The Passage des Panoramas is the oldest covered walkway in Paris, a vaulted series of indoor halls in the 2nd arrondissement, not far from the stock exchange and Opéra. It may be in the heart of old Paris, but for a decade it has also been home to Racines, which, when it opened in 2007, was the city’s essential natural-wine bar, as well as Coinstot Vino, another naturalist spot I’d gravitated to years ago.
The new Paris doesn’t much manifest itself that far west, and I don’t go often. But not long ago, I was in the neighborhood and hungry for lunch. So I stopped into Coinstot and ordered the day’s special, a plump sausage with Puy lentils. And wine? A list, perhaps?
“No list,” snapped one of the proprietors. “Tell us what you like, we’ll pour you something good.”
Ah, yes, the naturalist two-step—that quintessential exchange of the Paris wine bar. I’ve played this game before, in Paris and elsewhere. “I’m sure. Tell me about your reds.” The first two he proposed weren’t even in the orbit of what I wanted, but I was hungry, and thirsty and not in the mood. So I finally capitulated to a Loire cabernet franc. The sausage was succulent. The wine was a glassful of meh.
It doesn’t have to be this way, I thought. And it doesn’t. I kept reflecting on a far more pleasant meal a few months earlier at London’s Smoking Goat. This Soho restaurant (with a new location in Shoreditch) cooks Thai-style meats smoked over chestnut wood; Cornwall lamb ribs served with unabashedly fiery nam phrik—that sort of thing.
Confined to less than a single page and compiled by the writer Zeren Wilson, the Goat’s list leans toward the natural, but not willfully. In the course of a sybaritic lunch I managed to take down a glass of Friulian orange wine from Radikon—by the glass for under £10—and a riesling from Germany’s Florian Lauer (plus some mezcal for good measure). I could’ve just as easily chosen Morgon from Jean Foillard or riesling from Alsace’s Vignoble du Rêveur. No lectures. No one telling me their ego was more important than my pleasure.
“We’re not slavish to any particular trends,” Wilson told me when I asked later. He just wanted to work with “smaller, more serious wineries,” who incidentally also happen to farm well and make wine in a minimal way.
That natural-curious but not strident approach repeated itself over and over during my most recent London trip. The city’s wine scene today exudes a sort of inclusiveness—one that sets it very much apart from its neighbor across the channel. It hasn’t fully resolved the rift between natural-wine establishments and everyone else; as Wilson describes it, some restaurants have grown “slavish to a certain ‘troupe’ of wines and importers.” But at least London is trying to bridge the gap in a way that, I think, foreshadows how wine cultures in many cities might move past Paris’ clubby habits.
Indeed, many of London’s newest and most interesting restaurants have navigated paths that please all comers, mirroring the city’s newfound culinary vitality. Witness a place like Quality Chop House, a current mainstay of neo-British cooking, where unsulfured wines from Domaine Frick live happily alongside less overtly natural producers, like Bergerac’s Jonc Blanc, or modestly traditional wine from the Rhône’s Bernard Gripa.
No different at the Laughing Heart, the Hackney Road wine bar where conservatively classic wines like Pierre Gerbais Champagne and Volnay from Michel Lafarge coexist with natural choices from Jean-Pierre Robinot’s l’Angevin and his Loire counterpart, Julien Courtois. Up the street at The Marksman, which took the concept of the gastropub literally (it’s in an old pub), owners Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram offer white wines from fashionable minimalists like Sardinia’s Dettori and Jura new-wavers like l’Aigle à Deux Têtes, but don’t call attention to their dabbling in the natural realm. The same can be found at Lyle’s in Shoreditch or Som Saa in Spitalfields, another Thai restaurant with a globalist wine view. You can move farther on the fringe if you like; the buzzy wine bar P. Franco serves up the Jura’s Domaine de l’Octavin and upstarts like Anders Frederik Steen in the Ardèche. Prefer more traditional? The epic selections at Noble Rot or Sager + Wilde feature Fourrier from Burgundy or Sandhi chardonnay from California, without ignoring naturalist darlings like Sylvain Dittière in Saumur. Everyone can get along.
Not so in Paris, where the split runs deep.
But why? It’s tempting to argue that Paris’ natural wine scene was always self-segregated, seeing as Paris gave birth to the notion of the natural-wine bar and remains the movement’s spiritual epicenter. And it’s easy to convince yourself that the attitude that lingers today in the gilded Passage des Panoramas is somehow baked into the movement’s DNA. I’m not so sure, though.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, there wasn’t necessarily an obvious segregation among the first generation of naturalist haunts—Bistrot-Cave des Envierges, Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, Bernard Passavant’s Le Passavant. They were seen, even by the New York Times, as spots run by devoted wine lovers, where you could locate more interesting bottles than the city average. Perhaps the language or politics hadn’t yet come along to drive a wedge between natural and everything else. But even before that first wave of natural establishments, Robinot (who started as a bar owner and journalist) recalled in an interview last year, smart Parisians already flocked to bistros that purchased their own better-quality barrels direct from vignerons, rather than bottles from big négociants. Those bistros provided a context that cleared a path for that first generation of natural-wine bars, including his own l’Ange Vin. “They were always better than the other bistros,” Robinot told me, “until we arrived.” By that argument, today’s naturalist establishments are really just more overtly partisan outgrowths of what began as the desire for better, more authentic wine.
That’s why I often suspect the divide in Paris’ wine scene today is really more an expression of something intrinsically French—the craving for philosophical schism. Certainly there’s something Cartesian to it. On the one hand, you can still uncover any number of bistros still mired in that bad old mode of wine choices from 40 years ago—the non-natural version of Coinstot’s “drink what we tell you” mentality—as well as plenty of fancy étoilés sticking to a safe roster of Bordeaux and Burgundy. On the other, today’s naturalist community in Paris displays skepticism about any wines that betray even a faint dotted line to the would-be mainstream; its aesthetic seems more about crafting an alternate universe of taste.
Perhaps that explains why the same old wines seem to appear on most of the natural lists in Paris (if you find an actual list). With luck, a typical selection might briefly acknowledge natural-but-traditional icons like Champagne’s Emmanuel Lassaigne and the Lapierre family’s Morgon, maybe even a midway choice like Julien Guillot’s Mâconnais wines. But then it’s usually a rundown of the same cohort of new kids, like Vincent Marie’s No Control from Auvergne or La Sorga’s Sereibroc. This isn’t necessarily bad; you can uncover new delights if you hunt diligently. And the best of the current natural-minded spots, like Septime La Cave or La Buvette, stand by wines not firmly in the natural canon, like Dominique Belluard’s ethereal Savoie bottles or Sylvère Trichard’s overperforming Séléné Beaujolais. But after the dozenth time you’ve seen the stridently atypical Burgundies of Yann Durieux being treated like nectar, you can’t help but wonder about a hive-mind mentality.
But it’s not simply repetitiveness that convinces me the Parisians need to evolve. It’s also that attitude. The haughtiness feels left over from an awkward, cliquish phase of naturalism, especially when it comes to the jealous guarding of bottles—no, you can’t have that!—at, say, Le Baratin, another of the original generation, or Aux Deux Amis. And if you’re not in the clique, it quickly comes across as pastiche, like the New Cruelty in L.A. Story. This, frankly, is an embarrassment to a natural-wine community that should cherish the ability to evolve and expand—to bring the newly curious on an adventure without being insolent about it.
That’s why London is such a pleasure by comparison. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s different there, and my best hunch is that the ecumenism comes from the city being a global nexus for the wine trade, even more than New York, a place where you almost are forced to drink globally. That especially separates it from Paris, which despite being natural wine’s spiritual hub remains hobbled by the myopia of Gallic pride and a disinterest in vins d’ailleurs (foreign wines). It also comes from a more nuanced sense of hospitality.
I do see signs that Paris, perhaps taking inspiration from the new spirit of Macronism, can find a new path. I saw it, for instance, at the wine bar Le Cave du Paul Bert, which splits the difference between its parents: classic bistro Paul Bert and avant-garde Le 6 Paul Bert. Or at Vantre, opened by former Hotel Bristol head sommelier Marco Pelletier. For a 40-seat bistro, Pelletier and sommelier Thomas Simian compiled an expansive list that ranges from Ghislaine Barthod’s quintessential Burgundy to upstarts like Jura’s Domaine des Bodines.
But perhaps the best example is just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, inside the Palais de Tokyo. The contemporary art museum tapped restaurateur Josh Fontaine and his partners (who basically brought Brooklyn to Paris) to create Les Grandes Verres, a sweeping, sleek restaurant that could give New York’s Untitled a run for its money. Having integrated natural wine into spots like Le Mary Celeste and Hero, Fontaine took the museum idea of curation more literally here. His list features naturalist heroes like Eric Texier and Julien Labet, each with a deep, full-page selection. The message: These wines don’t have to be served scattershot, jazz-like. They can be showcased in a structured, formal way. Dare I say, the approach feels almost traditional.
A natural-wine haven in the hidebound 16th? That’s Paris at its most modern—and best. And from there it’s a quick hop to achieving the inclusive approach London is doing so well. Not long ago, that city’s wine trade was the one seen as stodgy and weighted by the past. If London can transform itself, and embrace the breadth and vitality of today’s wine world, surely Paris can do the same.