When Strange Town opened in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2017, nobody on staff knew much about natural wine, even though a few bottles were on the list. But as the owners and employees of the restaurant settled in, they realized that the wines they gravitated toward fell in line with the vision of their food: sustainable, low-intervention, organic. Soon the program took on a new set of stricter, more philosophical parameters. At first, guests didn’t quite know how to square skin-contact rkatsiteli from Georgia with the standard sauvignon blanc glass pour, but bar manager Pam Ronnei says that in the intervening years, people have developed a reference point for the restaurant’s idealism. Today, Strange Town, though not strictly a wine bar, explicitly declares itself a home for natural wines, and is only one of a growing category of establishments across the country to do so.
This may not feel groundbreaking until you consider that just a few years ago the idea of an entire wine program being dedicated to natural wine was the territory of rebellious, romantic wine nerds or indie rock band–owned restaurants in Brooklyn. In short order, the natural wine bar has been dreamed up in some incarnation in nearly every major city in America. And while some declare their mission more loudly than others, the question of what exactly a natural wine bar is—and should be—remains open to interpretation. No longer influenced solely by French caves à vins, these places are a product of the evolution of the American wine bar itself, cycling from a restaurant with a renegade ethos into a more self-aware iteration with a mandate.
This evolution can, at least in part, be traced back to a long-shuttered restaurant called 360 on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “I dream about finding restaurants like 360 … where passion, generosity, commitment, eccentricity and skill outweigh any semblance of good common sense,” wrote Eric Asimov, The New York Times’ wine critic, in the paper’s “$25 and Under” column, shortly after 360 opened in 2003. The prix-fixe menu was French and ran from $20 to $25 for three courses. The wines, chosen by Alsatian owner Arnaud Erhart—who’d helped open Balthazar—provided, by all accounts, a counternarrative to the homogeneous lists across the river. Priced at an average of $25 to $30 a bottle, the offerings included producers like Pierre Breton, Olivier Cousin and, unbelievably, Pierre Overnoy by the glass. While the term “natural wine” hadn’t yet entered the industry lexicon, anyone clued into the scene at that time saw that 360 was doing things differently.
“It was the first place that was really in that European style,” says Justin Chearno, a partner at the Williamsburg natural wine bar The Four Horsemen. “It was definitely the first place to be really, purely all-natural. It felt like you’d left the country.” 360 wasn’t a natural wine bar in the sense of the Scandinavian-minimalist meets low-key French vibe we think of at present—or even the overwrought, try-hard wine bars of the ’90s and early aughts. But it became a touchstone for what an establishment dedicated to sourcing and championing natural wines could look like. “Jenny & François was just starting out and showed up with a suitcase of wine,” says Jorge Riera, who worked at 360 and is now the wine director at Frenchette, of the nascent importer. Riera compares 360 to Le Baratin, Raquel Carena’s classic bistro in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, which, in 1987, felt desolate. “360 was ahead of its time. It was a really beautiful oasis because it was cut off.”
Andrew Tarlow was a regular, as were Marisa Tomei and Malcolm Gladwell. Daniel Boulud and Keith McNally made the pilgrimage. Pre-Ikea, pre–Princess Cruise disembarkments and pre-America’s insatiable thirst for natural wines, 360 imported to Brooklyn the defiant spirit of Paris’ caves à vins. A little bit DIY, a little bit far-flung and a lot not giving a damn about what the rest of America was doing (the New Yorker said it embodied “cocky disdain”), 360 unwittingly kicked off what would become a 15-year odyssey toward the moment when suddenly everything has become a natural wine bar.
“If everything’s a natural wine bar, then we’ve sort of lost the fight. If the system in Bushwick is the old anti-system, then where are we?”
In 2007, just as 360 shuttered, Terroir Natural Wine Bar & Merchant opened 3,000 miles west in San Francisco. Part retail shop, part neighborhood hangout, it was the first place to declare itself resolutely natural. Guilhaume Gerard, a founder along with Luc Ertoran and Dagan Ministero, says he was inspired by the revolutionary feeling he encountered in France, drinking at places like Le Verre Volé and Les Papilles. “It was well received within a year or so,” says Gerard. “We would get very big collectors from New York, a lot of winemakers. It was a place where you could argue and exchange and discuss wine.”
The following year, The Ten Bells opened on New York’s Lower East Side. The point of it was, like most great bars, to be a place where the three idealists who conceived of it would want to go. Hailing from the shuttered French bistro Le Père Pinard, just down the street, the trio scrawled their wine list across oversized chalkboards, wrapped the ceilings in pressed tin, and served Thierry Puzelat and Basque ciders alongside oysters and Spanish pintxos. It did not declare itself as natural; it left that discovery up to patrons curious enough to inquire. Ten years on, save for the chalked-up list and residual air of edgy insouciance, there is no indicator of the bar’s prevailing ideology.
In the years before The Ten Bells, a handful of Brooklyn restaurants like Andrew Tarlow’s Marlow & Sons and Catherine May’s iCi quietly carried natural producers. But it would take time before the natural wine bar or restaurant would begin popping up in earnest. There was Ruby’s (which transitioned to natural) in San Francisco (2012), Ordinaire in Oakland (2013), Contra (2013) and Wildair (2015) in Manhattan and The Four Horsemen and June in Brooklyn (2015). Ranging from retail shop that served wine to full-on restaurant, each set a particular standard for the new natural wine bar. Like their predecessors, they were informed by a breed of Parisian wine bar or bistro—a newer, sleeker model—whose emphasis seemed to be equally upon food and wine; places like Le Dauphin, Le Chateaubriand, Aux Deux Amis, Septime La Cave and Le Verre Volé 2.0.
What followed this mini-boom is today’s deluge of bars and restaurants focused on natural wines: Oberlin and Fortnight in Providence (2016), Tabula Rasa in Los Angeles (2016), Strange Town in Milwaukee (2017), Dio in Washington, D.C. (2017), Rebel Rebel in Boston (2018), Light Years in Houston (2018), Fadensonnen in Baltimore (2018), Bar Marilou and Saint-Germain in New Orleans (2019), Petit Paulette and Rhodora in Brooklyn (2019), Margot in Miami (2019), Bar Brava in Minneapolis (2019) and so on. It’s true that many of these places would not fall under the heading of “wine bar” and yet, they all seem to share DNA. A departure from French cosplay, they riff upon the earlier generation of American natural wine bars while also inventing a new identity, which—whether it lasts or not—is distinctly of this moment. The conundrum for some who have witnessed this evolution is that, unless someone at a list’s helm is dedicated to purity and transparency, the intention of the original natural wine bar can feel at risk of being lost.
The wine bars proliferating on the frontiers outside of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in a position to capture the same experimental spirit as their early-aughts predecessors.
Alice Feiring, a godmother of the natural wine movement in the U.S. and author of Natural Wine for the People, says the concept of a wine bar has never really been defined in America. Where the wine bars of the ’90s and early aughts sold flights and emphasized education, the wine bar of today is lower key and less precious, she says. “Today, it means you have a lot of choices by the glass, and after that, take it as you will.” But for Feiring, the most enduring bars are built less upon multiplicity of choice than they are suffused with a feeling. In describing her ideal wine bar, she hints at an intangible atmosphere—the attitude that’s a little DIY, and a lot not giving a damn about what everyone else is up to. But with the present rush of openings and the market demands placed upon a finite product, Feiring wonders at what point the ethos of the wine bar will be watered down.
“If everything’s a natural wine bar, then we’ve sort of lost the fight,” says Jon Bonné, wine critic and senior contributing editor to PUNCH. “If the system in Bushwick is the old anti-system, then where are we?” In other words, if homogeneity is the villain in the story of natural wine and the places that venerate it, what happens when the natural wine bar is no longer a rarity?
Ultimately, the thing that will distinguish one establishment from another is the ephemeral feeling that Feiring refers to: the intangible atmosphere that cannot be replicated by any amount of design or any number of Instagrammable labels. “When it’s an idea rather than a product, it becomes extremely portable,” says Bradford Taylor of Ordinaire in the Bay Area, Psychic Wines in Los Angeles and Diversey Wine in Chicago. “Maybe it’s not a natural wine bar in the strict sense, but it has an easy thoughtlessness, even though it’s very thoughtful.” He points to Bar Cortijo in Tarragona, Spain, and Ops in Bushwick, Brooklyn, both of which operate without a wine list in lieu of pouring affordable wines they think you should be drinking. These places aren’t hanging a “natural wines sold here” sign in their windows nor are they preaching to customers; rather, they embody a spirit that stands in opposition to any particular classification.
In many ways, the wine bars proliferating on the frontiers outside of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in a position to capture the same experimental spirit as their early-aughts predecessors. “In general, they end up with a really diverse selection of wines, because they have no echo chamber,” says Bonné. “They don’t have 50 buyers buying the same thing.” In these markets, sourcing may be sparse, but creative buyers are driven by the same challenge that Erhart was back in 2003.
Often, like Jenny & François walking through 360’s door with a suitcase full of treasures, a one-man-band wholesaler will materialize. Back in Milwaukee, Pam Ronnei at Strange Town says a new distributor, Chromatic, sprang up not long after Strange Town, as did Nonfiction, a natural wine store. “Now, other restaurants have started expressing interest in natural wines,” she says.
It’s not that the remote, Wild West feeling that manifested so many years ago in Red Hook has disappeared—it’s simply roamed on to more distant fronts where it maintains a sense of fresh idealism. “We filled a void that we knew was there,” says Ronnei. “But we didn’t know just how gaping it was.”