The Punchdown, James Beard-nominated natural wine bar, expands to Sebastopol
James Beard Award-nominated bar expands to The Barlow
Shou sugi ban — the Japanese craft of decorative wood burning — is a lot like natural wine, according to D.C. Looney, co-owner of The Punchdown, a new natural wine bar and bottle shop in Sebastopol’s Barlow district.
“The result is really beautiful because it brings out the grain in the wood,” he said. “Like natural wine, it’s a beauty that often gets overlooked.”
An eagerly anticipated addition to Sonoma County’s natural-wine scene, The Punchdown is the bar’s second location, with the first (a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Program) located in Oakland since 2010.
Opened in mid-May, The Punchdown Wine Bar + Bottle Shop in Sebastopol is where Looney and his wife, Lisa Costa, hope to offer the largest selection of natural wines in one place.
Lining the retail shelves are hundreds of natural wines from around the globe, including 100-plus bottles from Sonoma County producers and a broad selection from France, Italy, Australia, the country of Georgia and beyond. Bottle prices are fair, and there is a special shelf for wines under $25.
What’s immediately apparent is the artistic energy of these wines, expressed not only in the varietal choice and winemaking method, but also on the wine labels.
A sparkling chenin blanc from Domaine Breton in the Loire Valley, for example, stands out with its cartoon drawing of a man and woman gleefully pouring each other a glass of bubbles. “Elle est pas bulle, la vie?” asks the label, a clever double entendre on “Isn’t life beautiful/bubbly?”
A rotating selection of wines by the taste/glass and specialty wine flights can be purchased at the bar, as well as a variety of tapas-style bites like charcuterie, spiced carrot dip, Spanish olives, fresh bread from Red Bird Bakery and a broad assortment of imported tinned fish.
There is also a small selection of imported beer, as well as vermouth, sherry and sake.
While Looney and Costa have been quick to make friends in Sonoma County, they’re eager to build a community around The Punchdown’s new Wine Country location, too.
“We’re really looking forward to bringing people together — especially those in the wine, food and restaurant industries — to give them a taste of something a little different,” Looney said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll introduce some local winemakers to natural wines and they’ll be inspired to make their own.”
Appeal of natural wine
Over the last 13 years, The Punchdown in Oakland has gained a loyal following for its extensive collection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines — those produced with minimal sulfur dioxide; with native yeast fermentation; and without fining, filtering or additions of any kind.
Looney, who first gained an appreciation for organic, biodynamic and natural wines during a study-abroad program in France, didn’t fully grasp the breadth of natural wines at the time. But he had begun to recognize the unique nuances of wines made with little sulfur and less intervention.
Over time, Looney and Costa — who have both spent time in wine production — began to feel put off by conventional wines and their high concentration of additives, which Looney said can “make a wine taste dead.
“Conventional wines also feel unhealthy in your body. They hit your system harder and are difficult to digest,” he said. “But wine doesn’t have to be like that. You can make good, clean wine that doesn’t have all the life stripped out of it. Our love of natural wine became the impetus for The Punchdown.”
New home in Wine Country
Looney and Costa had considered opening a second Punchdown location and moving to Sonoma County as far back as 2017. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit and Costa became pregnant that they knew it was time to get out of the East Bay.
Sebastopol, reminiscent of the small farming town in Illinois where Looney grew up, seemed like the perfect fit. When local winemaker Martha Stoumen (a former employee of The Punchdown in Oakland) told them about a house for sale in her Sebastopol neighborhood, they jumped on it, making the move to the North Bay in January 2022.
“We’d considered moving to one of the larger towns, like Santa Rosa or Petaluma. Every place has its advantages,” Looney said. “But at the end of the day, we love the rural qualities and quaint lifestyle of Sebastopol. It’s close to Oakland, but you don’t have to worry about your car getting robbed.”
In fact, this is a return to Sonoma County for the couple. They met here as harvest interns for Healdsburg’s Williams Selyem winery in 2007. Not only is this area where they fell for each other, it’s where they fell in love with California.
“Salt Point State Park is like our vacation home,” Looney said. “We love camping and foraging for mushrooms, so it’s a great place to turn everything off and enjoy our hard work. Lisa and I knew it was inevitable we would start a business in Sonoma County, because we love it so much.”
And what about the art of shou sugi ban?
While it can be a metaphor for natural wine, Looney and Costa incorporated it into the new Punchdown in a visible way, too.
Using the Japanese wood-burning technique, they enhanced the wainscot of The Punchdown’s service bar, which was made with locally sourced, reclaimed sequoia wood. Salvaged redwood slabs were used to create communal tables, which encourage conversation between friends old and new.
“We wanted to emulate the look and feel of our Oakland location as much as possible, so we sourced old grapevines from Sonoma County to display on the walls,” Looney said. “We want to do all we can to showcase the history of this region while also bringing something a little different to the county.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or email@example.com. On Twitter @whiskymuse.