Erin Coburn grew up with wine on the table. As a girl raised in Salinas, California, by an Italian-American mother and a father who worked in agriculture, she spent time throughout her childhood on and around vineyards up and down the West Coast. When the family traveled, they didn’t go to foreign countries, but wine countries.
“I grew up knowing that wine has a story behind it. It’s not just who made it, but how it was made,” Coburn says. “From very early on I was interested in grapes, and wine properly expressing their site and where they came from.”
Now, Coburn, along with partner Sarah Miller, co-owns Minimo, a natural wine shop in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Her trajectory may at first seem linear—Coburn having grown up in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions before running a storefront that showcases independently produced, organic or biodynamically grown agricultural products, in a city only a few hours’ drive north. But in fact, Coburn began her career not curating wines, but artwork.
Coburn had a 20-year career in museums, spending the bulk of that time working at the Getty in Los Angeles before moving to New York to run the Met’s Digital Media Department. The latter job represented a kind of ceiling—for all intents and purposes, Coburn had reached a pinnacle in her field, and could have stayed at The Met indefinitely.
But throughout her time in New York’s art world, her roots in California were ever-present, and Coburn knew she wanted to open a wine shop.
“I told myself that at a certain age, I was going to take a leap of faith and open one,” Coburn says. “Just walk away from all of it.”
And so she did, returning home to open Minimo in 2015.
“There are a lot of reasons for Oakland,” Coburn says of putting down roots in Jack London Square. “When I was still in New York and living in Brooklyn, I would read stories about the city’s gentrification, and felt this commitment to come here to show how you can be a local, community-minded business owner in an area that’s becoming gentrified, and the importance of having local business owners to ensure that gentrifying places stay real and diverse and committed to community.”
In practice, she says, that in part meant opening her shop in a neighborhood with a minimal retail presence like Jack London, which abuts the Bay, in order to act as a sort of community anchor for local residents and employees of like-minded businesses—like Blue Bottle Coffee Roasters, Bicycle Coffee, Beer Revolution, and Belcampo, all of whom have adopted Minimo with open arms.
Still, even with local support, Coburn’s choice to locate Minimo isn’t intuitive. While Jack London’s boardwalk is nearly always replete with tourists milling from one of its ends to the other, the neighborhood’s inner streets, of the sort on which Minimo lies, are notorious for their lack of foot traffic.
“People said we couldn’t do it without,” Coburn says. “But if you have a dedicated local business, and people know you’re unique, they will support you. And it’s true—we survive without foot traffic because, before I opened, I spent a year talking to business owners down here about what the neighborhood is like. I wanted to know that we were wanted here before coming here.”
As it turned out, she was. And so Coburn went on a whirlwind tour of the wine shops she thought were doing it right to draw inspiration. She sourced information from the shops she frequented while living in LA, places like Silver Lake Wine, Lou, and Domaine LA.
Minimo itself was built out of a former grocery warehouse, with original high ceilings and west-facing windows that catch the early evening sun as it sets over San Francisco. Minimo’s floors, exposed brick, and redwood beams were all installed in the 1920s, and were left nearly untouched by Coburn in a treatment not unlike the sort given to the wines lining her shelves.
“Natural wine for us is going to be organic or biodynamically farmed,” Coburn says, adding that she judges these characteristics in wines on a case-by-case basis, rather than relying on certifications. Minimo’s wines are all fermented spontaneously by native yeast and are either free of additional sulfites or have minimal sulfites added at bottling.
Of the 280 bottles in the shop, Coburn has an emphasis on European and domestic wines—a product of her knowledge base—and a large portion of Minimo’s floor space is given over to a collection of imports and domestic wines under $20.
“We wanted people to know that you can get natural wine for under $20,” Coburn says. “And that natural wine can be your everyday drinking wine.”
Besides helping drive sales, it’s actually pretty important to dig deeper into the philosophical significance of highlighting reasonably-priced natural wines. Coburn describes Minimo as a kind of democratic space, where a mix of neighborhood regulars, natural wine nerds, and tourists totally not in the proverbial “natural wine know” intersect to experience wine not as a product for consumption, but a medium for stories about soil, grapes, and producers.
To that end, Minimo’s back half is comprised of a communal table and bar, which act as a gathering space for not only the Jack London community, but any community who needs it.
“People can buy a bottle and drink it here without a corkage fee,” Coburn says. “It’s about getting people to have an experience around a bottle of wine, as opposed to just consuming glasses of wine. We think you have a different experience if you sit down at a table with five friends and experience how a wine shifts over the course of an hour, and for us it’s important to make that experience affordable.”
While Minimo is Coburn’s first business, it doesn’t feel that way. There is a congruity between its component parts that give the impression of a totally mature institution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the space is beautiful in a way not unlike the way a museum is—the artisans who designed its glass and woodwork were given freedom of design, so that even the tables and lights and shelves feel like parts of an installation.
“I wouldn’t give up what I did in museums just to sell wine as a transaction,” Coburn explains.
“The bottles are the works of art.”
Michael Light (@MichaelPLight) is a features editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Michael Light for Sprudge Wine.