Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City is an old hand at arranging those free, in-house tastings that have become so common around the country. Earlier this year, the proprietors rented 500 glasses for a three-hour event. On the basis of past experience, that should have been plenty. But within just an hour, all the glasses had been used. Were they giving away the latest 90+-rated wine or the rare, cult Cabernet Screaming Eagle? Nothing of the kind. They were pouring reasonably priced natural wine.
Until recently, those wines, grown without pesticides and fermented with natural yeast, were a niche specialty appreciated mainly by a small if passionate following of wine geeks. Vintners who make traditional wines, including many of those labeled organic, use a variety of tools and ingredients--oak products, manufactured yeasts, enzymes, defoaming agents and other chemical additives--to influence the flavor and texture of their product, whether it be a $10 jug or a $100 bottle. Natural wines, on the other hand, are created by winemakers who take an artisanal approach to what they produce, basing their decisions in the vineyard and the winery on techniques that allow their wine to develop in the purest way possible. France--no surprise--has the greatest number of natural winemakers, but the trend is catching on in the U.S. too.
Tony Coturri, a co-owner of the Coturri Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif., began making natural wines 27 years ago and doesn't use even the sulfites that most experts think are needed to preserve wine. He's so devoted to the natural ethos that he is pushing to have ingredients listed on wine labels. "I believe that wine is best at its most basic--crushed grapes, fermented, pressed into barrels and then bottled," he says. "Nothing added, nothing taken away."
Fans insist that there's nothing faddish about those wines. Joe Dressner, a New York City--based importer specializing in natural wines (or, as he likes to call them, "real wines"), says people buy his wines because they like what is in the bottle. "It's a sensory preference, which prefers nature to technology. This is not about being a purist. We simply feel the wines taste better."
Of course, taste, along with price, is a key factor in choosing a wine. And natural wines are usually subtler and more complex than conventional wines, although some have rough edges. People who favor a Pinot Noir that smells like cherry-vanilla ice cream may find it an adjustment to savor one with an earthier bouquet. Many natural wines are affordable, with delicious choices, such as the Loire Valley's Clos Roche Blanche reds and whites (ranging in price from $12 to $20) and Coturri's ($20 to $30 a bottle).
Trying natural wines is becoming easier, as a growing number of restaurants and bars offer them. Paris remains the best place on earth to sample one. Should you be there, visit La Muse Vin in the Bastille, Le Verre Volé near the canal St. Martin and Le Baratin in the 20th arrondissement. In New York City, Yuva, Bette and Bao 111 in Manhattan and Ici and 360 in Brooklyn feature natural selections on their wine lists. Good representatives can also be found at Crémant and Le Pichet in Seattle, the Slanted Door in San Francisco and Lou in Los Angeles.