With Natural Wine, Each Bottle Has Its Own Personality

For the growing number of Seattle restaurants that embrace this winemaking style, that’s exactly the point.

By Stefan Milne January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Shawn Mead pours natural pinot grigio  from Slovenia.

Step into Vif, the Fremont Ave coffee and wine shop, and the space exudes one word variously: Natural is the quality of light in the generously fenestrated room, natural is the menu of simple thoughtful plates. And natural (especially, explicitly) is each wine lounging in the large bottle-filled nook by the door. Vif is, in fact, the only shop in the city that sells only natural wine. Owners Shawn Mead and Lauren Feldman are among Seattle’s most vocal proponents of these largely European bottles: wild-yeast fermented, sustainably farmed (perhaps organic or biodynamic), hand harvested, and additive free—no sugars, yeasts, acids, or clarifiers, save, perhaps, a touch of stabilizing sulfur. 

Conventional winemakers use such additives to varying degrees. For Mead, this manipulation, a sort of airbrushing of flavor, gets in the way of a bottle’s specific personality, which can range widely based on the grapes and the wild yeasts in the air and on the skins that start fermentation. Discussion of natural wine often centers on the frothy, cloudy, carnally funky creations these practices can produce. But many bottles, especially the ones at Vif, are pristine—affable food companions with zippy acidity, which Mead describes as “pure, lifted, light on their feet.” 

Natural wine has been around for years, but more Seattle wine programs are embracing its charms. Damn the Weather serves only natural wine, and bottles crop up at wine bars (Le Caviste), higher-end destinations like Salare and Altura, the casual counter-service Mean Sandwich in Ballard, and various restaurants from Matt Dillon and Renee Erickson. 

If Vif is airy atmosphere and lovely mineral-driven rieslings, Lower Bar Ferdinand feels like its dark doppelganger, a brick-walled enclave of esoterica in the Melrose Market. Marc Papineau, who co-owns this wine bar with Dillon, estimates 80 percent of his wines are natural. For Papineau even the notoriously eccentric natural wines are part of the fun. Ask him about funky bottlings and he’ll likely rhapsodize about, say, a Catalonian producer, Escoda-Sanahuja, making hyperidiosyncratic chenin blanc: “Each year is completely different; each bottle has some strange or can have slight variation.” Papineau is sure to discuss with customers how polarizing and unpredictable a bottle like this can be, but many restaurants offer less aberrant natural wine without caveat, worrying the label may connote nonexistent weirdness.  

Others embrace the term. Central District newcomer L’Oursin proclaims its devotion on the sign out front: “Fruits de Mer. Vins Naturels. Apertifs.” Sure, co-owner Zac Overman appreciates the sustainability, the grape-to-glass narrative. But he glows when discussion turns to taste: “The wine is living and constantly evolving. If you want consistency, there’s plenty of delicious Grand Cru Burgundy. If you’re willing to go on a ride, that’s the fun of natural wine.”

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