Drinkers of Denver, it’s time to step up our wine game.
By many measures, we’re cutting-edge and experimental drinkers. We support dozens of craft breweries dealing in esoteric styles; barrel-aged booze-bomb releases even command long lines. Our cocktail bartenders have pushed us to become adventurous spirits drinkers, as we suck down drinks made from everything from fat-washed gin to egg whites to Underberg (it tastes like fire and menthol, y’all) and pay double-digit prices for the privilege. So it’s baffling — baffling! — that we can count the number of metro-area restaurants with truly excellent and interesting wine lists on approximately two hands.
This is, at least in part, a demand problem: Even sophisticated wine buyers in this town tell us they feel compelled to provide familiar crowd-pleasers like classic cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay on their lists. When those subsume two spots of what might only be six or eight offerings, it’s harder to put forth anything that looks like an interesting and well-rounded program.
Consider this, then, your moment to demand better and more interesting wine. A fairly easy place to start is with natural wine, a category that’s trending among the industry savants attempting to give a DIY, punk-rock treatment to the wine list.
Perhaps you heard the phrase "natural wine" ten years ago, and it referred to a wine bottled without sulfites. And then you tried said wine and experienced something so funky it was off-putting — or, worse yet, bad — because so-called sulfite-free wines, when made poorly, tend to turn quickly, since sulfur acts as a preservative. This is why, when sommeliers tell us they serve natural wines exclusively, they often feel compelled to immediately follow up with this defensive caveat: “But I’d never serve you bad wine.”
“There are a lot of detractors,” says Elliot Strathmann, who curates a list of nearly all-natural wines at Spuntino. “There’s a sense that so-called natural wine making leads to worse, unstable products. If you’re in the world of native yeast fermentation and minimal addition of sulfur dioxide, you have to be a much more careful and clean and precise wine-maker.”
Even when it hasn't gone bad, natural wine tends to have more character than its more conventionally produced counterparts. Mary Allison Wright, who owns the Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club (and is putting together an all-natural-wine list for the soon-to-open Morin) says, “There are certain textures and flavors in natural wine, and if you’re not used to them immediately, you might think it’s a bad product. It’s about training yourself. Give yourself new things to try. The first time I had goat cheese, I thought it was appalling. But you grow into these things.”
The real reason natural wine hasn’t gained much traction among consumers, though, is not because it’s funky, but because the category is ill-defined. Wright uses a definition from Isabel Legeron, who wrote a book about natural wine: “Organic at the least, nothing added, nothing taken away, with a very slight amount of sulfur added at bottling,” she says.
Andy Lum — who works with Local Merchants, one of four distributors organizing Colorado Natural Wine Week from April 16 to 24 — believes in a more inclusive definition. “It’s more about transparency,” he says, adding that wines involved in Natural Wine Week must be organically farmed (even if they’re not certified), with no inorganic additives, and made via un-inoculated fermentation (in other words, winemakers can’t add commercial yeast). The fact that they’ll accept wines that have undergone wood and stainless-steel aging and wines bottled with some sulfur puts the organizers at odds with other natural-wine proponents who believe those practices aren’t really natural.
The bottom line, says Lum, is that natural wine is “wine made in a minimalist style,” and he points out that it’s more environmentally friendly, without the chemicals and additives you get from commercially produced wines.
Wright points to the lack of chemicals as one really good reason for consumers to reach for these wines: “Basically, there are massive corporations that put out the majority of wine we see in this country, and they want to put out the cheapest, most consistent product. They’re scraping everything off the vineyard whether it’s ready or not, putting it all through the press, shocking it with an isotope, and then building it back into wine with megapurple [a color enhancer], powdered tannins and chemicals that smell like butter. It’s a helpful comparison to think of the worst mass-market pepper Jack cheese compared with triple creme made by a tiny artisan producer.”
So how do you find natural wines? Lum says natural wine-making is growing all over the world, but many old-world European regions have always made their wines naturally. Wright points to the Loire Valley and Beaujolais, while Strathmann nods to Chateau Margaux — one of the most revered Bordeaux producers — which moved to all-organic production, and Italian makers who tend to use such long maceration processes that they can forgo even the sulfur dioxide at bottling. He adds that Italy is well suited to natural wine-making because many producers own their estates and control the process from vine to bottle — unlike in other regions, where winemakers buy their fruit from several different farmers.
Wright recommends checking the backs of bottles for importers like Louis/Dressner, which deals only in natural wines. And become a regular in a wine shop that can point you toward natural wine: “Find your store, someone you trust, and build a relationship. Understand what they carry and why.”
You can explore the wide world of natural wines during Natural Wine Week and its centerpiece Grand Showcase event, held in partnership with Slow Foods, which is open to the public and will feature more than 200 natural wines. Tickets for that event, on April 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Space Gallery, are just $50 per person and $90 per couple. If you’re after a more restaurant-oriented natural-wine experience, join the April 17 Boulder crawl, which winds through discussions and tastings at Corrida, Oak at Fourteenth, Bramble & Hare, Black Cat and Arcana. Or head to Vesper Lounge (233 East Seventh Avenue) starting at 6 p.m. on April 19, where every glass of natural wine you buy will benefit Water for People.
We hope you get out there — for the sake of those of us who want to drink better wine.