Where can natural wine fit in?
It’s not breaking news that there are more natural wines on restaurant menus than ever before. I’d love to give you a statistic supporting this claim, but “natural wine” is difficult to classify. Still, talk to a sommelier at a restaurant and I bet they’ve got some thoughts on the subject. If they’re not carrying wines with minimal intervention, the reason isn’t that they aren’t aware of them; it’s not exactly an under-the-radar trend.
There are a few challenges that restaurants face when looking to add natural wines to their menus, and as your trusty natural wine mouthpiece and source of universal wine truths, we humbly offer our thoughts on the matter:
“We need to talk.”
If you’re a restaurant owner whose alcohol distributor carries and specializes in natural wines, the heavy lifting has been done for you. They can educate you. Talk to them. You’ll learn the language and be exposed to new wines so you can best communicate with your customers and offer what they’re looking for.
Unfortunately, a knowledgeable and accessible distributor willing to take the time to “chat natty” [sorry about that] may be hard to come by. If that’s the case, find an importer that you like and trust, and talk to their distributors. It might just be one conversation, but it could be the one that gives your wine list a little extra oomph.
Natural wine can bring some haters in
One topic that comes up a lot in these distributor conversations is the challenge restaurant owners and somms face when choosing the right natural wines for a menu. This is, in part, because of the vast variability [at times, volatility] in the current trendy natural wine movement.
It’s funny how trends go. In the beginning, in the way beginning, all wine was “natural.” Then came the wine nerds with the science, effectively producing consistent wines, but perhaps[?] muting the natural expression of the grapes. Predictably, we saw a swing back the other way, and a swell of producers began intervening less, using fewer additives, and designing artsy labels for their bottles.
First, there were just niche pockets of natural wine drinkers. Then, about 10 years ago, natural wines found themselves outside of big city hipsterdom and have become mainstream themselves.
Natural wine can be an easy target for the haters. The cloudy, funky stuff is often delicious, but it’s sometimes a bit of a crapshoot, as they’re famously unpredictable. “Wait, this is fizzy. Is it supposed to be?” Not to mention the natty-wine snobs who only drink natural wine because it’s healthy [it’s not] and “grapes, like, shouldn’t be tamed.” [wut]
These are cartoonish stereotypes, but like they say, reputations precede. Keep in mind: tasty is tasty, and the man-bun can still be a viable option in 2024.
Don’t shock the customer
The spectrum of wine drinkers at restaurants is vast: some know exactly what they want and have a clear idea of what to order, while others might just know “red or white.” Most of us are somewhere in between.
The majority of patrons know which varietals they typically enjoy [Cabernet? Malbec? Riesling?] and will match one to their budget. This is where things often get tricky with natural wines. Remember that [without warning] fizzy wine? Or the super cloudy one? The always-gets-the-chardonnay couple might not care for the Pet Nat they just ordered. It tastes nothing like what they expected.
One way to avoid this ordering hiccup is to have a dynamic, engaged sommelier ready to clearly communicate with every table and bar seat about every glass and bottle of wine purchased. Not always possible. Short of that, one option is for a restaurant to look for natural wines with typicity; that is, how closely the wine tastes like the “classic profile” of that particular varietal. Simply put, it tastes how you expect it to taste. Customers seek out wines they know, so give ‘em what they want.
Another option is to lean into the unpredictability. The atypical nature of many natural wines can be a selling point, as long as customer expectations are managed. In this case, detailed tasting notes on the wine list can be incredibly helpful. Even the most adventurous restaurant customers looking for something unexpected generally appreciate a little heads-up about what they’re about to drink. A well-trained staff that can make recommendations is key. After all, what server doesn’t love staff tasting day?
And your potentially maligned hairstyle choices can still be your own.