Vino Verite

Seattle's Laid-Back, Nouveau Wine Scene

We like to keep things casual—footwear, work attire, business—but does our nonchalant attitude extend to wine?

By Rosin Saez December 19, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Suzi An proffers bottles of low--intervention wines inside her new bottle shop, Vita Uva.

On a rainy Seattle evening, soggy diners gather inside L’Oursin. Its warm, golden-lit room is already lively with conversation—some even in French, punctuated with animated gesticulations and fueled by French wines. At other tables inside the Central District restaurant almost everyone else also sips on glasses of vin. The vibe isn’t fussy. Wait—isn’t wine supposed to be all sorts of swirl-swish-and-sniff serious? 

“It’s fun to drink something that was previously stuffy and scary,” offers Kathryn Olson, L’Oursin’s wine director. No doubt, Olson nerds out on her favorite form of grape juice, but avoids being overly precious about anything. Nightly, she pours quirky natural wines made with little human interference, which are sometimes funky or hazy or mellow or straight-up weird. Some even seek out that weird stuff, which brings them to bistros and spurs new bottle shops, such as the one Suzi An has built inside a Vietnamese restaurant in the International District.

Canlis, the Queen Anne institution that took home its first James Beard Award for outstanding wine program in 2017, has taken note too. For those newer to wine, says the restaurant’s wine and spirits director–slash–grape guru Nelson Daquip, “They don’t want to be drinking their dad’s Bordeaux; they want to be drinking something cool.” 

In Seattle, there are still those who remain loyal to their staple wines, the inky Old World reds and Napa Valley big guns. But millennials now outnumber older generations and make up 36 percent of the wine-drinking population. With younger transplants flocking to the city every week, local wine drinkers are becoming as chill as a carafe of pinot gris.

“I think we’re moving away from drinking only the well-known labels or producers and exploring more of the unknown,” says Suzi An. She left her role as director of operations at Edouardo Jordan’s Salare and JuneBaby last summer to focus on Vita Uva. The International District bottle shop—which in early December was on target to open at the end of 2017—deals specifically in natural or low intervention wines, something An sees people increasingly interested in. Still, unlike beer or cocktails, wine can be daunting. 

“It’s intimidating to walk into a fine dining restaurant, it’s intimidating to pick up a big list,” says Jackson Rohrbaugh, a newly minted master sommelier and assistant wine director at Canlis, who, at 32, is the youngest master somm in the state out of a total of eight. The Canlis way, says Rohrbaugh, is to “bring the love” and eschew pedantry. For An, she wants to create an approachable space where folks can explore offbeat wines.

Meanwhile at L’Oursin, Olson takes a considerate yet comedic approach to breaking down wine’s tendency toward snobbery. “We have curse words on our menu right now; it’s ridiculous,” laughs Olson. A tasting note on the wine list reads, Unrefined by nature, expertly trained to kick ass. A roundhouse of vicious acidity right to the face. Finish him! Then go find your teeth. No crusty winespeak here, only ebullient Frenchmen drinking equally ebullient brut. 

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