Alameda’s new downtown wine bar to showcase women vintners, owners

You don’t have to like wine or be drawn by the opportunity to support an Alameda native’s woman-owned and operated enterprise to want to hang out at Maura Passanisi’s Mo’s Wine Bar. Nor is it necessary to like the idea of hoisting a beer or non-alcoholic beverage and boosting the bottom line of the establishment she expects will open on Park Avenue at the end of June.

Instead, the main attraction most likely to sparkle at Mo’s is made evident five minutes into an interview, when even on the phone Passanisi’s warmth is unmistakable. Adding to her friendly tone and deep knowledge about Alameda are years of experience gained while pouring wine at High Treason and Ungrafted in San Francisco, Oakland’s Wine on Piedmont and the now-closed Alameda Wine Co. An enthusiasm for introducing customers to great wine — and notably, great women winemakers — elevates her energy to a high level, projecting a dual tone that’s sure to flow from behind the bar and create a dynamic environment.

Born and raised in Alameda, Passanisi returned after college and kept running into people who’d tell her they have to go to Oakland or San Francisco to have the wines they enjoy.

“In Alameda, you could get a decent glass of wine at a restaurant, but they mostly closed at 9 or 10 at night,” she said. “I wanted to provide people here with what I enjoy: a glass of wine on a Sunday or a Tuesday night after work. I want to make Mo’s a real community gathering space.”

While completing renovations and awaiting one last permit for a warming station that will heat the small plates that complement the menu of curated beverages, Passanisi spoke about women in the industry and what she sees as her role. According to a study conducted by Santa Clara University, a mere 14% of the 4,200 wineries in California are led by women winemakers. After majoring in interior architecture and earning a bachelor of science degree from UC Davis, Passanisi became a Certified Specialist of Wine and holds an Advanced Level 3 from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

In 2019, she and Nicole Ruiz Hudson founded Della Donna and presented an all-women winemakers festival with a mission to honor and celebrate the hard work, passion, ingenuity and intelligence of women working in the industry.

“I did it because friends came back from another festival and asked, ‘Where were the women?’” she said. “Featuring women winemakers and producers has been my drive and focus ever since. Until the pandemic stopped it all. There was no way to do a festival that felt right. In 2023, opening a bar is taking way longer than I imagined, but I definitely want to bring back the festival and similar events for the bar.”

For Passanisi, obtaining a bank loan was incredibly difficult.

“I’m a single woman, both personally and professionally, and I don’t make a lot of money because I work in this industry,” she said. “Coming out of the pandemic and being a first-time loanee meant it took many months to connect with a small bank. Other women I know have had to get private investors: friends and family.”

The benefits of being in a group of women entrepreneurs is that people want to help.

“My community has rallied around me,” she said. “Women in wine are supportive and generate an atmosphere that counters traditional bar and other business environments. Maybe because we’ve been oppressed — it’s a gross generalization, but it’s how I feel — we want to learn from that and be open to new ideas, receiving feedback from staff, working together to find a way to succeed.”

Those solutions, she insisted, will expand when more women are in positions of power as owners and managers.

“There’ll be more opportunities,” she added. “Not just, ‘the more the merrier’ but ‘the more in upper level positions the merrier.’ Eventually, I’d like to make more women the managers at Mo’s and step aside. I’d like to design a course to teach others to become owners so they can have wine bars of their own.”

Along the way to those goals, Passanisi is perfecting the beverage menu, courting a chef she hopes will turn out Mo’s rotating, seasonal food menu focused on fresh produce and directing the bar’s interior construction and design.

“It’s a historic Victorian building that was built before 1880,” she said. “It still has those great bones of a tall, thin space. I love that it has been a bar since 1937, when it was the Pop Inn (and briefly and more recently the now-closed Churchward Pub). The mahogany bar top is original, so I’ll be keeping that and adding modern touches.”

Mo’s interior will be bright, with bold wallpaper and colorful back tiles behind the bar. The color palette involves aqua, emerald green and minimal touches of gold and coral. The space has “lounge-y seating” at the entry, stools aligning the bar, a communal table, banquet seating and booths and a sunny back patio with movable, German-style picnic tables.

With her background in interior architecture, she’s happy to talk about the aesthetics, but when asked about a few specific beverages on the still-in-progress menu, Passanisi became downright animated.

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