Wine Importing and Marketing Services

How Natural Wine Shops Went From Fringe Hangouts to National Phenomena

Story Illustration by Enya Todd

Just 10 or so years ago, those who preferred natural wine would’ve been hard-pressed to quench their thirst outside of a big city. Stores that did highlight natural selections either didn’t declare so or may have seemed intimidating to unfamiliar shoppers.

Now, “natty” wine is far from fringe, and stores that specialize in the category can be found everywhere from the Midwest to Texas, the woods of Vermont and small towns in between. Today, natural wine purveyors are inclusive neighborhood destinations where visitors are encouraged to learn more about what’s gone into each bottle.

How did such a dramatic transformation happen?

“You put tasty organic wines in enough glasses, and eventually people hop on for the ride,” says Andrea Sloan, co-owner of Campus Fine Wines in Providence, Rhode Island.

Let’s Start at the Beginning

Emerging from an ideological approach to winemaking developed by four growers in Beaujolais during the late 1970s and ’80s, natural wine hit American shores in the ’90s.

In its most pared-down sense, “natural” implies wine that’s made with “organic viticulture, nothing added, nothing taken away,” says Alice Feiring, who has authored several books on the subject.

A few additional motifs— like hand harvesting, wild yeast fermentation and an avoidance of fining and filtration—inform the majority of producers. For many natural winemakers, only minimal sulfites are added as a preservative upon bottling.

From picking grapes by hand to stomping fruit by foot, making natural wine requires persnickety attention. More often than not, it’s produced only in small quantities.

The absence of corrective additives, stabilizers and the like can mean bottlings have less consistent tastes and aromas between vintages. Some natural wines wander into a funky flavor territory with narrow appeal.

If you consider all these factors together, it’s not so difficult to imagine why American retailers have always hurried to stock it. The U.S. was behind the curve.

Illustration by Enya Todd

The Rise of Natural Wine Retail

It was a New York City shop founded by two wine retail professionals, David Lillie and Jamie Wolff, that first took the leap to focus on natural wines.

Chambers Street Wines, opened in 2001, [was] the first shop here by far,” says Feiring.

“I don’t know if they ever came out publicly as a ‘natural wine shop,’ but David was certainly selling a selection that was predominantly natty stuff,” says Dagan Ministero, proprietor of Terroir Natural Wine Bar & Merchant, which opened in San Francisco in 2007. “Clos Roche Blanche, Lapierre, Breton—all that stuff was on his shelves before any of us coined the term ‘natural.’”

The venue was successful from the start. It proved small production, natural-leaning pours could be profitable and paved the way for like-minded purveyors to open in the early aughts. Its success also empowered those shops to declare the natural, organic and biodynamic philosophies behind their collections.

Brooklyn’s Uva Wines & Spirits, opened in 2002, for instance, put the word out and watched its reputation grow, while the now-closed Appellation Wine and Spirits, also in New York City, is noted as the first to explicitly assert its natural lineup starting in 2005.

As natty bottlings began to trickle more steadily into the hands of wine lovers, the category’s appeal grew in other parts of the U.S. beyond the East Coast.

Terroir, Minestero’s shop and wine bar, laid the groundwork for natural wine retail in northern California. Like Lillie and Wolff, he and cofounders Luc Ertoran and Guilhaume Gerard launched the place with wines they most enjoyed drinking.

They established Terroir resolutely as a retailer of natural wine.

“As far as I know, we are the first shop in California to solely sell ‘natural wines,’ so we’ve had the luxury of being able to define the term a bit from inception,” Minestero says.

They furnished the space in a way they believed to echo that categorization, framing the venue’s two levels with thick, unpolished wood beams, decorating modestly and pumping the soundtrack on a record player.

In doing so, they established a minimalistic, punk rock tone that would be echoed by many early West Coast venues.

“If Terroir was a band, I guess we would be the Fugazi of natural wine,” says Minestero. His comparison is apt on several levels. Not everyone knows who Fugazi is or why they are important to music, and acolytes might seem like music snobs, too cool for the mainstream stuff.

A similar us-and-them dynamic underscored the early days of natural wine in the U.S. Though Minestero and his contemporaries sought to educate curious drinkers, sometimes their intentions were overshadowed by their self-constructed, “cool kids” ethos. Natural wine’s expansion, it seemed, hinged on breaking that down.

Illustration by Enya Todd

Building a Natural Community

Starting around 2010 or so, “more and more consumers [became] shop owners, because they’re enthusiastic and wanted to be involved somehow,” says Feiring, who thinks this is what’s leading the change.

Such was the case for Howard Mahady, who took over Campus Fine Wines with Sloan in 2012.

“We were drinking these types of wines at the time and not many retailers in our area were focusing on them,” says Mahady. “Our selection to this day is reflective of a combination of what we drink, our overall aesthetic and the needs of our neighborhood.”

Campus sits at a relatively busy crossroads of college students, working professionals and Providence visitors. Still, it took time for him and Sloan to find favor. Early on, Sloan notes that shoppers were often put off by terms like “organic” and “biodynamic.”

“When we first bought the shop, and even more so back in the early 2000s…a decent number of people would physically recoil when you’d say that a wine was organic,” says Sloan. “It took a lot to break down those sorts of barriers. ‘DRC is biodynamic!’ we’d lament.

“The stereotype is that it’s been all tattooed hipsters drinking natural, organic, low-fi wine, but that’s not really the case,” she says. “When the wine is good, everyone wants to drink it.”

Likewise, some thousand miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, Andrea Hillsey, owner of Square Wine Company, witnessed a slow progression of the natural wine scene. “

We opened eight years ago with a general focus on natural wine, which in the Midwest— specifically Wisconsin—was a little ahead of its time,” she says. “I think many of us in the Midwest will tell you that we all paid attention to what was happening on both coasts.”