Just 10 or so years ago, those who preferred natural wine would’ve been hard-pressed to quench their thirst outside of a big city. Stores that did highlight natural selections either didn’t declare so or may have seemed intimidating to unfamiliar shoppers.
Now, “natty” wine is far from fringe, and stores that specialize in the category can be found everywhere from the Midwest to Texas, the woods of Vermont and small towns in between. Today, natural wine purveyors are inclusive neighborhood destinations where visitors are encouraged to learn more about what’s gone into each bottle.
How did such a dramatic transformation happen?
Let’s Start at the Beginning
Emerging from an ideological approach to winemaking developed by four growers in Beaujolais during the late 1970s and ’80s, natural wine hit American shores in the ’90s.
In its most pared-down sense, “natural” implies wine that’s made with “organic viticulture, nothing added, nothing taken away,” says Alice Feiring, who has authored several books on the subject.
A few additional motifs— like hand harvesting, wild yeast fermentation and an avoidance of fining and filtration—inform the majority of producers. For many natural winemakers, only minimal sulfites are added as a preservative upon bottling.
From picking grapes by hand to stomping fruit by foot, making natural wine requires persnickety attention. More often than not, it’s produced only in small quantities.
The absence of corrective additives, stabilizers and the like can mean bottlings have less consistent tastes and aromas between vintages. Some natural wines wander into a funky flavor territory with narrow appeal.
If you consider all these factors together, it’s not so difficult to imagine why American retailers have always hurried to stock it. The U.S. was behind the curve.
The Rise of Natural Wine Retail
It was a New York City shop founded by two wine retail professionals, David Lillie and Jamie Wolff, that first took the leap to focus on natural wines.
“Chambers Street Wines, opened in 2001, [was] the first shop here by far,” says Feiring.
“I don’t know if they ever came out publicly as a ‘natural wine shop,’ but David was certainly selling a selection that was predominantly natty stuff,” says Dagan Ministero, proprietor of Terroir Natural Wine Bar & Merchant, which opened in San Francisco in 2007. “Clos Roche Blanche, Lapierre, Breton—all that stuff was on his shelves before any of us coined the term ‘natural.’”
The venue was successful from the start. It proved small production, natural-leaning pours could be profitable and paved the way for like-minded purveyors to open in the early aughts. Its success also empowered those shops to declare the natural, organic and biodynamic philosophies behind their collections.
Brooklyn’s Uva Wines & Spirits, opened in 2002, for instance, put the word out and watched its reputation grow, while the now-closed Appellation Wine and Spirits, also in New York City, is noted as the first to explicitly assert its natural lineup starting in 2005.
As natty bottlings began to trickle more steadily into the hands of wine lovers, the category’s appeal grew in other parts of the U.S. beyond the East Coast.
Terroir, Minestero’s shop and wine bar, laid the groundwork for natural wine retail in northern California. Like Lillie and Wolff, he and cofounders Luc Ertoran and Guilhaume Gerard launched the place with wines they most enjoyed drinking.
They established Terroir resolutely as a retailer of natural wine.
“As far as I know, we are the first shop in California to solely sell ‘natural wines,’ so we’ve had the luxury of being able to define the term a bit from inception,” Minestero says.
They furnished the space in a way they believed to echo that categorization, framing the venue’s two levels with thick, unpolished wood beams, decorating modestly and pumping the soundtrack on a record player.
In doing so, they established a minimalistic, punk rock tone that would be echoed by many early West Coast venues.
“If Terroir was a band, I guess we would be the Fugazi of natural wine,” says Minestero. His comparison is apt on several levels. Not everyone knows who Fugazi is or why they are important to music, and acolytes might seem like music snobs, too cool for the mainstream stuff.
A similar us-and-them dynamic underscored the early days of natural wine in the U.S. Though Minestero and his contemporaries sought to educate curious drinkers, sometimes their intentions were overshadowed by their self-constructed, “cool kids” ethos. Natural wine’s expansion, it seemed, hinged on breaking that down.
Building a Natural Community
Starting around 2010 or so, “more and more consumers [became] shop owners, because they’re enthusiastic and wanted to be involved somehow,” says Feiring, who thinks this is what’s leading the change.
Such was the case for Howard Mahady, who took over Campus Fine Wines with Sloan in 2012.
“We were drinking these types of wines at the time and not many retailers in our area were focusing on them,” says Mahady. “Our selection to this day is reflective of a combination of what we drink, our overall aesthetic and the needs of our neighborhood.”
Campus sits at a relatively busy crossroads of college students, working professionals and Providence visitors. Still, it took time for him and Sloan to find favor. Early on, Sloan notes that shoppers were often put off by terms like “organic” and “biodynamic.”
“When we first bought the shop, and even more so back in the early 2000s…a decent number of people would physically recoil when you’d say that a wine was organic,” says Sloan. “It took a lot to break down those sorts of barriers. ‘DRC is biodynamic!’ we’d lament.
“The stereotype is that it’s been all tattooed hipsters drinking natural, organic, low-fi wine, but that’s not really the case,” she says. “When the wine is good, everyone wants to drink it.”
We opened eight years ago with a general focus on natural wine, which in the Midwest— specifically Wisconsin—was a little ahead of its time,” she says. “I think many of us in the Midwest will tell you that we all paid attention to what was happening on both coasts.”
Playing to Passion
Beyond the desire to share bottlings that adhered to their own preferences, many would-be purveyors, including Hillsey, were driven to introduce more sustainable wines to the local market.
“The wines I choose for the shop have to unofficially meet a few criteria,” says Hillsey. “I want the wines we carry to be values, regardless of the actual price, be enjoyable to drink, represent where they come from, and be made by people we respect and by people that respect the environment.”
Meg McNeill, who opened Upstream Wine and Spirits in Livingston Manor, New York, in 2017 feels the same.
“I focus on natural wines because I think they’re more expressive [and also] better for us and better for the environment,” says McNeill.
A former resident of Brooklyn, New York, McNeill and her husband had traveled to the small Catskills hamlet for years to camp and hike before they moved there permanently. After they purchased Upstream’s storefront, they were eager to “commit to this business and this community in a big way,” she says.
McNeill, a veteran of wine retail, believes an increase in public awareness of environmental concerns has helped fuel the category’s surge in popularity once more shops did begin to open their doors.
“I think in the past few years, a lot of stores have opened,” says McNeill. “But even for years leading up to that, I watched a lot, including the one I worked at…Dandelion Wine, gradually transition to natural wines based on our changing palates and those of our customers. People have been thinking more and more about where their food comes from and what goes into it, so I think it’s only natural—ha— that they would start to think in the same way about what they drink.”
“We focus on natural and natural-leaning wine because we think of wine as food, and in the same way that we don’t want chemicals in our food, we don’t want it in our wine either,” she says.
In Natural Measure?
So why has this progression felt so rapid?
“Instagram,” says Sloan. “I’m kind of joking, but I don’t think this movement would have happened as quickly without that marketing tool and the natural wine personalities pushing it.”
Social media has been key to natural wine retail, increasing the reach of smaller purveyors and offering education to curious shoppers.
“It’s a combination of retailers making the wines more available and customers [having] easier access to wine information,” says Mahady. “When I started in 1991, I would purchase a book on a wine region and then it would be impossible to find the wine. Now…you can [look] right into the middle of the vineyard or contact the producer directly— it’s way easier to become a wine geek.”
For McNeill, the biggest benefit of social media has been its ability to make the long-misunderstood category more approachable.
“We share a lot of wines that we drink at home with dinner and with friends on our Instagram, and if we say ‘Hey, this is great with pizza’ or ‘This is great for day drinking’ people can relate to that,” she says. “On social media and in newsletters, we try to tell interesting stories about the winemakers and farmers and their families and regions, in addition to more technical things about how the wines are made, pairing suggestions and tasting notes. I think a lot of other shops do the same. Focusing on these stories really drives home how special and singular so many of these wines are.”
A More Natural Connection
McNeill’s not alone in using education and human connection to make customers feel like insiders.
“I think more natural-focused wine stores tend to have a very personal approach to selling wine and focus on handselling bottles a little more than shops that are just focused on selling quantities,” she says.
“For much of the wine we sell, [there’s] a story to tell, so hand selling is especially important,” agrees Mahady. “We actively engage our customers. This has helped us develop loyalty and, as a bonus, has led to some of our customers becoming great friends.”
In-person tastings and events were also pivotal to the spread of natty shops.
“We try to be really accessible and welcoming, so that even if someone doesn’t see anything they recognize from more typical liquor stores, they don’t feel intimidated,” says McNeill.
In this way, Hillsey says that today’s natural wine shops are more like gathering spots or community centers. “I think you’re now seeing an industry that is more inclusive than it has ever been. Besides the environmental aspect of natural wine, I think this has been its greatest contribution.”