New York’s Best New Wine Bar Lives in Brooklyn

Welcome to "The List," a column exploring the country's most notable wine lists. This week, New York columnist Zachary Sussman visits June, a new Brooklyn wine bar that offers a glimpse into how natural wine has gone from fringe movement to global phenomenon.

june wine bar brooklyn illustration

When June—a self-proclaimed “natural wine bar”—opened last month in Brooklyn’s leafy Cobble Hill area, I found myself wondering exactly what that term signifies.

Lest readers fear that I’m about to rehash an old and tired debate, I’m not referring to the supposed ambiguity surrounding the phrase “natural wine,” which, despite the constant semantic bickering that accompanies efforts to define it, encompasses a pretty straightforward set of parameters.

A more subtle development, however, has been the category’s wider trajectory from a fringe movement to an increasingly established part of the drinking culture. Now that most of the country’s serious beverage programs feature some assortment of natural wines and many top producers have been elevated to cult status among a new wave of sommeliers, the timing seems right to take a closer look at what it means to identify as a “natural wine bar” today, particularly in a city like New York.

In many ways, June—the latest effort from Farm on Adderly’s Tom Kearney and Henry Rick of Rucola and Fitzcarraldo, with help from wine consultant Nick Gorevic—is engaging with that very same issue.

The title of a recent PUNCH article posed the broader question of “What Is a Wine Bar?” But the fact remains that the prototypical natural wine bar developed within a specific historical context, arriving as part of the movement’s greater reaction to the industrialization of the French wine industry. Particularly in Paris, where the scene emerged in the early 1990s, pioneering spots like L’Ange Vin, La Crèmerie and Le Verre Volé functioned as a kind of cultural hub around which the values of the natural ethos took shape and found an audience— almost like galleries exhibiting the work of new artists.

Today, a decade or two after it first invaded New York, natural wine no longer seems quite so controversial. To the contrary, its values inherently align with those of an entire generation of drinkers—myself included—whose taste developed alongside its road to ascendancy. For us, natural wine was always a given; we can’t remember a time when winemakers like Marcel Lapierre or Thierry Puzelat weren’t already iconic names.

Compounding this casual neighborhood vibe is the affordable bottle program, which, despite a strong French focus, extends far beyond the familiar Gallic borders to corners of the world we don’t typically associate with natural wine. In this way, June provides a cultural snapshot that reflects the movement’s powerful evolution into a global phenomenon.

“At this point, people aren’t unaware of natural wine,” Tom Kearney explains. “Actually, the city is full of it. It is probably in more restaurants than it’s not—we’re not trying to be transgressive.”

True as this may be, unlike Paris, where the natural wine bar formula has become ubiquitous and even at times formulaic, it’s still uncommon for New York destinations to focus exclusively on the category. “There are very few people who are doing an entirely natural list,” explains Nick Gorevic. “You could count them on two hands. Of course, there’s The Ten Bells. You also have Racines and Rouge Tomate and places like Diner in the Andrew Tarlow empire, but those aren’t really wine bars.”

To be fair, it’s becoming rather difficult to distinguish between the categories of wine bar and restaurant these days, particularly when many addresses—Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, Buvette or the various Corkbuzz locations, just to name a few—pay equal attention to the food coming out of the kitchen and the wine being poured in the glass. A similar hybrid is on display at June, where you could easily bypass the marble-topped bar and tuck yourself into one of the elegant red leather booths to enjoy a proper meal courtesy of Kearny’s thoughtful small-plate dinner menu. On the other hand, this holds true of many so-called natural wine bars in France, which more often than not operate as passionately wine-focused restaurants or caves à manger.

While June draws inspiration from those Parisian forebears—“it’s themed to be French,” as Gorevic says—the feel of the place reads quintessentially Brooklyn, albeit not in a clichéd or kitschy way. “We didn’t want to follow the ‘cookie cutter’ model of only using reclaimed barn wood,” Kearney explains. Designed by the Haslegrave brothers of hOmE—the design firm many credit for ushering in a new evolution of the Brooklyn aesthetic—the space conjures turn-of-the-century Paris by way of Court Street, adeptly catering to a sophisticated “adult Brooklyn” crowd.

Compounding this casual neighborhood vibe is the affordable bottle program, which, despite a strong French focus, extends far beyond the familiar Gallic borders to corners of the world we don’t typically associate with natural wine. In this way, June provides a cultural snapshot that reflects the movement’s powerful evolution into a global phenomenon.

Leaving aside the comprehensive selections from France’s major natural hotspots, like Beaujolais and the Loire, or Italian efforts from the likes of Sicily’s Arianna Occhipinti, the list showcases the latest developments in Spain, Germany, Austria and even Moravia, a little-known region in the Czech Republic. Add to this a deep section dedicated to California wines inspired by the non-interventionist canon, plus a smattering of like-minded New York State producers, and the list amounts to a vibrant testament to the unprecedented breadth and scope of today’s worldwide natural wine community.

WHAT TO DRINK

“Natural” is more of a philosophical orientation than a concrete style, and it’s true that wines of very different aesthetic registers often fall under that same banner. With a handful of exceptions, including the funkier Loire wines of Olivier Cousin or the polarizing expressions of Etna’s volcanic soils from Frank Cornelissen, June generally steers clear of the more avant-garde side of the natural spectrum.

“We wanted a 100 percent natural list,” Gorevic explains, “but initially we gravitated towards clean, pristinely made wines that could fit into classic slots that people without much exposure to natural wines would appreciate.” Since the space opened, however, he reports that customers have been “asking for weirder stuff, like more Jura or orange wine,” so the situation might change.

This tension manifests in the by-the-glass program, which features wines like the crisp yet honeyed Cour-Cheverny from Philippe Tessier or the crowd-pleasing chianti from Poggiosecco ($9 each). Interestingly, however, the sparkling options in this category consist entirely of pétillant naturel, known as “pét-nat” among acolytes, which has become a hallmark of France’s natural repertoire. Over recent years, the buzz surrounding this cloudy, gently fizzy, cider-like style has generated a wave of domestic imitators, including the surprising “Morphos Pet Nat” from Maine’s low-tech Oyster River Winegrowers ($8 per glass).

If you’re tempted to stick to the classics of the French canon, it’s for good reason, as June offers discerning drinkers the opportunity to cherry pick bottles from cult producers whose wines have become highly allocated. Take, for instance, the range of offerings from Beaujolais legend Yvon Métras, which have become notoriously impossible to find in the U.S. Not only does the list feature two vintages of his pale, almost rosé-like Beaujolais (the 2013 and 2012 at $70 and $83 respectively), but his densely concentrated Fleurie “Vielles Vignes” is available in both a standard-sized bottle ($113 for the 2012 vintage) and in magnum ($193 for the 2013).

One of the list’s core strengths, on the other hand, is its international diversity. Whether it’s the light-bodied “Elizabeth’s Vineyard” cabernet franc from the Finger Lakes’ Eminence Road ($48) or the brawny “Shake Ridge” Mourvèdre from California’s Dirty and Rowdy Family Wines ($74), the domestic scene receives plenty of attention, as does Spain, whose natural wine renaissance took place considerably later than France or Italy. Try the smoky “Tinto” from Canary Islands producer Frontón de Oro ($40) or the “Pagos de Xoan” Albariño from Galicia’s Benito Santos ($39) for value-driven options, or a terrific grüner veltliner from Austria’s up-and-coming Arndorfer estate ($40).

It seems fitting, on some level, that this natural wine melting pot should find a new home in New York, offering striking evidence of just how far the movement has come since the city first embraced it over a decade ago.

“It would not have been possible to put together this kind of a list even five or six years ago,” Gorevic says. “I’d say that 35 percent of the wines weren’t brought into the country yet. It wouldn’t have been nearly as diverse.”

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