Unconventional wines are continuing to increase in popularity, including wines that are considered natural, organic or biodynamic. While these out-of-the-ordinary wines are often lumped together, each is distinct in its flavor composition and alleged benefits for both customers and restaurateurs who seek to integrate these options onto their menus.
Let’s establish a baseline understanding: While there’s no legal definition to natural wines, they are often made with low intervention and little to no additives. These wines are often described as funky and cloudy. Biodynamic wine is all about the farming practices and is defined as a “holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition” according to the Biodynamic Association. Meanwhile, certified organic wine is made with grapes that are grown without synthetic fertilizers, and in a way that preserves the soil and protects the environment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Despite some confusion around these wines, restaurant operators are taking notice and adding them to their wine lists. Minimal intervention wines were already offered on the menu before popularity in this category increased at Penny Roma and FLOUR + WATER in San Francisco, both part of FLOUR + WATER Hospitality Group. About six years ago, beverage director Sam Bogue noticed an increase in guests requesting natural wines, especially from younger customers looking for cloudy, hazy wines.
“We see a lot of interest in the natural wine selection on our wine list,” Bogue says, especially from the millennial demographic. The Italian-focused wine lists at both restaurants aim to showcase small, farm-focused producers and provide concise, approachable options with something for everyone. So far, there has been great feedback from natural wine drinkers, Bogue notes. Being known as a spot that offers niche, off-the-beaten-path wines has helped keep wine sales strong.
As far as the wine selection process, Bogue’s priority is on organically-farmed wines that fit the various flavor profiles and styles he is looking to fill in the menu’s categories—bubbles, crisp white, textured white, lighter red, medium red, fuller red, orange, and rose. There is also a focus on price point, he says, for the value-focused wine drinker.
But Bogue says there are challenges to offering natural wines, noting his customers represent a fairly new, exploratory market. Natural wines often carry a flavor profile that is unconventional and off-putting if a guest isn’t familiar with it, he adds.
“They might think they want to get adventurous, and then the wine hits the glass and they could change their mind,” Bogue says. Even if a wine isn’t flawed, if a customer isn’t satisfied, staff will take the wine back to ensure guests are drinking something they enjoy, which does create a level of complexity, he says. They may sell the wine by the glass or utilize it to continue to educate the staff.
When it comes to education for guests, Bogue says the main focus is on the flavor profile of natural wines and how they differ from what drinkers may be accustomed to with classic wines. A misconception is that all natural wines have a funky or different taste, such as vinegar or kombucha. “These wines can still feel clean and classic even though they are made naturally,” he says.
For restaurants that want to start introducing natural wines, he advises to listen to your customers. “Start off slow and small. See what sale volumes you are getting,” he says.
As with any wine program, ensuring the staff know and understand the wines are key.
“You need to clearly educate your staff not only on what the wines taste like, but why they taste that way to share that dialogue and answer questions [from guests],” Bogue explains.
Bin 707 owner and James Beard Award-winning chef Josh Niernberg echoes the importance of educating staff on these unconventional wines. A weekly wine tasting for all staff focuses on the specific bottle, rather than the style, so servers can speak directly on not only what it pairs with on the menu, but also who produces it, when and where it was made, and the interesting story that often goes into making these types of wines.
It’s those behind-the-scenes stories that guests get most excited about, he explains. Niernberg developed an even deeper appreciation for natural, organic, and biodynamic wines while completing sommelier certification in the early 2000s. The intention of his Western Colorado restaurant is to showcase regionality and seasonal cuisine, so having a wine list that is either local to Colorado, natural, or organic is a seamless fit.
“It gives us the opportunity to work with the guest and introduce something new,” he says.
Niernberg has seen more interest in these types of wines in the last 10 years, both from a consumer and a restaurant standpoint. But there’s an even greater opportunity post-pandemic, fueled by an interest in beverage experimentation that rose during that time frame.
Wines that fall under this category are simply marked with an asterisk, and staff is thoroughly informed and ready to speak on each. “If a guest has questions, we can go down that rabbit hole with them; we’re more than happy to,” he notes.
Ali Yakich, a certified sommelier and beverage director at Flagstaff House in Boulder, Colorado, was inspired to put organic wines on the menu because of the love, attention, and time it takes for wineries to become organic. “It’s nice to celebrate that,” she says.
At Flagstaff, she’s noticed more interest and excitement from guests to try organic wines versus natural wines, which she guesses is based on perceptions and the familiarity with organic products. To help demystify natural wines, Flagstaff servers offer in-depth explanations about what to expect so consumers aren’t as surprised.
For the benefit of both guests and servers, Yakich also edited the descriptions of each wine by-the-glass on the extensive list to include more specific information on the winery’s organic practices, including whether they are Certified Organic, practicing organic farming, or practicing sustainability efforts. “I want to have my guests be able to read that and my servers have this information at their fingertips,” she adds.
Though it’s still a newer and more niche market, restaurant operators have an opportunity to pique guests’ interest with biodynamic imbibing options like natural and organic wines and get in early on the rising trend.