The Great Equalizing of Natural Wine

The natural wine movement has gone from fringe to more visible over the last several years. With it, the context in which we encounter and experience the wines has begun to change, too. Jon Bonné on the next "Nat Pack" and a new, friendlier era of natural wine consumption.

natural wine new era illustration

Remember High Fidelity? It hasn’t held up well. In part because the depressive self-indulgence of John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, seemed more existential and less annoying in 2001. But mostly, there was the snideness and baked-in sense of superiority that defined life at his character’s record store, Championship Vinyl.

Acceptance was measured in pre-iPod dimensions. Could you identify the new Stereolab album? (And did you happen to be a very cute, post-slacker Natasha Gregson Wagner?) If not, your taste was ripe for mocking. Bland, conformist, mainstream.

Championship Vinyl has been a useful metaphor over the years for expertise gone awry, for superiority used as a bludgeon. It’s exactly where the natural wine movement was, not long ago.

Maybe seven or eight years ago, natural wine had its first big American moment, one largely appropriated from France—where winemakers not only rejected chemical farming but more broadly spurned the industry’s tendencies toward dull commercialism. A group of willfully hip Paris wine bars and restaurants not only supported these wines but, as Paris does, broadcast them out into the larger world. At first, this was exciting, but many natural wines also were saddled with flaws; they were unsettlingly cloudy, unappealingly rustic or chemically flawed. It was too easy for traditionalists to put natural wines in the corner.

Until recently. Many of the wines themselves have improved, their coarsest edges shaved away. (And the most flawed have a harder time reaching these shores.) But it’s more about a change in the context in which they’re being presented.

Witness, in particular, the flood of attention this summer for two new New York spots, Wildair and The Four Horsemen. Both are putatively natural wine bars. But in fact, they are restaurants with naturalist drinking habits sporting menus that reflect the blurring line between the two.

And crucially, both of them (plus a handful of other arrivals, like the Brooklyn wine bar June) arrived with a distinctly different attitude; instead of elitism, enthusiasm reigned.

As Jorge Riera, wine director at both Wildair and its sister restaurant Contra, and a veteran of New York’s natural wine community, puts it: “I want people to drink; I want people to experience that casualness you experience in France.”

Both Contra and Wildair feature very good, minimalist Gallo-Nordic cooking from Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. At Contra, you can linger over the $67 tasting menu, with wines like Franz Strohmeier’s austerely fizzy sekt from Austria. While Wildair can accommodate a full meal, it’s easy to grab a plate of impossibly crisp fried squid with battered lemon slices and grey squid-ink aioli and a glass of Dufaitre’s Beaujolais blanc, and move on into the Orchard Street evening.

The Nat Pack’s bridge generation hoped to soften the portrayal of natural wines: more populist, less preachy. Yes, virtue was good, and yes, values mattered. And someone would always want to hear a spiel about indigenous yeasts and pieds francs and the farmer’s dog. But Lee Campbell, for one, determined she could accomplish more by evangelizing less.

This is in keeping with the ethos of the first generation of natural wine bars in Paris, especially Racines, opened by Pierre Jancou in 2007, and Le Verre Volé, which grew from a wine shop with culinary ambitions into a full bistro. They tapped into the rise of French bistronomie, with its deliberately casual ways, and merged it with an outsider wine sensibility. Soon enough, the template was set, and both places had global imitators.

The notion should have been an obvious transplant to America. But natural wine here began in a more fraught, Championship Vinyl way—less, I think, because of derision about the wines (although there was plenty, especially among conventionally minded Californians) than how they were presented. Some of its early adopters were friendly enough, but many first-generation “Nat Pack” strongholds, like Terroir in San Francisco—where I drank enthusiastically, and often—and The Ten Bells in New York, could be inhospitable. They were often fun, but at moments they felt like Elks Lodges for chenin-swilling hipsters. For an outsider movement, natural wine was primarily interested in servicing insiders.

That isn’t to say it didn’t sow seeds for this current, friendlier iteration. I’m thinking in particular of 360, which appeared on Van Brunt Street in the mid-2000s, in a back corner of Red Hook. A not-quite bistro serving straightforward French-y food near the docks, it grew up in tandem with its Parisian counterparts. It’s where I first found wines like Breton’s Avis de Vin Fort, a light-red Loire clairet that presaged the trousseau craze. And while it had traces of that standoffishness, it was, importantly, a physical manifestation of a philosophy that importers like Joe Dressner of Louis/Dressner Selections struggled to establish: that weird, outsider wines—“natural” wasn’t yet a thing—deserved respect and a place on the table. Riera was its manager. (He also managed The Ten Bells.)

As time went on, a new Nat Pack began to form. It encompassed wine buyers like Pascaline Lepeltier, whose new edition of Rouge Tomate is due to open soon, and Lee Campbell, whose fondness for natural wine manifested throughout the Andrew Tarlow empire, which includes Williamsburg institutions Marlow & Sons, Diner and, more recently, Reynard. Reynard is particularly noteworthy because of its location in Tarlow’s Wythe Hotel. While north Williamsburg isn’t Midtown, serving wines like Bertrand Galbrun’s sparkling grolleau in a hotel bar plants an important flag, even if the Wythe’s clientele are cool-hunting types. (As if to prove the point, the hotel is hosting a natural wine fair next February, the Big Glou, as a more inclusive counterpoint to the elite salons held annually in the Loire.)

It wasn’t simply in New York. In Los Angeles, Lou Amdur’s Lou on Vine offered a cheerier approach in a Hollywood strip mall, serving steak and candied bacon alongside organically-grown côt from the Touraine; four miles away, Kris Yenbamroong added natural wines as counterpart to his Thai food at Night + Market. In Seattle, Louis/Dressner alumna Shawn Mead opened Vif, a café and coffeehouse. Others followed suit.

The Pack’s bridge generation hoped to soften the portrayal of natural wines: more populist, less preachy. Yes, virtue was good, and yes, values mattered. And someone would always want to hear a spiel about indigenous yeasts and pieds francs and the farmer’s dog. But Campbell, for one, determined she could accomplish more by evangelizing less: “I’m sort of tired of talking about wine, to be honest.”

Some also realized how important it was to take what you might call an expansive view of natural wine—to expand beyond the narrow raft of producers anointed by natural wine’s most hardcore believers. It helped that a new posse of young, naturally-minded producers was being imported. But their work was aided in a big way by revisiting minimalist producers who weren’t necessarily on the fringe. That’s why at Racines NY, for instance, Arnaud Tronche’s big-tent approach willfully melds the fringe (Didier Chaffardon’s chenin-based Mentule Matagrabolisée) and the fastidious: Pomerol from Vieux Château Certan, chardonnay from California’s Littorai.

Their other realization? That these wines get a far better reception when food is involved, which is why some of today’s best natural-wine evangelists have hung their shingles in restaurants—like Fung Tu, one of Wildair’s neighbors, where wine director Jason Wagner’s virtuosic list shows just enough funk to be the perfect foil for Jonathan Wu’s hybrid Chinese-American cooking.

Add it up and you might conclude that the natural movement has, as Justin Chearno of The Four Horsemen puts it, become “more civilized.”

In fact, civilized is an excellent word for what’s happening at The Four Horsemen, which initially caught attention for its high-profile partner, James Murphy, lead singer of LCD Soundsystem. Murphy, along with Chearno (who was the guitarist for Pitchblende before becoming the wine buyer at Brooklyn’s Uva Wines) added a celebrity sheen to the naturalist camp. It made for good headlines, but the real success at the Williamsburg space, which Murphy owns with his wife, Christina Topsøe, comes from its success in providing a subtler context for these wines.

That context is being a very good restaurant—although the “wine bar” sobriquet has stuck. Some patrons seem unsure whether they’re supposed to be eating or drinking. (Answer: both.) The spotless bare wood tables and fabric-draped walls—there’s exceptional sound cushioning—are comforting, and so is the menu from Nick Curtola, formerly of Franny’s, with dishes like beef tartare made pleasingly sour with buttermilk that, as at Wildair, occupy a happy spot on the Copenhagen-Paris axis.

More crucially, even a novice can largely decipher the wine list; Chearno and the others believe a young and uninitiated crowd is drawn more to honey than vinegar. (At Wildair, too, although its list is more advanced placement.) Yes, there are orange Georgian wines—the manifest Pheasant’s Tears—but also a full page of well-priced Champagne. The choice of Burgundies embraces the fringe (Irancy from Vini Viti Vinci) and the mainstream (Domaine de L’Arlot) in an equitable way. Chearno and general manager Katrina Birchmeier even decided to list—gasp—grape varieties as a welcome trailhead for those who can’t quote chapter and verse for every appellation.

At both spots, the disarming staff hovers just close enough. One night at The Four Horsemen, our server shared a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello Freisa he’d brought in, just because.

Chearno views this approach as a throwback to that first generation of Paris bars, which rallied before naturalism had taken on self-important airs: “It was about you being out and having great food and great wine, but without feeling like you had to go to church.”

At the same time, he points out, many of that original generation of Parisian naturalists, including Jancou, have either sold or shuttered their places. Today it’s Paris that has adopted a cold shoulder—too many proprietors dictating to customers which wines in the cellar they’re allowed to drink.

Which is fine. Let the wines thrive on these shores. A few years ago, they were still trying to creep in around the fringes. Today, they’re not so much in the mainstream as happily coexisting as part of a bigger, inclusive approach to wine. Perhaps we’ve finally discovered that you can love life on the fringe without becoming addicted to the thrill of looking down on anyone who doesn’t reside there.

MORE BY JON BONNÉ:

Will the Real Jura Please Stand Up?
Who Will Decide the Future of Beaujolais?
Does Gramercy Tavern Have the Best Wine Program in America?
What Is Wine’s Equivalent of a Beach Read?
The Rise of Champagne’s Rebel South
A Serious Case for Sweet, Fizzy Wine
The Jura Wines Nobody’s Telling You About
Where Have All the Other Summer Wines Gone?
Champagne’s Next Revolution Is Now
So Long, Seahaven: Wine’s New Mainstream

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