,” he said.

Down the street, two-and-a-half-year-old Ordinaire is a wine shop by day and a wine bar by night (and often a pop-up venue for wine dinners on weekends). It occasionally partners with nearby Boot and Shoe Service to bring in pizzas for those who want more than just cheese with their wine.

Opened by Bradford Taylor, an English graduate student at UC Berkeley, Ordinaire focuses on natural wines. Natural wines are a funky bunch, typically fermented using wild yeasts, instead of those made in a lab, and often made free of sulfites.

Taylor said that when he’s educating customers about the wine sold at his store, he often talks about the producers. Many of the in-store tasting events revolve around a winemaker, who is often pouring the wine, rather than a region or grape varietal.

“We talk about the producers first and foremost,” he said. “When we forget that wine is made by humans for humans, then we have lost touch with what wine is all about.”

The four-month-old Oakland Crush encourages a community vibe with its large communal table and long bar. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Frieda Hoffman, the manager/buyer at Vintage Berkeley, said independent wine stores that focus on small producers introduce customers to a larger community of interesting winemakers making hard-to-find wine. “It’s important that we’re all creating a community supporting small producers who are most often practicing biodynamic farming and production methods,” she said.

Along with tastings that feature the winemakers, Vintage Berkeley, which has two locations, on Vine Street and College Avenue, also gets involved with neighborhood organizations, such as the North Shattuck Association, to support community programming like Sunday Streets. At the 38-year-old Solano Cellars, which Vintage Berkeley acquired in 2005, a resident cheesemonger creates wine-and-cheese pairing classes in addition to a Wine 101 course.

And at the four-month-old Oakland Crush, owner Erin Coburn said she designed her spacious wine store and tasting room to create a community feel, with a 12-foot communal table and a long, conversation-promoting bar. Even better, Oakland Crush is one of the few wine bars that lets customers open a bottle inside the store without a corkage fee.

“For us, gathering around a bottle of wine allows for a different type of enjoyment and reflection that wine tastings can’t offer,” said Coburn. “It’s social, slowed down, and can be more immersive.”

The community that develops around a local wine store can often be quite organic, and Bay Grape’s Stacionis said she’s been surprised at how the store’s customers have reflected the city as a whole. She’s lived in other major cities with diverse populations, but said that Oakland “seems [to have a] more integrated diversity and culture of all different styles, ages [and] different types of people. It’s really amazing to see that mirrored here.”

A shelf at Bay Grape with some of the whimsical signage that reflects the owners’ personality. Photo: Benjamin Seto
A shelf at Bay Grape with some of the whimsical signage that reflects the owners’ personality. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Wine events

Winemaker tastings at Oakland Crush: Meet small production winemakers every Saturday afternoon and Wednesday evening at the new wine store in Jack London Square. (Usually $15 for four to five wines.) Check its website for upcoming winemakers and times. Oakland Crush is at 420 3rd St. (at Broadway), Oakland. Connect with the shop on Facebook and Instagram.

Winemaker tastings at Ordinaire: Try natural wine and meet the producer every Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. ($10 fee) Ordinaire is at 3354 Grand Ave. (at Elwood Avenue), Oakland. Connect with the shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Monday blind tasting class at Bay Grape: First-come-first-served signup for an introductory class on wine tasting and wine vocabulary. Limit 12 people. ($25 fee for six wines poured.) Bay Grape is at 376 Grand Ave. (between Staten Avenue and Perkins Street), Oakland. Connect with the shop on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Wine 101 and cheese-and-wine pairing classes at Solano Cellars: These two popular classes are offered throughout the year. Check the store’s website for information. Solano Cellars is at 1580 Solano Ave. B (at Ordway Street), Albany. Connect with the shop on Twitter.

Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.

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Freelancer Benjamin Seto has worked as a reporter and editor for various newspapers around the country, and is currently a communications professional and food writer based in Oakland. Ben is also the...