Natural wines finally getting notice in Pennsylvania

Posted: January 24, 2014

WHETHER it's craft-brewery cans or longnecks of Yuengling, beer has long dominated the barroom conversation in Philadelphia, leading to one of the most sophisticated draft-tower environments in the country. Cocktails, too, have found a permanent foothold in the sipping landscape, with a small but smart roster of savvy drink-crafters earning attention for their efforts. So, where does that leave wine? Unfairly relegated to the bottom of the list, at least in terms of how often the topic leaps off the nuanced tongues of local drinkers.

There are plenty of nice places in town to order a glass or bottle, but it seems that Philly's scene has long begged for an exciting change - an injection of energy, an increase in intrigue, something fun to shake off the fermented cobwebs.

Cue a small group of bar owners, beverage managers and brokers who are working the circuitous Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system to present Philly drinkers with a new kind of wine that actually isn't new at all.

"There's no question that Philly is first and foremost a beer town. Cocktails are second on the hierarchy, with wine bringing up third place," said David McDuff, regional sales rep for David Bowler Wine, a New York-based importer with a very specific reputation. McDuff's job is to shake up those power rankings by introducing more of what are colloquially called "natural wines" to the market.

Nurturing natural

There's no tidy Merriam-Webster definition of natural wine - it's not a certification-earned term, like "organic," and most producers actually hate its nebulosity - but there are a number of characteristics that inform the category.

Often traced back to France's Loire Valley, the contemporary natural-wine movement starts with organic or biodynamic farming - small plots of climate-appropriate grapes, cultivated without chemicals and harvested by hand. "It's essentially just a matter of excellent farming - choosing the right things to grow in the right places," said David Fields, of a.kitchen and a.bar, a local leader in natural wines.

Once it reaches the post-vineyard stage, natural winemakers deliberately avoid additions, like dyes, enzymes and powdered tannins, and manipulative processes like acid modification and de-alcoholization. The use of sulfur as a preservative, long a hot-button topic in wine debate, is minimal. Most important: These wines are fermented naturally, via the native yeasts of that environment, and not with cultured industrial strains.

Old method, fresh taste

Although natural wine - France is the most prominent producer, with several other European nations joining outliers like Australia and the United States - does have a revolutionary air about it, such hands-off processes are as ancient as winemaking itself.

Before World War II and the industrialization of farming, viticulture was largely organic by default. "People doing it now are rejecting the modern tools that they could be using as aids or crutches, in favor of using a much more minimalistic, noninterventionist approach," said McDuff.

The result? "They're alive in the glass," said Megan Storm, a broker working with West Chester-based Artisan's Cellar. "The [Pennsylvania] market is flooded with conventional wines that tend to taste the same. When you come across these types of things, they're surprising and exciting."

Quirky, idiosyncratic, soulful - these are the types of off-kilter descriptors most often lent to discussions of natural wines, lauded for their bold, unconventional flavors.

"They have a lot of natural character - there's rawness to them," said Tim Kweeder, general manager of Petruce et al., coming soon to Walnut Street. Over several years working at a.kitchen and a.bar, Kweeder, along with Fields, was responsible for helping natural-focused firms, such as Louis Dressner and Jenny & Francois Selections, enter the Pennsylvania market, acting as registration intermediaries between the importers and the PLCB.

The PLCB factor

Kweeder, who likens the natural-vs.-conventional wine comparison to "biting into a ripe piece of fruit instead of cotton candy," has built Petruce's wine list around natural options. He's joined by restaurants like Fork, Vedge, Vernick, Serpico and Avance in focusing on adding natural producers on their lists.

Most pros, however, feel that Philly's overall awareness of natural wine is still low compared with other cities, because of a number of factors - price being the big one. Since this mode of winemaking requires such attention to detail, outputs are generally smaller, meaning costs are generally higher.

In Pennsylvania, where bars and restaurants don't receive wholesale discounts in their transactions with the PLCB, even seemingly small cent differentials are a concern. "It makes the economics of pouring natural wine by the glass difficult for places with a traditional pricing model," said McDuff. "It's starting to get out there. The next step is for more populist wine bars to start to embrace it."

Still, the integration is happening - just slowly. "We have a tremendous amount of talented chefs, but I think the ambition of what's available to drink is not matching the ambition and quality of the food," said Fields. "We're just now beginning to develop a more sophisticated group of wine buyers."

One of these individuals, Jason Malumed, became so busy linking up nonregistered natural-wine importers eager to enter the PLCB system and sell in Philly that it led to the foundation of his own distributorship, Chalkboard Wine + Spirits.

He represents six importers, bringing about 400 natural-focused wines to the market. "The wines will definitely take some more effort to sell to diners, as they are not big brand names," he said. "But once they put the wine in their mouth, that is all it takes."

There is no foolproof way for the everyday shopper to determine which wines are produced "naturally," as few bottles feature notations and Pennsylvania's state stores do not group these products in any distinguishable way.

Local wine professionals suggest shopping by importer - that is, identifying which companies are most closely aligned with natural winemaking and seeking out their portfolios. Bottles bearing the labels of natural-aligned importers, such as Kermit Lynch, Neil Rosenthal, Louis/Dressner, Indie, David Bowler, Jenny & Francois, Selection Massale, Jose Pastor or Zev Rovine, fit that criteria.

Ask the employees of your local state store (1218 Chestnut St. has a strong reputation) for help identifying these wines on the shelves.

- Drew Lazor


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. Contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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