by Jonathan “Max” Davis
Since the moment they opened their doors to the Adams Point neighborhood in Oakland last month, it’s been clear that Bay Grape is not just a well-curated bottle shop, but also a valuable wine resource and welcome community institution.
Owners Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino are a wife-and-husband team of certified sommeliers with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and a friendly, easy way of sharing what they’ve learned. Wine professionals with impressive records in service, they are also natural teachers on a mission to demystify the field; none of the esoteric or patronizing bullshit, and all of the genuinely passionate excitement meant to be shared.
These guys may have more sensitivity, experience and information than we do, but at Bay Grape, one feels it’s more important that everyone is having a good time, tasting and talking together. Josiah and Stevie want people to know that wine is not “this pretentious, precious thing,” and that no one is born with an innate talent for tasting and understanding wine, but rather it is an appreciation built on attention and practice—lots of practice, preferably among friends.
Located one block north of Lake Merritt, at 376 Grand Avenue, the space is comfortable—homey, but not kitschy or cluttered—tall and open with reclaimed wood accents, a big common table up front, and a lustrous copper tasting bar. Themed tastings are scheduled four days a week, including educational classes and blind tastings, and on a recent Saturday evening the scene at Bay Grape was lively and inviting. In fact, it felt a bit like an extension of Stevie and Josiah’s living room, with their dog, Napoleon, curled up in the corner and the pair changing records on the turntable, laughing, pouring wine and amiably chatting with guests.
The day’s offering was a $15 flight of three California Chardonnays, each stylistically different, but all more subtle and refreshing than the heavy, oaky wines we’ve (sadly, and increasingly mistakenly) come to expect from our state. The featured 2012 vintages from Copain, Sandhi and Chanin were billed in Bay Grape’s no-nonsense fashion as “Cali Chards that do not suck!” and I had to agree; none of them even remotely sucked.
The wines at Bay Grape range in price and origin, with most from Europe and California, and a good number between $15 and $25. Their goal is to offer bottles they feel are the best value from smaller producers making wine with a sense of place; wines that are neither mass-produced nor rare, or classically styled, or typical of the terroir. I recognize quite a few “old friends” I am happy to see among the labels here, as well as a number of wines I am eager to try.
Perhaps the most novel aspect of the store is its organization. The wine is shelved not according to price or geography, but by body, or weight, so that the wall represents a spectrum of lighter wines leading to medium-bodied and then heavier or fuller wines. It may seem odd, but it makes sense, because weight is often the determining factor in particular food pairings and one’s general preference. This layout also makes it easier to branch out if you know what you like and want to try something similar but new.
In addition to the wine, Bay Grape also offers a small selection of locally produced picnic supplies: charcuterie, cheese, nuts and pickles—either to enjoy there with wine (bottles for sale may be drunk in house for a $5 corkage fee), or to create a moveable feast—as well as a large selection of craft beers and some intriguing-looking, unusual soft drinks. They are also a CSA pick-up spot for weekly Capay Valley FarmShares, and have begun selling fresh cut flowers from the West Oakland Woods Farm, a program teaching financial literacy to local youth.
I recently interviewed Josiah and Stevie, and here’s what they had to say:
EatDrinkFilms: Do you have a favorite wine descriptor?
Josiah & Stevie: F—ing delicious.
EDF: How about your least favorite?
J&S: Smooth (it means different things to different people).
EDF: Is there a wine you hadn’t tasted until recently that you’re really excited about?
J&S: Teran from Croatia! It’s grown on iron-rich soils and tastes bloody, meaty and incredibly floral all at the same time.
EDF: What wine would you recommend drinking with grilled steak?
J&S: Giuseppe Quintarelli Primofiore, a Corvina and Cab blend from a Veneto icon.
EDF: With chicken liver mousse?
J&S: Dauphiné-Rondillon Loupiac, made across the river from Sauternes.
EDF: With the dreaded artichoke?
J&S: Moroder Elleno Malvasia, an aromatic white with a bit of pine resin notes from Marche, Italy.
EDF: And finally, what to drink with breakfast?
J&S: Bugey-Cerdon from Renardat-Fache. High acid, slightly sweet, a little bit bubbly, and pink; perfect with French toast and bacon.
Jonathan “Max” Davis discovered his love for wine decades ago while working at Chez Panisse Café and Restaurant, in Berkeley, and has been daily and devotedly tasting ever since. Having moved from restaurants to retail, he most recently served as the wine buyer for Smith & Vine, a boutique wine shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and has written wine and book pairings for the 2013 National Book Awards Finalists.