Natural wine finds its place in Philadelphia’s restaurant scene


Photo: Kriston Jae Bethel

Photo: Kriston Jae Bethel

En Vogue

By Emily Kovach

Cloudy in the glass and full of zingy life and pungency, a glass of wine shattered everything I’d previously believed about the drink. Wine had seemed boring or inaccessible, either anonymous and mediocre or interesting but wildly expensive. Then last year I tried a chardonnay from Australian natural wine producer Lucy Margaux Chardonnay. I was mesmerized and instantly ravenous for more. Suddenly I had joined the growing legions of natural-wine converts.

Natural wine isn’t new to Philadelphia or the wine world at large, but thanks to a new wave of enthusiasts, natural wine has emerged in our city’s culinary scene. But what makes a wine natural? It’s more about what doesn’t. Most commercial wines are heavily processed and require significant intervention. Chemicals are present in nearly every step of the process, from pesticides in the vineyards to synthetic compounds used during fining and filtering. Mass-produced wine is an industrialized process.

Natural wine is its antithesis. 

“I personally define it as wine that has nothing added, nothing removed,” says Sande Friedman, a wine and beer analyst at gourmet-food importer Di Bruno Bros. “It’s the grapes; it’s the natural yeasts that are on the skin. The wines we grew up with, there’s so much more stuff in them than we realize, and there’s a reason they taste exactly the same bottle to bottle and year to year.” 

For the past two years, Friedman has been managing the bottle shops at Di Bruno’s Franklin and Rittenhouse locations. Both have a strong focus on natural wine. Peruse their shelves and you might find a spicy syrah from La Clarine Farm in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills or a carbonic macerated red blend, like Best Haircut In This Or Any Universe, from Fossil & Fawn in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

Many natural wines sport cool, well-designed labels, but there is substance behind that style. With low-intervention methods, such as picking and sorting grapes by hand instead of raking them with machinery, these wines are better for the Earth and, according to natural-wine proponents, your mouth. 

Natural Wine, Natural Roots

“This is grape juice: naturally fermented, end of story,” says founder of the famed Pizzeria Beddia, Joe Beddia, whose full-scale bar and restaurant, Pizzeria Beddia 2, is set to open in Fishtown in Spring 2019. Beddia plans to build his entire wine list around natural wine. “Everyone cares where their food comes from, but wine’s another thing … What’s in your glass? You probably couldn’t say what’s in there. I want wine that’s better for the Earth and better for people.”

Beddia’s passion for natural wine can be seen on his Instagram feed (@pizzacamp) and in a two-page spread in his cookbook, Pizza Camp. In October 2017, he went to Oregon to make wine with Ross and Bee Maloof (former Philly residents) of Maloof Wines. 

He says that his hope for his wine program is that it’s approachable to everyone. “I want it to be clear and concise and cover all the bases,” he says. 

To do this, he’ll have to eschew the traditional restaurant model of marking up glasses of conventional wine nearly 400 percent to achieve large profit margins. Natural wines suffer high prices (as do conventional wines) because restaurants must purchase them at retail cost, and not wholesale, through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

“How do you serve [natural] wine at an affordable price?” Beddia says. “That’s the real conversation.”

Dispelling Misconceptions

“It’s a philosophy that’s grounded in history and agriculture,” says Chloé Grigi, general manager of The Good King Tavern in Bella Vista. “It’s about using all of our resources in the modern day to expertly create Old World wines in a really precise fashion and bearing in mind our environment.”

Grigi curates the deep wine list at this comfy French tavern that she co-owns with her father, Bernard. The wines that she chooses are vetted to meet her standards, and she can provide long and detailed biographies about pretty much all of them. Many come from the Loire Valley, the Savoie, Burgundy and other winemaking regions in France, though the list spans the globe.

She is careful to point out that there are lots of misconceptions about natural wine, including that it’s an “anti-establishment free-for-all.” She asserts that natural winemaking is extremely precise and scientific, not just leaving some juice outside to ferment. 

Another misconception is that all natural wines taste “fun and funky”—some definitely do, and a lot of consumers love that about them—but some taste restrained and clean. But she does admit that the whole subculture has a punk glamour to it.

“There is this rockstar culture behind natural winemaking,” she notes. “Because [the makers] are risk takers; they are inherently pioneers.”

Not Just a City Face

One might assume this is just a city phenomenon, but that’s not the case. Visit Teresa’s Next Door in Wayne for a vast natural wine program, or stop in to either of the 320 Market Cafés in Media or Swarthmore. 

Jack Cunicelli, who co-owns 320 with his brother, has been growing a natural-wine bottle shop and bar program since 2015 (for which he’s now being recognized by outlets like Food & Wine and Philadelphia magazines). 

Drawn to “wild and feral” styles, Cunicelli says he simply stocks and pours things he likes to drink. He says his audience, largely residents of Delaware County—though he claims many visitors from the city—have been receptive and open to natural wine.

“These are things that taste good, and people with taste buds understand that,” he says. “I call these ‘working-class wines.’ Fun, easy wine that you can tailgate with. You don’t have to get a box of Barefoot wine, it starts like garbage and ends up like garbage.” 

Cunicelli plans to make more space in 320’s Media location for bottles, which range in price and style but mostly fit within his personal guidelines. He advertises new arrivals on Instagram (@320_wine), and coveted bottles from small wineries like Partida Creus and Lucy Margaux fly off the shelves. 

“It’s a trend that’s post-hipster,” he says. “It’s now mainstream.”

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