Angel Davis, co-owner of tea, wine, and sake bar Millay in San Francisco has worked in bars for years. The wine selections at Millay reflect her tastes, which have evolved over time. These days her sensibilities skew toward smaller producers who farm organically, though she’ll also put wines on the list that don’t neatly fall under that wine umbrella. Because of this, she doesn’t call Millay a natural wine bar, despite often being grouped in them. “I do like being put on lists with people you admire and you have respect for. It’s always nice to be able to share that space,” Davis says.
Millay’s list, for instance, features a wine that’s made from grapes not farmed organically — although the farmer is working on it, Davis says. So the staff does their best to let customers know which wines might be non-organic on the list. “I don’t think it would be great for us to be like, ‘Oh, we’re a natural wine bar,’ because for me if somebody says that, I have expectations of what I’m going to find on the shelves,” she says.
In the last decade or so, natural wine has become mainstream and even trendy — but not without growing pains. Natural wine is very loosely defined, “more of a concept than a well-defined category with agreed-upon characteristics,” as Vox described in 2019, its purest form meaning fermented grapes without any adulterations. Many bars now offer lists that focus on wines made without additives. But in the Bay Area, some businesses are shying away from calling themselves natural wine bars. These owners say that while they are, philosophically, a natural wine bar, they prefer straying from the moniker because they don’t adhere to the ideology as stringently other wine bars might.
At Bar Sardine in Berkeley — Bartavelle’s nighttime, wine bar alter ego — the wine menu also focuses on small producers who farm sustainably and use organic and biodynamic farming techniques and native yeast in their winemaking, co-owner Sam Sobolewski told Eater SF last summer. But he’s not a purist and prefers to not get into the argument over the use of sulfur or sulfite, a common debate in the natural wine world. “I think natural wine sometimes gets pigeonholed as a certain style of winemaking or a certain flavor profile,” Sobolewski says, “which I think is unfortunate because there’s so much out there. There are wines that are made very naturally that are also really classic and refreshing.”
The expectation that a natural wine bar needs to be all-in on natural wine makes some bar owners shy away from the label. Davis’s “checklist” for a natural wine bar includes that no sulfur be added to bottles and that winemakers use organic farming techniques, but she doesn’t strictly follow those guidelines at Millay.
There is seemingly no gray area for these almost natural wine bars — as if they’re not natural enough to please the natural wine crowd. Subject to Change Wine Co. founder and Bar Gemini co-owner Alex Pomerantz points out that wine lists at restaurants such as the Morris or Quince have long included natural selections. But once natural wine began labeling itself as such, “it became this binary conversation of, ‘Well, is this a natural wine or is this not a natural wine?” he says. “Just like everything in life, humans want to put something into a box. But really, everything’s a shade of gray.”
For Jenny Eagleton, a writer and sommelier who’s currently a wine buyer at Canyon Market in San Francisco, the “natural wine” label signifies two things. “It’s to attract the customer who wants the conspicuously natural wine thing,” Eagleton says, “and then also to direct the person who doesn’t want that away from that wine. Because so many people have just come to understand that natural wine is a flavor and not a philosophy.” Somewhere along the line natural wine became associated with tart, astringent, funky drinks, rather than the farming and winemaking philosophies that prioritize a move away from pesticides and the use of natural yeasts.
Distancing one’s self from the natural wine world can be another way for a bar to get out from under the negative connotations of the genre, and therefore keep a foot in both the natural and conventional wine worlds for customers of different stripes. As Banter Wine co-owner Claire Sullivan put it, Banter generally prioritizes no-intervention wines but wanted to serve a larger demographic of wine drinkers, not just those who favor natural wines. “I think a lot of people assume that we’re going to be a super natural wine bar,” Sullivan said in 2022. “Yes, from the standpoint of the way the wine is produced or at least how the grapes are grown, definitely that’s a big focus… I love some natty stuff, but I also like a clean, crisp, well-balanced wine that is not so deep in the zero-zero natty side of things.”
That certain caricature of the natural wine “taste” or flavor continues to be a detriment for natural wine. But most people are just misinformed about what natural wine is, Bar Gemini co-owner Dominique Henderson says. That aversion to “natural wines” — at least, the idea of natural wines — is usually due to a lack of understanding of the genre and perhaps trying an unpalatable wine once, and sticking with that bad impression, she says. “Sadly, a lot of people have tasted either the wrong natural wine or wine that isn’t a natural wine that’s being marketed as one,” Henderson says. “So a lot of people have something once and then they hate it without really exploring.”
We’re not quite yet at the point where bars can eschew the natural wine label, Eagleton and Davis agree. There’s still an upside to managing consumer expectations of wines being served. But Henderson and Pomerantz both feel this is a good thing. “I think it’s overall a super positive thing, that people are almost coming away from defining themselves as natural wine,” Pomerantz says. “Because what I think that ultimately signals is that natural wine is reaching a point where it’s just wine.”