Posted: Jul 26, 2018
Natural wine is weird, funky, even dirty. Sommeliers are obsessed. but does it actually taste good?
Master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier was walking through Central Park when she recognized a scent: manure, which rhymes with flâneur when she says it. “It’s funny because some guys love this smell — that kind of dirty, sweaty smell,” Lepeltier says. “That’s what they want in natural wine. Horse s***.”
To be clear, Lepeltier supports natural wine. That is, wine made from organically grown grapes fermented in their own naturally occurring yeasts. During fermentation, a whole ecosystem of yeasts and bacteria grow, die, interact, and expel by-products, including alcohol. Commercial winemakers use chemicals and machines to manipulate that ecosystem; organic winemakers do the same with organic grapes. Natural wine is even purer — or dirtier, if you’re being literal about terroir. “Nothing added and nothing removed” is the mantra: no industrial yeasts, no additives, no synthetic processes. In natural wine, the resulting imperfections are not really imperfections; they are the goal.
Some quibble over which methods count as “natural,” from filtering to machine-harvesting to vineyard architecture. (“I’m offended by vines on a wire. It’s slavery,” a Spanish winemaker tells Lepeltier and Alice Feiring in their book The Dirty Guide to Wine.) Some use prehistoric winemaking methods, like subterranean fermentation in clay amphorae. The semiotics of what counts as “natural,” and why, and who gets to decide, can be a source of rancor. (As far as two-word phrases capable of ruining bourgeois dinner parties in New York go, natural wine is up there with Lena Dunham and democratic socialism.) Whatever the process, the results can be downright funky: white wines that can be amber, orange, and cloudy. Red wines that resemble fizzy beet juice and occluded amethysts. The flavors can be intense and unfamiliar — savory, salty, and startlingly sour. These wines flout the conventions of connoisseurship, but among the city’s wine geeks and sommeliers, natural wine has an intense following. Justin Chearno, the wine director at the Four Horsemen, describes himself as “really, really, really evangelical,” especially early in his career. After Cork Dork author Bianca Bosker’s dismissal of “so-called natural wines” appeared last year in the New York Times, she says she received hate mail.
When Lepeltier arrived in New York in 2009, natural wine barely existed in the city’s lexicon. Now natural wines are on the menu at New York’s most-hyped restaurants — Lilia, Le Coucou, Atomix, Una Pizza Napoletana. The Four Horsemen, which is co-owned by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, has 40 seats and a cellar with 600 natural wines. And this past spring, when the former chefs of Minetta Tavern and Balthazar launched Frenchette, the wine list was 100 percent natural. “Frenchette has gone off the rails,” wrote the Times’ wine critic, Eric Asimov, calling the “relentlessly obscure” list “brilliant,” “challenging,” “and occasionally even appalling.” (Which he liked.)
Even the city’s most upscale restaurants are getting into weird wine: Last year, Eleven Madison Park shocked traditionalists by pairing a smoky sweet-potato dish with a biodynamic orange wine from Austrian winemaker Christian Tschida. (Orange wines are white wines fermented in contact with their skins, a technique conventional winemakers use only for reds.)
But there’s still some culture clash. According to Lepeltier, significant natural-wine excitement comes from “cool people” who “were not talking to the three-Michelin star restaurant or the top wine shop. They were talking to the new crowd that was buying the wine.” She added: “If you are not, like, tattooed, beard, dirty wine, you are not ‘natural enough.’?”
At the top of Lepeltier’s cool list is Zev Rovine, a Brooklyn-based natural-wine importer and occasional presence on Viceland’s late-night The Untitled Action Bronson Show. It would probably also include Bronson, a heavily tattooed Albanian-American from Queens who hosts another Viceland show, Fuck, That’s Delicious. He has the physique and social manner of a wrecking ball, wears oversize T-shirts while dining at the world’s finest restaurants, and rarely appears onscreen without a murky glass of natural wine in hand. His review of Canta Mañana’s Les Vins du Cabanon rosé involved throwing himself against the side of a building in Paris, saying, “Put me on the wall and eat my ass!” On his late-night show, Bronson pops new natural-wine bottles on every episode, once triggering a wine rush in what is still (for all the frenzy) a tiny market.
“There’s a lot of really *****d-up natural wine out there,” says Jon Bonné, author of The New Wine Rules, who was, for almost a decade, wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
I contacted Bonné after a natural-wine booster cautioned: “Jon Bonné doesn’t really have a true understanding of natural wines. Plus, his wife works for a traditional import company.” (That’s Valerie Masten, a vice-president at Skurnik Wines.) Bonné believes natural-wine merchants who are ignorant — or taking advantage of ignorance — sell overpriced wine under the guise of iconoclasm. “They’re being curated for the correct virtue points; they’re not being curated for quality. It is being passed off as fine or as interesting or as characterful by folks who frankly quite often either (a) have willfully decided that they’re not going to acknowledge these issues, or (b) aren’t experienced enough to identify them. And so what used to be considered a fuck-up is now considered character.”
Bonné is not a lonely skeptic. Tasting-menu palaces like Eleven Madison Park have opened their doors to natural wines, but not the floodgates. Speaking of his orange wine, EMP’s Cedric Nicaise admits, “It is not my favorite style of wine. It is never something that I crave or that I want to drink a whole bottle of.” The relative ease of drinking a whole bottle comes up with alarming frequency when talking about natural wines, which tend to be lighter and lower in alcohol content. Some say hangovers are gentler when the booze contains no added sugars or sulfites, but that could be superstition. (It’s the wine world’s version of arguing about gluten intolerance.)
Perched on a barstool at East Village wine bar Ruffian, Bonné steers me to a glass of 2017 Picpoul de Pinet from Domaine Julie Benau, which he describes as a natural wine that would suit a conventional wine drinker’s taste. “What I find more often than not in a lot of what I’ll call ‘modern natural’ wine is the sole purpose is to be gluggable,” he says. “It’s a weird, kind of Marxist view of drinking. Because it’s this idea that elevating the wine is somehow elitist.”
Wine populism came up in several interviews. Chearno, who grew up among beer-drinkers in Ohio, says, “To me, wine was never something for working-class people, and I was blown away when it became accessible to me,” which involved realizing wine was “an agricultural product and not something that was, like, discussed by lawyers over dinner.”
If you haven’t noticed, Bonné is fairly unapologetic in his elitism. He thinks the second purpose of natural wine is to “willfully kind of piss on a thousand years of history,” as though “a millennium of cultural work is somehow irrelevant because it’s uncool.”
He calls out Burgundy winemaker Yann Durieux, who makes wines with techniques that conventional Burgundians have, for years, dismissed. “If he did it in some random little corner of France, he would just be yet another dude with dreadlocks who is making wines I don’t want to drink,” Bonné continues. “But he’s doing it in Gevrey-Chambertin. He’s doing it in Haute Côtes de Nuits. Places that are expensive,” which means “charging 80, 90, a hundred, or multiple hundreds of euros down the line. And that, to me, is actually offensive. That is the apotheosis of the idea that everyone else in wine has to be wrong, because we still believe that there’s a value in some wine traditions.”
Durieux’s importer at Wine Source, Mathieu Jullien, expressed polite outrage on Durieux’s behalf. “Because he wears dreadlocks and drives a dirty car, he does not belong in Burgundy? He was born in Burgundy! He was inspired and guided by Henri-Frédéric Roch,” of the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, under whom Durieux studied. “The tradition is not the haircut!”
Is Bonné responding to a real degradation of craft, or merely its signifiers? Admitting he sounds like a “cranky old man,” Bonné continues: “Punk music is always my analogy. Where in the early days, not only did you not have to understand anything to listen to it, you didn’t have to understand anything to play it.” He believes natural wine is still in its early days. “When do you evolve? When do you learn how to play your instrument and become Johnny Rotten?”
But enough ***t-talking. Let’s talk manure. That horse-***t scent, politely called “barnyard,” is the product of Brettanomyces, a bacterium present in many wines. Lepeltier, a partner at downtown bistro Racines NY, explained: “It triggers some sexual stuff. And I’m sure about that.” Lepeltier has a degree in philosophy and total certainty in her opinions and taste. Like a musky perfume, barnyard wines appeal to “something very, very primitive in us. So that’s one reason [people like it]. And the second thing is: You can recognize it.”
Too much “brett” is a flaw, but it’s a flaw that rarely afflicts conventional wines, which utilize an array of synthetic techniques for halting the development of brett. Whether you’re drinking Moët or Yellow Tail, a conventional wine will never smell strongly of ***t. Now, the vast majority of natural wines do not smell strongly of s**t either. But if you don’t know how to recognize the thing that you want, then you will gravitate to the component of it that you can recognize. This could happen because you know natural wines are cool and you want to like something cool. Or it could happen because, over the course of drinking wines you enjoy for a variety of reasons, barnyard happens to be one of several through-lines you notice connecting them. Or maybe, after encountering barnyard in so many positive environments, you have retrained the neural pathways that connect your taste buds with “feels good” sections of your brain. Maybe you actually like barnyard now.
Either way, once enough people develop a taste for barnyard, the momentum of competitive taste kicks in. If taste is a performance of cultural knowledge, then rarefied taste suggests knowing more than everyone else. By the logic of one-upmanship, taste-chasers will be locked in a race for ever-rarer exemplars and more extreme versions of their taste. That is, until the pendulum swings.
For at least a generation, Robert Parker’s 100-point scoring system has dominated the hierarchy of tastes in wine. A wave of “Parkerization” put a premium on full-bodied wines with high alcohol content. Parker’s favorite wines are now the most expensive wines in the world, which must be annoying for Robert Parker when he goes wine-shopping.
Though a natural wine could, in theory, conform to any aesthetic, the wines currently marketed as such tend to fit a sort of dressed-down, casual-chic vision of abundance. As a recent feature in Fortune explained, “The French, perfecters of both making and consuming natural wine, have an onomatopoeic term for this, glou glou, the sound these easy-drinking reds and whites make hurtling down your throat on a warm June day.” This is wine designed to be gulped, not sipped. Glou glou is both demonstratively and deceptively simple. A visibly unfiltered wine shows off its maker’s rustic approach to viniculture. But that is only possible when the wine is elaborate — organic, biodynamic, location-specific, and labor-intensive.
The glou glou aesthetic applies to more than wine. Glou glou is a stripped-down renovation that showcases a building’s “bones.” It’s not wearing makeup and looking great, because you’re well rested and have an elaborate skin-care routine. (Natural wine, like natural beauty, requires long-term commitment. Minimalism works best when it’s minimal only on the surface.) Glou glou is passing a Polaroid camera around the party (then arranging the Polaroids into an artful display and photographing that with your iPhone). Glou glou is serving caviar with potato chips, as they do at Brunette, a natural-wine bar run by a married couple, designers who ditched New York City for the Hudson Valley. The tabletops are unadorned marble. The walls are whitewashed brick.
Glou glou is a maddening form of luxury, one that simultaneously rejects and performs elitism. Glou glou rejects the near past in favor of a modernized version of the old past. This makes glou glou incomprehensible to tastemakers from the near past — the ones who abandoned whatever elements of the old past glou glou seeks to resurrect. But here’s the worst part: Everyone who partakes in glou glou knows this. Glou glou is self-conscious, self-aware, and self-critical. Glou glou is how millennials do snob.
Like all trends associated with millennials, glou glou boils down to economics. Asimov explains: “Think about a Burgundy as you would Manhattan real estate. In the ’90s, Manhattan real estate was expensive, but that has expanded exponentially. You have a growing income disparity, in which you have a small number of people who have so ridiculously much money that they’ll pay anything for a great Manhattan apartment. They’ll pay anything for a great Burgundy. And that has driven up the price of everything else tremendously. In the ’80s or the ’90s, I was a young person just starting out in life. It was a splurge for me to buy a first-growth Bordeaux or a Grand Cru Burgundy, but I could do it. Now I’m the wine critic of the New York Times. That might be as far up in my profession as I can be. And I can’t afford those wines.”
Natural wines are expensive but not garishly so. That’s part of why Frenchette’s wine list impressed Asimov — and another reason natural wine seems so drinkable. As a restaurant, Frenchette appeals to a “heat-seeking customer pool of food lovers, fashion followers and Wall Street whales,” Asimov writes, in the Times:
It’s easy to imagine a wine list for this crowd: vintage Champagne and high-end Burgundy for moneyed customers, a few rare bottles to demonstrate the reach and influence of the sommelier, some big names in Bordeaux and Napa Valley for the trophy and status hunters, and a nod to the Loire Valley for those who have been to the Paris wine bars. In short, a list just like those at dozens of other popular restaurants, with bottles that are the wine drinkers’ equivalent of comfort foods — akin to a menu of hamburgers, salmon and boneless chicken breasts.
In its wine list, Frenchette abandoned comfort. That’s how you make a statement. Chefs are not judged by their boneless chicken breasts but by the bolder items on their menus. But the same tattooed generation that made natural wine cool also has a lowbrow-brilliant attitude toward Waffle House and Chick-fil-A. Comfort is just another matter of taste, isn’t it?
If there is a ground zero for glou glou in New York City, it’s in Bushwick. Specifically, Roberta’s.
Amanda Smeltz joined the staff of Roberta’s in 2012. Four years after Carlo Mirarchi turned the Bushwick pizza parlor into the gourmet juggernaut, he launched Blanca, an ambitious tasting-menu restaurant in a converted garage behind Roberta’s. Artisanal pizza is inherently glou glou. A Michelin-starred tasting-menu restaurant in an artisanal pizza parlor’s backyard? Glou glou squared.
Today, Smeltz is the wine director at Café Altro Paradiso and Estela, but her wine training began in Milwaukee before she moved to New York in 2009 to pursue an M.F.A. in poetry. Then two wines changed her life.
“Usually, if you talk to people about natural wine, they will tell you about this,” Smeltz says, when I ask whether she remembers the first time she drank natural wine. “I have two wines that got in my glass and I was just like —” She pantomimes sniffing a glass and reeling, as though inhaling smelling salts.
A brunette with a nose ring who seems like she’d be fun at parties, Smeltz expresses emotion through gesture and sound effect. “It’s like the oxygen leaves the room. You’re just like” — she scrunches her face and breaks into high pitch —“Wait, what? You’re like, I’ve smelled a thousand wines, and then someone puts one in your glass and shows you a thing. And the power of your own sense of smell [drives] an unmitigated experience between your body and that thing. And it took my breath away. It was like the wind got knocked out of me. And it was a Pinot Blanc from Alsace by a producer named Marc Tempé, who has been biodynamic for a very long time.”
The second time, she was working as a sommelier at the Breslin. The year was 2009. The wine was Hervé Souhaut’s La Souteronne, and she was drinking with two other somms. “We opened it up and put it in the glass, and it was just like, Ho-ho-ho-oly shit!” The sound effect here is foulmouthed Santa Claus, as played by Foghorn Leghorn. “Like, all three of us just started laughing.”
In the world of fine dining, Bushwick was (and kind of still is) “the hinterlands.” But for a natural-wine freak like Smeltz, this was both a challenge and an opportunity: “When you’re out in the hinterlands, all of the rules here on this island don’t apply,” she says of Manhattan. Radical changes in decorum, attire, etiquette, cuisine, and, yes, wine made sense. “I have a super-huge philosophical argument about what best means, and what historicity means, and what Francophilia means” in the context of wine, Smeltz says. “I have really big questions about that stuff. In Manhattan, you have to do it. It’s been part of wine-drinking culture for long enough. When you’re in Bushwick, you do not have to do that at all. No one gives a shit.”
Her first challenge was to persuade postrecession millennials to buy wine in the first place. She describes her thought process: “Everybody wants to come to this restaurant to eat pizza anyway. I already have a captive audience. What can I do to sneak wine-drinking on a people who otherwise do not? Like, what can I do to convert the table of eight dudes who are slamming pitchers of Budweiser?” The answer: weird wines. Wines that pique curiosity. Wines from countries nobody knows about. Wines your parents would hate.
Amanda Smeltz is working in Manhattan again. (But still living in Bushwick.) She advocates for natural wine in a way that approaches spirituality: “Wine is powerful because it arrests on the level of the body. There’s an opportunity to teach people to pay attention to being alive. There’s an opportunity to remind them of the power of their body, the power of their senses and the world, the power of plants and the Earth.” Wine is a luxury product, but in its ideal form, it’s also an experience that awakens the senses. “I’ve watched it happen, man. I’ve watched, like, a 25-year-old punk skater kid who’s apathetic as fuck, doesn’t give a shit about anything, put his nose in a glass and be like, Wow.”
But even punk skater kids can grow up to be The Man. One of the strangest phenomena I noticed while reporting this story is that everyone in wine talks about an imaginary snobby “other.” (In the case of Jon Bonné, maybe not so imaginary.) Natural-wine advocates see themselves as rebels. (Alice Feiring’s delightfully dramatic The Battle for Love and Wine: or How I Saved the World From Parkerization overtly positions her as a warrior against “Big Wine.”) But when rebels gain ground, there will inevitably be a point when they are rebels no more. During our conversation at Ruffian, Jon Bonné reminds me that Robert Parker himself was once an outsider. Parker lived on a dairy farm as a little kid and was a fan of Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy. He invented his 100-point-score system with the goal of democratizing wine.
Wine stores sometimes display bottles on shelves adorned with Parker’s numerical scores. Shops that specialize in the wines featured in this article rarely do that. Instead, they offer origin stories. Christian Tschida: foot-stomped grapes on a fourth-generation vineyard. Frank Cornelissen: reclusive vigneron who buries terra-cotta amphorae on the slopes of Mount Etna. Gut Oggau: abandoned 17th-century winery, restored by a loving family whose hand-drawn faces appear on the labels. “It’s not only natural wine; it’s the whole movement,” Action Bronson opines by phone while eating Dominican food on Myrtle Avenue. “When I smoke hash, it’s single source. One person growing it, one person washing it with water and ice, and then it gets to me and I smoke it. So it’s literally the least amount of hands possible.” He recommends pairing San Fernando Valley O.G. cannabis with Czech Moscato. They “bring out the characteristics of each other so well. It’s like me and my lady.”
When a wine expresses terroir, it is said to express the flavor of a place. To drink wine is to drink the soil on which grapes grow, the climate that cultivated them, the history. Whether rejecting machine additives is the best way to maintain terroir is the subject of heated debate. (Cedric Nicaise believes sulfur dioxide is necessary to preserve it. Frenchette’s Jorge Riera believes it mangles flavors and makes hangovers worse.) But as mood and movement, natural wines definitely stuff your nose a little deeper into the terroir. Which is how, I think, glou glou captures a modern urban dream of escape — a fantasy that can involve estates in rural Austria, weed farms in California, or ditching the city to open a wine bar in the Hudson Valley. The dreamiest elements of these fantasies are, of course, bull***t. (Agriculture involves significant financial pressure and manual labor.) But sometimes, in that alcoholic haze of glou glou–ing on a summer day, synesthesia occurs. And you can taste the bucolic fantasies, ecological optimism, and visions of a world in such perfect harmony that all you have to do is reach and squeeze a fruit right in front of you and out pours wine. And it tastes so good that nothing can stop you from glou glou–ing. Not even horse ***t.
*This article appears in the July 23, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
By Maureen O’Connor
July 24, 2018
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