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How to Order Natural Wine Without Sounding Ridiculous

On the newest episode of “Eater’s Digest,” hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen learn it’s not all about funk and floaty bits when it comes to natural wine

Dina Avila

Back in 2007, Joe Campanale could barely give away the natural orange wine on the menu at his first restaurant, Dell’anima. Now, at his Prospect Heights hot spot Fausto, serving regional Italian fare, and LaLou, a buzzy new natural wine bar, orange wine outsells rosé.

“I was having a meeting with my partner Dave over at LaLou and he said, ‘I need to cut this meeting short so I get my orange wine order in for tomorrow, because if we don’t have enough for the weekend, people are going to go crazy,’” Campanale says.

Orange wine (made from white grapes fermented on their skins, similarly to red wines) has become conflated with natural wine, and it often serves as the gateway glass to a taste that, for many, becomes an obsession: that weirder, “funkier” flavor. But while orange wines, and natural wines by extension, have gained a reputation for falling on the weirder end of the spectrum than conventionally made wines, natural wine isn’t one style. “Some natural wines are on the cloudy, funky, weirder spectrum, and some are crystalline and pure and precise and clean,” Campanale explains. “My taste tends to lean toward the prettier, cleaner wines, but sometimes I’m in the mood for something weird and funky.”

There’s no official classification for natural wines, but producers in the category avoid chemicals and other additives (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc.) in the growth, harvest, and processing of the grapes. And while all natural wines are organic in that they’re produced without chemicals, not all organic wines are natural.

So how can we sidle up to the bar and order it with confidence, when the landscape is so massive and largely unregulated?

On the newest episode of our podcast, Eater’s Digest, hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen aired out their natural wine insecurities with Campanale and learned a little something about the history of natural wine in the process. Listen to the episode or read on for the tl;dr:

Funky isn’t a dirty word

It’s a word you might hear over and over again, but if you like funk, don’t be afraid to say so. Just use your manners when describing it. “I really personally don’t love it when people say, ‘I want the most effed-up wine you have,’” Campanale says. Instead, try to be more precise. Is it a kombucha-like funk you’re after? Or something reminiscent of a barnyard, perhaps?

Make your budget known

Know how much you want to spend, and don’t be afraid to let your sommelier or server know, too. It doesn’t have to be done out loud (when dining out himself, Campanale will often point to something on the menu rather than divulge his budget to the table), but it helps people help you.

Organize your taste

All wines — natural, organic, biodynamic or otherwise — fall onto the same spectrums of flavor, acidity and body. First, decide whether you want a white, red, rosé or orange, then move on to body. “A really an old wine adage is, ‘Light body is like skim milk, full body is like cream,’” Campanale says. After body, think of fruit. Do you want something fruit forward or, on the other end of the spectrum, earthy? Words like “clean” can also be helpful, especially on a natural wine list.

Booze matters

Ordering by alcohol level is totally normal, Campanale says. “I tend to like wines that are lower in alcohol. Under 14 percent, because I like to drink a lot of wine and I don’t want to have a hangover the next day.” When you’re on the same page, ask for a fresh, clean wine that’s lower in alcohol.

Know your audience

If you’re somewhere a little more conservative that maybe doesn’t have natural wines demarcated on its list, you might have to approach your ordering process in another way. Try asking, “What wines do you have from really small producers that are making wine in a traditional way?” Campanale suggests. “That’s something that I’ve done before. ‘Traditional way,’ I think, is a good key phrase.” Campanale predicts a mass return to the traditional way of winemaking, a history you can learn more about on the newest episode of Eater’s Digest.

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Below, a lightly edited transcript of our interview with wine expert Joe Campanale.

Amanda Kludt: Joe, what is natural wine?

Joe Campanale: Thanks for having me on the show. I’m really happy to be here. Natural wine is, for me, it’s really an ideal, it’s the ideal of making wine without any chemical additives in the vineyard and with as minimal manipulation in the winery as possible. Those chemical additives that you can use in the vineyard generally fall into the categories of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides. So they try to use no chemicals whatsoever. Then once you get into the winery, if you don’t do anything, any manipulation at all, it’ll just turn to vinegar, so it’s using as little bit manipulation as possible and trying to not alter the flavor of the wine, not adding things additional acid, adding sugar to increase the alcohol, not doing over high amounts of filtration and that sort of thing. It’s actually a challenging question, because there is no official definition of natural wine. That’s mine. I think that’s what I think a lot of wine professionals would agree on, is this idea of trying to manipulate wine as little as possible.

Amanda: Other buzzwords we’ve heard about natural wine, there’s organic, there’s biodynamic. Can you talk about those two words and what they mean?

Joe: Sure. Organic wine means a wine that’s made without the use of chemicals, and that’s all. All natural wines are organic, but not all organic wines are natural, right? There’s organic additives that you can add that don’t really fit into the natural wine world. And also in the natural wine world, there’s this idea that you should use as little sulfur as possible. Organic wines minimize it, but you can have an organic wine with, say, 80 parts per million sulfur, and a natural wine producer might think that’s a little bit too much. Being organic, at least, is the base of natural wine. Then biodynamics is based on the teachings of this Austrian guy named Rudolf Steiner, who had this very interesting way of approaching farming and thinking of the farm as part of a larger ecosystem that included the phases of the sun and the moon and the stars. He didn’t originally apply it to wine making, and so it was only in the Loire Valley in the early 1980s that people started to use the biodynamic tenants for wine making. Some of my favorite wines in the world are biodynamic, and certainly some natural wines are biodynamic as well, and usefully there is a biodynamic certification.

Amanda: It’s a little woo woo, right? It’s a little like, don’t you bury a skull somewhere and-

Joe: There’s definitely some crazy elements. If you don’t know all of them, yeah, one of them is like burying a manure-filled cow horn for six months, and digging it up, and grinding it up, and putting it into a water bath and stirring it for hours and then spraying it...

Daniel Geneen: I like how you said, yeah, there’s some kind of woo, woo stuff, like burying a cow-

Joe: But I will tell you that one of the great things about biodynamics is that it forces winemakers to be in their vineyards a lot and to do things by hand a lot.

Amanda: Maybe the cow horn isn’t magically making the wine better, but someone that dedicated to wine is going to make a good wine.

Joe: And you know what? Maybe the cow horn is making the wine better.

Amanda: It’s not impossible.

Joe: It’s not impossible. One of the things that I love about wine is that we can’t know everything about it. There’s some magic, there’s some level of mysticism and magic, and I think that’s okay and that’s exciting, especially with natural wines.

Amanda: Can you give us a quick rundown of the history of natural wine?

Joe: Natural wine has been made for the majority of wine history. For thousands and thousands of years, people were making wine without any additives, with a little manipulation in the cellar. And there just wasn’t a name for it. It was just called wine. It was really only in the 20th century, with the advent of machine harvesting, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides and pesticides, and, really, a move away from the farmland, from vineyards, into big cities, that people started moving away from this idea of natural and organic wine and making a more industrial wine, making a more mechanical wine. And, really, in the 1970s, with the organic food movement, people started to also give a term by that, call organic wines organic wines, but it really wasn’t taking on until the ‘80s. And in the ‘80s, especially in Beaujolais, there was a group of Beaujolais producers, who are all led by this one guy, Jules Chauvet, and they were called the Gang of Four. And they started bringing back these no intervention ideals of natural wine, not using any chemicals, doing everything by hand, not manipulating things in the winery. And biodynamic wine was coming around as well. But, really, it was only in the last 10 years that people gave a term to natural wine. And it’s really wine that’s made without anything added, without anything taken away. And I’m hopeful, that in the future, at some point, people will just go back to calling it wine. We’ll have to call wines that are made with agrochemicals, that are made with additives, that are made in industrial manner, we’ll have to call them something, like the way you call fast food something other than just food.

Dan: So really, unnatural wine was the invention, the new invention, not natural wine.

Joe: That’s right. Unnatural wine-

Amanda: Yeah, they went back to the natural, normal stuff.

Joe: It’s such a good point. Unnatural wine was the invention, but it’s amazing just how quickly it took on, right? Part of it started in the late 19th century with Phylloxera, which was this vineyard louse that got brought over to Europe on trading ships. And there was a crisis in Europe. Tons of vineyards were being destroyed, followed shortly after by something else that was brought over in trading ships called the oedium, this kind of mildew. And then after World War II, you had a depopulation. You had all of this leftover munitions and the nitrogen from bombs, it was very easy to use for fertilizer and vineyards. You needed to figure out a way to do the same sort of work with less people. So you had all these advances in machines. And then, sorry, there’s more. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we had some very influential critics, most notably Robert Parker, right? And Robert Parker really loved this ripe, high alcohol, very clean, pure fruit style. He even said once that he really hates this flavor of Brettanomyces or Brett, which a lot of wines, a lot of natural wines, have. And for people who don’t know what Brett is, it’s a yeast that can occur really naturally in the vineyard or in a winery. And if you don’t add a lot of sulfur to your wine, you can get the those flavors in the glass. So people tried to make wines to get rid of the Brettanomyces to appease this Robert Parker style. They’re hiring consultants who were making these very technical wines, because at that time, if Robert Parker gave you a high score, you became wealthy, right? It was that easy. The good thing is now, today, there’s a lot more voices, and I think there’s been a push away from that style too. But now natural wine is a conscious choice for a lot of people. They want to be part of this movement.

Amanda: I know a lot of people, when they think of a natural wine, they think of super funky or cidery or cloudy wine, but to your point, all wine could and should be natural. That that’s not necessarily true, that it’s all like that, right?

Joe Campanale: Sure, I totally agree. Some natural wines are on the cloudy, funky, weirder spectrum and some are like crystalline and pure and precise and clean. And I think that’s one of the things that’s hard for people to wrap their head around with natural wine. Natural wine isn’t a style. I think it’s more of an ideal. It’s this ideal that where you’re trying to push towards an ideal of not adding any chemicals and trying to manipulate wine as little as possible. And some people are able to make something that seems like a really traditional, typical Chablis, but in that style, you’re in the natural wine ideal, you’re actually going to get a lot more liveliness out of it, I think more complexity. And some people want to make wines that are more cidery and weird, and they can do that with using natural wine techniques as well.

Dan: The way that this came together is I always felt a little bit self conscious in restaurants ordering natural wine, because I didn’t know what to ask for, and I felt silly saying things like funky or... And now I’m learning it can be clean. But how do I order natural wine intelligently in this current time where not all wine is natural?

Joe: So I think if you are at a good restaurant and you say, “I really love natural wine, what natural wines you have?” they’ll be able to get you a natural wine.

Dan: Are there any words that people say when you’re on the floor that bother you about natural wine? What words can I avoid?

Joe: Honestly, the thing about working in the restaurant industry is that you come across all kinds of people and you have to... We used to have this sign up that said... No, I don’t want to say it, actually.

Amanda: Come on! Give us the sign!

Joe: “Hospitality is treating everyone like they’re at home, even when you really wish they were there.” Anyway, no, mostly our... But not at our guests at LaLou or Fausto. They are so wonderful. I love them all. I would say, I’d really personally don’t love it when people say I want the most f-upped wine you have. Yeah, I don’t like that.

Dan: I want shit floating in the fucking bottom.

Joe: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s not my favorite thing to hear. But we could still find them... They still have wines that maybe they’re the most... the weirdest thing that we have, and then we’ll have wines that are funky enough to get people excited about that. So I’ve never come across, even people who asked that, a wine that we have that isn’t weird enough for them or funky enough for them. We have it.

Amanda: If Dan asked for something funky, you’re not going to roll your eyes.

Joe: No.

Amanda: Funky is a fine word to say, weird, funky, if that’s the style you want.

Joe: You can say weird, funky, yeah. You can say a little cloudy, if you like wines that are a little cloudy, or I think you can say, “What wines do you have from really small producers that are making wine in a traditional way? That’s something that I’ve done before.

Amanda: A traditional way I think is a good key word. Alice Feiring wrote that in her new book that Dan and I are reading right now, Natural Wine for the People, where it’s just saying small producer, traditional methods, things like that, those are good keywords. Another thing that people should keep in mind, we talked about this a little bit, but natural wine isn’t a flavor. So people should learn the kinds of things that they like. And if they find something they like, maybe ask the sommelier, “How would you describe this wine, so I know how to ask for it again?”

Joe: I think that’s a really great point.

Dan: Yeah.

Amanda: Because sometimes I have a glass of wine, I’m like, “I love this.” And then I forget, and someone’s like, “Okay, what do you want today? And I’m like, “I don’t know though.”

Dan: That thing I had yesterday.

Joe: Yeah, there’s also a short amount of vocabulary that can get you very far with wine. Like, you can say, clean, I think, is a really good word to use, especially when you’re talking about natural wines, because some aren’t. But if you can let someone know if you want a white, red, rosé, or orange, right?

Amanda: First step.

Joe: First step. I mean, body I think is really helpful. Like, if you’re looking for something really full- bodied or really light-bodied... An old wine adage is “Light-bodied is like skim milk. Full-bodied is like cream.” So the color of the body, if you want something that has more fruit, or you call it fruit-forward, if you want to be in the know, or on the earthier side. And then if you’re comfortable saying a price point... If you’re not comfortable saying a price point out loud, I like to hold up a wine list and say, “I’m looking at that one. And what do you have-”.

Amanda: Point to one specific one.

Joe: Point to one, and like, “What do you have that’s like it?” And that gives the sommelier a clue, like, “Okay, I’m looking to spend around $50,” or, “I’m looking to spend around $80,” or whatever it is.

Amanda: Can you talk about how the consumer interest has changed in the last 10 years that you’ve been running restaurants? Because I remember your first restaurant, you had orange wine on the menu, and I don’t think it was that popular.

Joe: That’s so true. In 2007, we had orange wine by the glass, and 12 years ago you really had to convince people to try wines that didn’t have stereotypical flavors, flavors that you’d expect in a wine, and now people are just craving it.

Joe: Orange wine is really hot. I was having a meeting with my partner, Dave, over at LaLou, and he was just like, “I need to cut this meeting short so I can get my orange wine order in for tomorrow, because if we don’t have enough for the weekend people are going to go crazy.”

Amanda: Wow.

Joe: Yeah.

Amanda: Is it like the new rosé in New York?

Joe: It’s the new rosé, for sure. At LaLou we’re selling more orange wine in the summer than we’re selling rosé, which is wild. And I could not give it away before. We get so many requests, like, “Give me something that I’ve never had before. Give me something that is strange.” I’m so excited by how open-minded people are now. And I think there’s just been such a sea change.

Dan: So as someone that was early on the orange wine trend, is there anything that Amanda and I can buy stock in right now? What’s bubbling?

Amanda: How will we seem cool to some sommeliers?

Dan: What’s bubbling up?

Joe: Well, I think that Eastern European wines are pretty exciting right now, so Croatia and further east from that. And we have wines at LaLou from the Czech Republic and as far east as Eurasia, like in Georgia. And those wines I think are pretty cool, and represent a really good value, because grapes that very few people have heard of, that are hard to pronounce, they just don’t have the market value as something that’s, that’s more famous. And I think that there’s some really thrilling wines and unique flavors that you don’t see as often.

Dan: Cool.

Amanda: I’ll take your cheapest Eurasian orange wine! All right, Joe Campanale, thank you so much.

Joe: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.