Wine, Naturally

Mary Allison Wright, owner of RiNo Yacht Club. Photo: Jennifer Olson Photography

Mary Allison Wright, owner of RiNo Yacht Club. Photo: Jennifer Olson Photography

In Colorado and beyond, natural wine is here to stay

By Monica Parpal Stockbridge

As I was planning a trip to Paris last fall, a friend told me to hit up a geeky wine bar that natural wine lovers “go nuts over.” I smiled and imitated her excitement before quietly typing into my phone: “what is natural wine?”

Troy Bowen, one of the owners of Noble Riot Wine Bar in Denver, gets this question a lot.

“Natural wine, at its core, is wine made as minimally as possible. I like to say it’s wine that is grown, not made,” he said.

That is, natural wine is grown in the vineyard rather than manipulated in a winery. It is grown with fewer chemicals or pesticides and made with fewer, if any, additives. To him, natural wine is low-intervention wine — or, as he calls it, honest wine.

Natural wine isn’t just a French thing, I learned. It can be made all over the world — even in Colorado. Still, natural wine can be tricky to define. It’s more than an organic or biodynamic designation. The distinction lies somewhere between a philosophy and a personality. It has a lot to do with the relationship between the land, the winemaker and the drinker. The wines themselves can be clear or cloudy, funky or fresh. Natural wine is a combination of transparency and mystique, and this blend is what makes it so desirable — and, lately, so trendy.

Photos courtesy of Balestreri Vineyards

Photos courtesy of Balestreri Vineyards

That said, natural wine is nothing new. Just ask the winemaking family at Balistreri Vineyards in North Denver. This commercial winery opened in 1998, with winemaker and patriarch John Balistreri making wine the way his Sicilian family has for generations. John’s daughter Julie emphasizes the importance of making natural wine with no additives or adjustments. “We truly let the grapes express what the vineyard has to offer and where the grapes are from,” she says. At Balistreri, 98 percent of the grapes come from the Western Slope of Colorado.

“There are no additives at all in any step of the process,” adds Mason Balistreri, Julie’s nephew. This means no sulfites, which is a rarity in winemaking although not necessarily required of natural winemaking.

“These aren’t natural wines we’re making because it’s a hip category. These are the types of wines my family has always made,” Mason says.

Many in the industry, including the Balistreris, are inspired by Isabelle Legeron, France’s only female Master of Wine and just one of 354 people in the world to carry the title. She created the independent wine fair known as RAW WINE and literally wrote the book on natural wine.

Mary Allison Wright, owner of RiNo Yacht Club and wine director at The Proper Pour located in The Source, also draws from Legeron’s definition. She sees natural wine as “sustainable, at the very least organic or biodynamic farming, [with] nothing added and nothing taken away except maybe a little sulfur at bottling.”

Natural wine tends to deliver “an experience” on the palate — something people may have never tasted or felt before. It might be a tingling of the tastebuds, or a white wine turned orange due to longer contact with grape skins. The first time Wright tasted a natural wine — a Lapierre Morgon from Beaujolais — it rocked her world, as she put it. “If natural wine is a thing and natural winemaking is a thing … then what else is there?” she remembers thinking.

Wright went on to forge a career in the wine world, most recently taking on the role of wine director at Morin, a restaurant in Denver where nearly every wine on the menu is natural.

This attention to natural wine is not only a philosophy, but a reality. Mason Balistreri works at Joy Wine & Spirits in Denver, and says customers are coming in and asking specifically for natural wine.

“People are trying [natural wine] and are completely blown away by it,” he says. “Because of that, there’s a demand for it.”

Bowen believes the rise of natural wine’s popularity has to do with our growing awareness of food products and the agriculture chemicals associated with them, as well as an interest in the people and stories behind the wine. More than anything, it’s about the wine’s story and character, and about the experience of drinking it.

“How is this wine made in a way that is interesting?” he asks. “What story does this wine have to tell me, either in who made it, or how funky it is?”

Ultimately, Bowen says, natural wine is just fun.

“It makes us happy and gives us a chance to meet up with our friends and discuss our lives and the lives of the wine with a little bit of a buzz,” he said.

Wright echoes this sentiment. “I want people to come in and know that they don’t have to be on the natural wine train,” Wright says. But she’s there to take them on that journey if they so choose. “I want to take away the expectation of the guests having to know certain words or certain things to enjoy something.”

The next time I have the opportunity to drink natural wine, I’m all in — even if I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce the name or the process. After all, drinking wine should feel fun … and, well, natural.

Monica Parpal Stockbridge writes about food, travel and technology in Colorado and beyond. Read more of her work at monicastockbridge.com.