Natural wine, which is made with no additives and little manipulation, is booming. Options from around the world are available at an ever-growing number of natural wine bars, and there are wine shops dedicated to natural bottles. But natural wine isn’t actually available in all wine shops and can be hard to find outside of a major city. Once you do find a shop that sells it, figuring out what you want to drink among so much variety can quickly get overwhelming, and panic-purchasing a random under $20 bottle may lead to disappointment.
But finding a good bottle of natural wine doesn’t have to be stressful. Natural wine shop owners say there’s one thing shoppers can to do help them help you: communicate. “The key to any good vibe in a retail wine scenario is communication. It really goes back to the basics: make eye contact, smile, be nice and don’t condescend,” says Helen Johannesen, founder of Helen’s Wines in Los Angeles.
Some shops, like Grand Cata in Washington DC, which focuses on Latin American, Spanish, and Portuguese wines, leave their description labels intentionally sparse (about half of Grand Cata’s inventory is natural and labeled accordingly). Rather than have you read a bunch of descriptions, co-founder Julio R. Robledo wants to start a conversation.
Even if you’re purchasing wine online from a retailer like Primal Wine, you can reach out to staff for advice. Primal Wine founder Guido Cattabianchi says he’s constantly talking to customers about his latest favorites over Instagram DMs, email, and Facebook.
So what are you supposed to say once you get that conversation started? Consider these tips.
Brush up on the terminology
Natural wines often include blends of different grapes and are made without added yeasts, sugars, or flavors, so the final product can taste different than more conventional wines made with the same grapes. (A small amount of sulfites may be added at bottling, which helps the wines travel without spoiling.) Some natural wines may remind you of a cider, sour beer, or kombucha, while others will taste very similar to wines you’ve had before. As Joe Campanale has described it, “Some natural wines are on the cloudy, funky, weirder spectrum and some are like crystalline and pure and precise and clean.” All of which are fine terms to use while shopping in person.
You can also ask about terms like skin contact (white wine grapes left to ferment with the grape skins, sometimes referred to as orange wine); pét-nat (aka pétillant-naturel, a category of sparkling wines); and terroir (when the wine has qualities from the place where the grapes were grown). Note that some shops will include natural wines as well as organic and biodynamic options, which are not the same thing. Organic wines mean the grapes are grown organically, but these wines may still include additives, and biodynamic wine producers follow a specific set of farming practices.
Even if it’s a grape you recognize, Johannesen reminds customers that natural wines often let the winemaker’s preferences shine through. “The interesting thing is that it’s sometimes less about the grape and more about the maker,” she says. “It’s definitely a complex matrix, but we are all navigating it together.” So when in doubt...
Share what you already like
Let’s say you’re into Sauvignon Blanc. Henry Glucroft, who owns Brooklyn natural wine shop Henry’s, will ask a few more questions, such as whether you prefer those from New Zealand or France, as the same grape can taste different depending on where it’s grown and who made it into wine. Glucroft will then recommend a bottle of natural wine based on these preferences.
Robledo sees customers who aren’t aware that Argentina, for example, produces natural wine, but love Malbec. They’re usually excited to discover more options. In all cases, a reference point, whether it’s a bottle you like or your favorite fruits, is supremely helpful.
Many natural wines have colorful, graphic packaging. It’s fine to consider aesthetics in your purchasing decision, says Glucroft. If you find a wine you like that appeals to you visually, snap a picture for research purchases. Customers often show Glucroft Instagram posts or pictures they’ve taken, which helps him learn more about what they like to drink. “Even if I don’t have that exact bottle, I can still help them find something similar,” he says.
Spend only what you’re comfortable with
According to Johannesen, there are decent natural wines at every price point, though the starting price will be slightly higher than conventional wines. “You can spend $15 up into the hundreds. They are all decent and amazing,” she says. Johannesen advises that most people buying natural wine for the first time spend $25 to $40 a bottle. “You just need to realize more expensive wine usually has more depth and complexity,” she adds.
Say yes to tastings
Wine shops are responding to new consumer interest in natural wine with events and tastings. Glucroft hosts an annual pét-nat week (organized by Vine Wine), at his Brooklyn wine bars Petra and Sunrise/Sunset as well as at the shop, to get people engaging with the wine. At Grand Cata, Robledo frequently holds events from natural wine importers and producers with snacks and wines from Latin America. He also offers classes for those looking to go deeper.
Glucroft encourages shoppers to think of wine as a seasonal product. Food pairings come more into play in the winter, whereas summer is about the drinkable, chill-able, lower alcohol wines.
The internet might not be the first place you’d expect to find high quality wine, but it’s a great way to discover something new, support small businesses, and shop a wide selection of natural wine, especially if you live somewhere without natural wine shops.
Helen’s, Grand Cata, and Henry’s offer some a la carte shipping and wine clubs, in which members receive regular shipments of the shops’ favorite bottles. Some natural wine businesses are run entirely online, like Dry Farm Wines and Primal wine. At Primal Wine, Cattabianchi, a trained sommelier born in Italy, cultivates a sense of community around natural wine by sharing new producers he discovers, defining wine related terms, offering wine pairings for recipes, and saving special bottles for his wine club customers. “[I] developed a very loyal customer base — they are true ‘regulars’ in a rather old-school fashion,” he says.
That said, ordering natural wine online isn’t an option for everyone. Shipping is still a challenge due to regulations that vary from state to state, so many shops keep shipping local or to neighboring states. Johannesen “hopes that one day the law leans in our favor and every state will allow retail wine shops to ship across state lines.” (See a list of rules here or get in touch with local retailers.)
If you tried a natural wine somewhere and weren’t a fan, don’t give up. “Within the natural wine category (not very easy to pinpoint to begin with) you can find all kinds of taste profiles,” says Cattabianchi. “That’s also why I don’t like the word ‘funky’ to identify natural wine.”
Johannesen says the biggest misconception about natural wine “is that people assume all natural wine is ‘good wine’ and that is just simply not true.” What is true, however, is that there are natural wines for every taste. Discovering your favorite is half the fun.