A few days ago, an industry friend wrote a Facebook post lamenting the repetitiveness of natural wine lists in Los Angeles. The truth is that it is not just LA, or even all that limited to natural wine or today’s climate. Since I can remember, certain wines and styles that are trendy show up in a lot of similar places. In the mid 90’s, you found the same California Chardonnays – Pahlmeyer, Kistler and if you were “lucky” enough to get any, Marcassin – at all of the “celebrity chef” restaurants in San Francisco.
What makes natural wine a little different is that there has been less choice. When i was creating the wine list for CAV in 2005 there was basically one natural wine importer, Louis Dressner, at least in the Bay Area. Jenny & François hardly had a presence on the West Coast. Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Martines, Vineyard Brands and a few others have always carried organic and biodynamic producers but they hardly reflected the growing practices of the entire portfolio.
In 2007, Terroir Natural Wine Bar and Merchant made the gutsy decision to sell natural wines exclusively and the availability had widened but not by much. Jose Pastor converted his Spanish portfolio and pioneered the importation of natural wines from Iberia around the same time. Yet up until five years ago, any buyer who threw their lot in with natural wine was up against limitations not only of selection but quality. While we might forgive or even embrace certain “flaws,” bacterial messes are pleasant to just a special few.
However, over the last half decade, there has been a steady proliferation of both domestic and imported natural wines in the Bay Area. Most of the producers at Califermentation were not around six years ago. Nor was Scuola di Vino, Percy Selections or Trumpet Wine, some of the leading Bay Area rooted natural wine importers. Jolivin, Return to Terroir, Terrell Wines and others evolved so that now nearly all of their producers work without chemicals, commercial yeasts or other additives. Even distributors who are known for partnering with industrial conglomerates often have a few natural wines. Southern Wines and Spirits, the largest wine distributor in the United States, carries Domaine Select, the importer that represents Gravner. Seriously, should you wish to have wines from the godfather of amphora aged natural wines from Italy, you have to do business with the company known as “the evil empire.”
Basically, what I’m saying is that anyone who wants to have a strictly natural wine selection has many more choices today than just a few years back.
So why then do we continue to see a lot of the same wines on list after list and in store after store? Is there a natural wine list homogeny rut? The hammer is going to drop but first, here are a few points to consider.
1) Everyone has different taste but a lot of people can agree that a good many of the same producers make great wine. It’s hardly surprising that Arnot Roberts, Cornelissen, Cos, Dirty & Rowdy, Domaine le Briseau, Domaine de l’Ecu, Derain, Lapierre, Mas Candi, Montbourgeau, Overnoy and Rimbert, to name a quick dozen, seem to be in so many of the same places because all make high quality wines that are popular among natural wine fans. They also have crossover appeal, to different degrees.
2) Related to this is the issue of timing. When an importer gets in a new container, they hit the street and show the wines to the usual natural wine suspects, sometimes all in the same day. With limited sample budgets, this makes sense but it also means that the few natural wine shops and bars are likely to feature the same wine at the same time. Holding wines in storage or aging them is not a luxury that is open to all business owners.
3) New York is command central for the majority of the relatively large importers and only a portion of these portfolios make it to California. What amazes me though is that I see a lot of the same wines over again when I’m in NY.
4) Loyalty is another big factor. For example, Donkey & Goat has been around a lot longer than most other California natural wine producers, and buyers who supported them in the early days know and have built up a relationship with the owners, Tracey and Jared Brandt. Newer buyers might also have a conceptual loyalty to them for sticking their necks out way back when that goes beyond just liking the wines.
5) Blurring the line with loyalties are business relationships that turn into friendships. All things being equal and sometimes not, buyers are more likely to support their friends than people they don’t know as well or don’t like. And a lot of the same buyers are chummy with a lot of the same wine sales people. This is not news as it is common in many industries.
OK, now the other realities and thanks for your patience.
There is laziness and conformity. Some people will seek out new wines before everyone in California hears about them while others wait until a wine has already been tested in the market or someone who is respected has positive things to say. It’s a tacit ratings system.
Not everyone has the ability to travel but between blogs such as The Feiring Line and Wine Terroirs, and reading up on natural wine fairs throughout Europe, you can get a pretty good idea of which other natural wine producers are out there. Furthermore, if a wine is not available in California or the United States, it can still be ordered or imported. It just takes more work.
France, Italy and California might have the largest concentration of natural wine producers but other countries (for our purposes let’s just say California is a country) have them as well. There aren’t many that are exported but Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Austria have some stellar natural wine producers too and tenacious buyers make efforts to get them.
Not least, there is a misconceived, preconceived notion of what natural wine should taste like: light bodied, high acid and if there is VA (volatile acidity) or a poopy smell, so much the better. Natural wine is not about style…it is about practices and philosophy, and happily more people are starting to get this. Broc Cellars Carignan taste nothing like Vinca Minor’s yet both have their takers. Still, there is an over population of natural wines that fit the same mold – carbonic fermentation if its red, skin fermentation if its white, etc… – and especially for younger buyers who do not have a broad frame of reference, this is the expectation and it has resulted in a lot of homogeny and narrow mindedness.
So getting back to the question, why is there so much repetitiveness? It’s understandable to a degree but there could be much more creativity and originality. Some buyers are more adventurous, open minded and persistent. I feel like I should name them but to do that would be dissing others by omission so I’ll leave it at this…as a consumer, you too can just go to the same places and take advice from the same people but if you want to diversify your knowledge, get out of your comfort zone. Do your homework and check out as many places and wines as you can because unfortunately, not enough professionals are doing it for you.