I wrote this for Cory Cartwright’s 32 days of Natural Wine:
As someone who works in a wine bar, I sell wine on a bottle-by-bottle, glass-by-glass basis, not by the case or by the truckload. Not that there’s anything wrong with wine at that scale; I just mean to suggest that I have a very intimate relationship to the end-consumer in the wine-distribution chain. The wine I sell is appreciated in front of me, and I’m often privy to people’s thoughts and curiosities about wine. Hundreds of members of the general public sit down at my bar every week and drink thousands of (different) glasses of wine.
Sometimes, in all my enthusiasm for wine, I have to remind myself that not everyone’s interested in how many grams residual sugar versus tartaric acid this Mosel Riesling has. I cannot interest people in many things I have to say about wine at more than a surface level. This is fine. I accept this, albeit sadly. Natural wine is the exception to this rule.
For the average consumer, tasting wine is a binary action. Is this delicious or not delicious? They don’t concern themselves with vine age, soil types, lees contact, barrel aging regimens or any of the stuff that us cork dorks get ourselves all in a tizzy about. For most people, wine is an alcoholic beverage that comes in red, white, pink, sparkling, dry, and sweet, and that’s about the level many people are interested. I can say with confidence that in the last two years of working wine bars in food-friendly Manhattan, sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines are the most consistently interesting facets of wine to the average consumer. I would consider producers in all these categories to be pursuing some platonic ideal of natural wine.
I get more unsolicited questions about natural wines than any others. At my previous places of employ, these questions were more occasional, due, in theory, to the lighter concentrations of natural wine on my previous lists. Since March, I’ve been working with a list that is 80% biodynamic, organic, or sustainable. We have 4 orange-style wines on our list, one of which we pour by the glass.
The most frequent questions I field relate to what all this natural wine terminology means. I have my blurbs to differentiate between each of them, but what’s most encouraging to me is that people are interested in natural wine in a way that they’re not interested in any other aspect of wine. And that excites me.
A month ago, I had two women in their mid-thirties come in, tell me they were usually California Chardonnay drinkers, and then proceeded to ask me about the merits of François Cazin Cour-Cheverny (organic) versus De La Souche Jurançon Sec (biodynamic). Both these wines, made from obscure grape varietals (Romorantin and Gros Manseng respectively) in relatively obscure wine growing regions captured the attention of women who generally drink a regrettably common style of wine. They ordered the De La Souche and loved it, praising the wine for its lean but muscular character and crushing minerality.
We recently added Domaine André et Mireille Tissot’s 2002 Savignin from the Jura to our by the glass list. Many people ask for a taste, but find the walnut-saline-beeswax flavors backed by extreme acidity too outlandish. I usually follow this up with a taste of 2000 López De Heredia Gravoñia, which I find to be a great bridge between the those used to drinking “regular wine” and these more extreme examples of this oxydative style. 9 times of 10 they find the López de Heredia a revelation, and order it on the spot.
We serve Stanko Radikon’s 2004 Ribolla Gialla (orange wine!), which is, in my opinion, one of the most extremely natural wines on the planet. I recently had a customer inquire after it, and I had to marshal the entirety of my rhetorical skill to describe the wine, and I still don’t think I did it justice. His curiosity prevailed, and concurred that the bottle was perhaps the most singular experience in wine he had ever had.
During the blaringly hot New York City summer, people are chilling out with rosé, but I can proudly say that not one of my customers has asked me for rosé zinfandel. Instead they’re opting for Bisson’s Cilegiolo rosé from Liguria (sustainable). This grape, once a Chianti-filler in Tuscany, makes a remarkable, full-bodied, mineral-driven rose from the tiny (and nearly un-exported), coastal region of Liguria.
Pinot Noir is all the rage these days, but I’m also fielding a lot of questions on Beaujolais, misunderstood as it is. Due to California Pinot makers, consumers have come to expect a certain bulk and complexity from their Pinot Noir that simply doesn’t exist in relatively inexpensive Burgundy and so wines like Domaine du Vissoux’s Fleurie “Poncié” 2005 (organic) or M. Lapierre’s Morgon 2007 (biodynamic) are flying out of my bins. Massive (for Beaujolais), structured and relatively affordable, these wines offer an amazing value: gulpable, but thought provoking.
Whatever their taste, my customers go out of their way to ask about and drink natural wine. The reason why I like natural wine lies in this universal appeal, in its simplicity; it’s more delicious and expressive than wines crafted with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call ‘artifice’. I believe that there is a level at which everyone can understand natural wine. As much as I learn about vineyard designates in the Wachau or what rootstocks they’re primarily using in Russian River Valley, I am still the same as my customer. I want wine that’s good. They want wine that’s good. And I believe that, more often that not, that wine is a natural wine.
Long live natural wine.