Our Wine Editor Picks the Bottles for the Wine Bar of His Dreams
Sometimes it takes a large issue to put a small issue into perspective. Take the ongoing wine-world battles about natural versus conventional wine. This sometimes vitriolic black-and-white commentary, which can be boiled down to “natural wine is flaw-ridden mouse-cage-smelling crap” versus “conventional wine is chemically steroided soulless corporate garbage,” really started to seem a bit...oh, beside the point back when the coronavirus upended everything in March.
The basic tenets behind natural wines are essentially organically grown grapes and as little intervention as possible—no fining, no filtering, no commercial yeast, no mechanical harvesting, and minimal or no sulfur. They run the gamut from clean and pristine to cloudy and in-your-face funky. Some people find them a near-religious calling; some feel they are a threat to everything they consider to be wine (and a lot of people think they sound kind of interesting and are curious to try them). Twitter being the id pit that it is, we were only two or three weeks into the pandemic before the more intolerant people on either side were lobbing missiles at each other again.
But why all the drama? What is it about natural wine that’s so polarizing? Personally, I’d say that it’s because it calls into question a crucial, taken-for-granted assumption about wine: How it tastes is more important than how it’s made. (The term “natural wine” itself also annoys some people, as it implies that all other wine is somehow unnatural, which may be why “minimal intervention” and “raw” wine have gained ground as alternative names.) Regardless, all this ruckus has happened without there actually being that much natural wine around. Zev Rovine, one of the top importers of natural wine, says, “Even if you took a big estimate of the sales for our whole community, I’d max it out at like $70 million in wholesale revenue [in the U.S.]. What percentage is that of the wine industry? Way less than 1%, right?” In fact, “way less” is an understatement: The number Rovine suggests isn’t 1% of U.S. wholesale wine revenue, but one tenth of 1%. It’s minuscule. Yet the amount of press devoted to natural wine has been huge, and sales have been skyrocketing. I’m reminded of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
The other thing I was thinking about while doing my end-of-the-world pandemic isolation stint was how fiercely I missed going out for a drink. (Staying in for a drink? That I had plenty of). The spirit of wine, after all, is social. Wine brings people together; that’s its great magical property. And natural or conventional, it doesn’t mix well with intolerance. I think that’s particularly why I was missing hanging out at places like Brooklyn’s The Four Horsemen. Though it’s a do-not-miss destination for natural wine fans, wine director Justin Chearno’s list strikes a balancing point between camps. “Sure, most of the wine we love happens to be pretty noninterventionist,” he says. “But if I get an offer for a really interesting conventional Barolo that people will really enjoy, I’ll bring it in. We’re not dogmatic. We’re a taste-great-first place.”
Open-mindedness is the operating principle for most forward-looking wine bars, if that’s even the right thing to call this movement of small, sommelier-founded (or wine-forward) places. At Ungrafted in San Francisco, which Rebecca Fineman, a Master Sommelier, opened with husband and fellow sommelier Chris Gaither, the list is reversed from The Four Horsemen’s: Natural bottles are the minority rather than the majority. But there are plenty of both. What Fineman looks for, she says, is “a mix of interesting and off-the-beaten-path, with some things that are very classic. I get frustrated by the polarities I see in the industry. You go to a Michelin-star restaurant, and all they have is $30 by-the-glass famous names; then you go to a cool wine bar, and everything on the list is natural-funky and $10 a glass. There needs to be an in-between.”
Here’s to the in-between. Personally, I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with natural wine. The philosophy behind it—organic, unmanipulated, small-scale, real—makes absolute sense to me. But often the wines leave me cold. To take one example, the yeast Brettanomyces, or brett, widely considered a winemaking flaw, is common in some natural wines. For me, a large amount of brett obliterates the character of a wine; “sheep’s butt” is not terroir. On the other hand, my friend Alice Feiring, who has written more about natural wines than anyone I know, doesn’t mind moderately bretty wines. As she says, “If it smells like one sheep coming near you in the field, no problem. If it’s like a flock of sheep in a small cabin warmed by a wood stove, big problem.” Fight about it? We joke about our differences instead. Look at it this way: In cheese, one person liking Époisses and another preferring Gruyère wouldn’t even be a debate.
Besides, as Haley Fortier, the 2019 F&W Sommelier of the Year who owns Haley.Henry in Boston, says, “People tend to have this conception in their heads that if a wine’s natural, it will taste really dirty and funky and ‘natty.’ But there are lots of really clean natural wines, too. In a way, the situation is very similar to Riesling. So many people assume that all Riesling is really sweet. But if someone wants a white that’s totally dry and crisp, Riesling’s often the first place I go.”
Miles White and Femi Oyediran, also 2019 F&W Sommeliers of the Year, co-own Graft Wine Shop in Charleston. They also serve conventional and natural wines side by side. White says, “Look, you can have funky new-age stuff next to traditional stuff, and they don’t butt heads at all.” Oyediran adds, “At the end of the day, it’s either good or it’s not. I don’t care if it’s natty or if it’s conventional; if I taste it, and it’s fresh and delicious, you’re in.” Brent Kroll, at Washington, D.C.’s Maxwell Park, puts it succinctly: “Why not just have wines for everyone?”
But what is a wine bar, and is that what most of these places are? Chearno says, “When we opened The Four Horsemen, we used the term ‘wine bar’ a lot, but calling ourselves a wine bar was really underselling our kitchen team wildly.” Now The Four Horsemen offers a full dinner menu, with dishes like veal sweetbreads and black trumpet mushrooms with truffle jus. Matt Cirne, who runs Verjus in San Francisco, says, “We’re sort of a cave à manger—a good wine shop where you can also come and eat. We wanted a serious culinary program, but not all the trappings of a conventional restaurant.” I suppose you could call these places “wine-focused, sommelier-founded, ambitious but casual, small-but-not-always restaurants/bars,” but that doesn’t exactly come trippingly to the tongue. Many if not all of them were opened by sommeliers, so maybe instead we should just follow Kroll’s advice: “Why not just call it a somm-driven restaurant?”
As I was writing this, I couldn’t actually revisit my favorite places—everyone was closed. So instead, I went ahead and built a wine bar in my mind. I wrote a list that mixed natural and conventional wines, all of them representing winemakers or vignerons with distinctive visions; I wanted wines that spoke of where they’re from and who made them. I also wanted wines that tasted great. In essence, I heeded what Cirne describes as the litmus test for his wine list: “If this was an ingredient on the menu, would the chef buy it?” I pulled my wines from the lists of my favorite somm-driven restaurants around the country and culled 20-odd of those to recommend here. And I decided to call it Isle Have Another, which was pretty much my state of mind at the time. Now, with luck, we’re all going out again, ending the day with a glass or two with friends at our favorite places, but even if we aren’t, it’s still possible to have the wine bar of your dreams in your home.
Conventional? Natural? Yes to Both.
These picks from my dream wine list, many drawn from the lists at my favorite wine bars, include bottles from all over the spectrum.
Sparkling and Rosé
NV Juvé & Camps Brut Rosé Cava ($17)
Juvé & Camps, founded in 1796, is a go-to name for Cava, the sparkling wine of Spain. This rosé version is made from Pinot Noir, not one of the traditional grapes of the Penedès region but delicious nonetheless.
2019 Lucy Rosé of Pinot Noir ($19)
Lucy is a side project for the Pisoni family, one of California’s top Pinot Noir growers. It’s full of red fruit and citrus peel notes, and a portion of the proceeds from every sale goes to breast cancer research.
2019 Clos Du Tue-Boeuf Rosé ($20)
Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat were there at the start of the natural wine movement in the early 1990s. Their rosé, made with organic grapes, is refreshingly herbal and savory.
2019 Arnot-Roberts California Rosé ($25)
Touriga Nacional grapes, native to Portugal, are the heart of this ambitious California rosé. Its bright cherry fruit offers spice and floral nuances.
2018 Agnès Et René Mosse Moussamoussettes Pétillant Naturel ($30)
“We poured this rosé pét-nat when we opened, and people loved it,” Trent Stewart, of Golden Age Wine in Birmingham, Alabama, says. Cloudy and gently fizzy, its flavors recall tart strawberries.
NV Champagne Delamotte Brut ($60)
Delamotte is made by the same team as Salon, one of the most sought-after (and pricey) Champagnes on the planet. It has a refined balance and layers of tree fruit and brioche.
2018 Köfererhof Kerner ($23)
Kerner, an unusual variety created in 1929 by crossing Schiava (a red grape) with Riesling, is grown widely in Germany. But many of the finest versions—like this focused, tangerine-scented wine—come from Italy’s northern Alto Adige region.
2019 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc ($27)
Craggy Range’s Sauvignon Blanc is an exemplar of the New Zealand style: ultra-vivid, with fresh grapefruit and passion fruit flavors, plus a lightly peppery bite that doesn’t swerve into green pepper–jalapeño land, as some do.
2018 Louis Michel & Fils Chablis ($27)
“Louis Michel was a Chablis pioneer for abandoning oak on his wines in the 1960s,” Brent Kroll of D.C.’s Maxwell Park says, calling this wine out as a perfect intro to oak-free Chardonnay. “It’s got classic notes of green apple, quince, and lemon, with a hint of sourdough.”
2018 Foradori Fontanasanta Manzoni Bianco ($32)
Elisabetta Foradori eschews intervention as much as possible and makes some of Italy’s Trentino region’s best wines. This crisp, floral white edges toward orange, thanks to the grapes being fermented on their skins for a week.
2017 Occhipinti Sp68 Bianco ($35)
Arianna Occhipinti is a star of the natural wine world. From her vineyards she fashions—using that word carefully, since she avoids intervention as much as possible—soulful wines that speak of the Sicilian soil. This Muscat-Albarello blend is both earthy and floral.
2018 Olivier Rivière La Bastid ($38)
A Frenchman making natural-leaning wines in the heart of Spain’s most traditional region, Rioja? Why not? As Matt Cirne at Verjus says, “It’s broad on the palate but still has a ton of cut and verve despite the relatively oxidative winemaking.”
2018 Lingua Franca Avni Chardonnay ($40)
Master Sommelier Larry Stone first worked in restaurants then ran wineries before he headed to Oregon to open his own. This lightly honey-scented, citrusy white is a blend from several different vineyards he works with regularly.
2018 Wittmann Westhofener Riesling Trocken ($50)
Though a bit pricey, this apricot-scented, stony, totally dry German white still counts as a value since it’s made with fruit from younger vines in the famed Morstein and Brunnenhäuschen grand cru vineyards.
2016 Cardedu Caladu Canonau Di Sardegna ($19)
Trent Stewart at Birmingham, Alabama’s Golden Age Wine pours this natural wine regularly. “It’s delicious—you get that Sardinian heat in the dark roasted-cherry flavors, and it’s got some funky earth to it, but it’s clean.”
2018 Raúl Pérez Ultreia Saint Jacques Tinto ($20)
Raúl Pérez is one of Spain’s most acclaimed winemakers, and this old-vine red, with its supple blueberry-cranberry notes, is, as Félix Meana of Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina, says, “a perfect yet humble representation of everything that is exceptional about the wine tradition in Bierzo.”
2017 La Stoppa Trebbiolo Rosso ($25)
Elena Pantaleoni, owner of this historic estate in Emilia-Romagna, is one of the most eloquent producers of natural wine around, and her wines are equally expressive. This Barbera-Bonarda blend from her youngest vines has earthy, leathery aromas that lead into vibrant dark-berry flavors.
2018 Comando G La Bruja De Rozas ($30)
This joint project between young Spanish winemaking stars Daniel Landi and Fernando García has helped put the mountainous Gredos region, west of Madrid, on the map. They focus on graceful, aromatic old-vine Grenaches—this, their most affordable wine, is an excellent introduction.
2018 Pax North Coast Syrah ($30)
Matt Stamp says, “I like this wine for its high-toned, aromatic, peppery wildness.” And indeed you should—it’s a finely tuned California Syrah from a top winemaker that’s great for drinking right now, and it comes at a very fair price.
2016 Uccelliera Rapace ($35)
As Brent Kroll says, “Hey, Super-Tuscan drinker? Meet Brunello lover.” He adds that this blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet has enough tannins to accompany hearty dishes, along with “classic tea-leaf notes and well-integrated oak flavors.”
Cain Vineyard & Winery NV15 Cain Cuvée Napa Valley ($36)
A blend of mostly Merlot and Cabernet, plus Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, as well as a blend of vintages (2014 and 2015), this edition of Cain Cuvée holds to winemaker Christopher Howell’s style: elegant rather than massive, vibrant rather than dense. Think fresh plums, rather than jam.
2017 Band Of Vintners Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40)
“We like this red because it allows guests to drink honest Napa Cabernet at a price that doesn’t shake heaven and earth,” says Matt Stamp of Compline in Napa. Four Napa Valley winemakers team up to make it, and at a time when the average Napa Cabernet runs $60 or so, it is definitely a bargain.
2015 Mas Doix Salanques ($50)
“I grew up in Catalonia, where the Priorat region is located, so this one is close to my heart!” says Meana. “It’s a prime example of the wines of the Priorat region.” And so it is: dark and dense, with lots of raspberry and black cherry Grenache flavor.