The first time Kae Whalen heard the term “natural wine,” they were working as a server at Isa, a wonderful though since-shuttered restaurant in Brooklyn. The Isa list, curated by wine director Byron Bates, was known for its one-page offering of “sans soufre” wines: wines made without the addition of sulfur dioxide. This was Williamsburg in 2011, and natural wine was catching on at neighboring restaurants like Marlow & Sons, St. Anselm, and Diner — where Whalen would eventually cut their teeth — and at the industry hang-out Ten Bells across the East River.
Now natural wine — the nebulous, hazy term that tends to refer to wine that sees minimal to no intervention during the winemaking process — has hit the dining mainstream. Whether from the owner at the wine shop around the corner or by reading about a new wine bar, drinkers are learning about the increasingly popular yet absolutely unregulated category with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. And that’s exactly where Whalen likes to start with the guests who come to drink the bottles they’ve selected at LA essential Kismet.
A 2019 Eater Young Gun, Whalen took over Kismet’s wine program in 2017. They made the move across the country in 2015 on an admitted whim, after leaving what was their last restaurant job in New York: serving at Andrew Tarlow’s Diner, where they worked closely with beverage director Lee Campbell and general manager John Connolly. Though Whalen — who had plans to write after graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 2013 — intended to take a break from working restaurants, they took a serving position at LA’s Jon and Vinny’s, where they worked with Helen Johannesen. That job, Whalen recalls, and working closely with Johannesen, “re-lit the fire in my interest in wine.”
From Jon and Vinny’s they landed at Kismet, where Roni Ginach was the beverage director for the first couple months before Johannesen took over in sort of a consulting role. In their time together at Kismet, Johannesen was an invaluable mentor to a still very-green Whalen, showing them the ways of wine buying and filling in the blind spots when it came to running a beverage program.
If Campbell and Connolly and working at Diner showed Whalen the importance of taking a more holistic approach to wine, understanding where the grapes are from — that was the first time they learned the word “terroir” — and who is making it, Johannesen taught Whalen about the priority of making all of it approachable for the taster. “They made a big impression on me, making wine something that people don’t feel so intimidated by and that they feel they can have a conversation about,” says Whalen. The Young Gun still considers Johannesen a mentor today.
Now fully established in their role as Kismet’s beverage director, Whalen hasn’t exactly given themself the simplest goal. Determined to rid natural wine of its preconceptions and cool-kid guise, they want every taster to feel welcome, to care about and understand this ever-growing subset of wine through an added environmentally driven context, and, somehow, to keep all that new information fun. By no means an easy task, and yet Whalen manages it while wowing anyone who comes across Kismet’s list with a collection of natural wine that’s unparalleled around the city of angels, perfectly paired with the restaurant’s Mediterranean fare. Whalen has helped make Kismet destination-worthy no matter where home is.
Education — and calming people’s fears — has always been part of being a sommelier, beverage director, or even a server. For Whalen, it’s about connecting the dots. They want to make sure people aren’t just drinking natural wine because they think they should. “Bringing that big-picture perspective is a big part of what I’m trying to do,” says Whalen. “Tying all of that together so that people understand that this isn’t a trend, this is how wine was made prior to the introduction of conventional wine.”
If Whalen’s wine teaching had a syllabus, one of its earliest lessons would be about the openness needed to tackle the subject. When Whalen interacts with a guest who is tasting natural wine for the very first time — which they say happens a couple of times each week — they’ll start by getting the guest to try something that they normally wouldn’t gravitate toward. “Whenever people ask me, ‘How do I get into natural wine?’ I tell them openness is an inherent part of participating in it,” says Whalen. “And in LA in particular you do see more and more people with that openness.”
And it’s not just an openness to something one has never tried before; it’s also about being open to being wrong, both about your own taste and about what you’ve been told to drink or even like (it’s also a little about being wrong that all riesling is sweet). “If you can talk people into tasting a couple things, they will surprise themselves,” says Whalen.
“The hope is that not only will guests be opened up to something new, and come away with a perspective-shifting experience, but that they’ll go on to try something like it again somewhere else.” It’s a mindset that makes Whalen the model educator: one who understands that their teaching doesn’t end when the student leaves the classroom — or pays the bill.
The next lesson: the positive impact these wines have on the environment. Natural winemakers prioritize people, communities, and environmental impact — and to Whalen, that’s just as compelling as how good any given bottle is. “I want to help people understand why this type of wine is important not on a taste level,” they say, “but that there are elements of it that make it more beneficial to your body and to the planet than conventional wine.”
At its core, natural wine is wine made by winemakers who are thoughtful about every inch of the process, using minimal machinery, eschewing pesticides, and using little to no sulfur or other chemicals in the cellar. It’s Whalen’s belief that it would be better for the environment if these norms spread throughout the wine industry, and that the mission of natural wine producers takes on extra urgency as we witness the effects of climate change.
Finally, it’s about how the makers behind these low-intervention, environmentally friendly products tend to prioritize the winemaking process, rather than its outcome. Passionate winemakers and drinkers are less concerned about having a cuvee that tastes exactly the same year after year, understanding that this isn’t necessarily the benchmark of quality. “You can have this incredible wine that next year might look completely different but still equally compelling and equally energetic,” says Whalen. “The outcome is maybe less important than people working well.”
For those unable to visit Kismet so Whalen can guide them through the wine list, or who can’t make it to the restaurant’s Natural Wine Workdays, when all glasses are $10 regardless of the price of the bottle itself, there’s the option of tuning into the restaurant’s Instagram stories, where Whalen broadcasts their knowledge to some 21,000 followers. It’s a way of letting people opt into the education piece if they want, a chance for them to connect to that larger context without even having to go to LA — a chance for anyone to be a lucky student of Kae Whalen.
Patty Diez is Eater’s editorial coordinator. Wonho Frank Lee is an LA-based photographer.