Lane Harlan was living in France ten years ago when she first fell in love, or at least very serious like, with natural wines.
The Baltimore restaurateur — who would go on to open hot spots like Clavel — was then working and living in a small town near Bordeaux. On the table at nearly every local brasserie, it seemed, was an unmarked jug of wine, brought directly from local farmers, who made it themselves.
“I got used to drinking that on a daily basis,” said Harlan, who last year opened a natural wine bar in Old Goucher called Fadensonnen. In December, Harlan opened Angels Ate Lemons, a shop to sell natural wines, inside the Fadensonnen store room, located above Sophomore Coffee. “The wine was often very light. I felt like I could drink a glass or two and not feel like my body was rejecting it or feeling drunk.”
Since then, her pursuit of natural wines has taken her to New York, Paris, and Washington, as she’s worked to cultivate the relationships needed to convince importers to sell to Baltimore distributors.
Across the nation and even the world, interest in natural wines is growing as part of what author Alice Feiring refers to as a “natural wine revolution,” a cyclical movement in wine’s long history. While the definition of natural wines can be as squishy as foot stomped grapes, generally speaking, it means wines with little or no additives.
“It’s more of a philosophy. The idea is to make a wine without anything [added to it],” Feiring said. “Most of the best stuff is made with a home vineyard.”
The idea of manipulating wine goes back to the ancient world. “As long as wine has been a commodity people have been trying to cheapen it," Feiring said. Natural wine has existed just as long; references to it can be found in the Baltimore Sun’s archives from the 1800s.
But the most recent natural wine “revolution," Feiring traces to the 1970s, to France’s Beaujolais region. There, winemaker Marcel Lapierre collaborated with a scientist to make a wine with little or no added sulphur. The result was a drink more like Lapierre’s grandpa had sipped, and unlike the more heavily processed wines that were trendy at the time.
“When people talk about this being new, no not really,” Feiring says. “It’s just a return to the way fine wine has always been made.”
Though Feiring believes natural wine is more easily digested than conventional wines, she’s reluctant to label it healthy. “There’s a lot of heavy drinking in the natural wine world," she said. “One needs to be careful.”
Feiring has met with Harlan in Baltimore and supports her efforts to make natural wines available here. “She does something very special down in Baltimore,” Feiring said. “I don’t think any natural wine was really available until she was banging the drum.”
In the past few years, interest in natural wine has expanded in Baltimore, with multiple restaurants and wine shops carrying bottles. For that, Harlan takes the credit. “I promise you, by next year, new restaurants will be carrying it because of all the hustling and work we’ve done," Harlan said.
”If they’re done right, I think they can be fantastic," said Tenille O’Connor, wine buyer at Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits. The store recently began carrying a few natural wines, which they carry along with biodynamic and organic varieties. Interest from customers hasn’t been as steady as she hoped, perhaps given the higher price tags. Most cost more than $10, and some cost much more. “They’re not cheap,” O’Connor said.
Of course, every revolution has its detractors. And natural wines can be controversial in the wine world, with some experts saying the stuff prioritizes a wine’s backstory above its taste.
“People look to wine for pleasure, not necessarily to taste what the dirt tastes like at the winery," said Lindsay Willey, beverage director for Foreman Wolf. Colorado based master sommelier Bobby Stuckey has referred to the movement as “the Fox News of wine," a regressive trend.
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“Sometimes the wines just don’t taste good," said Willey. Because of the lack of preservatives and filtration, there can be more volatility in natural wines than in conventional bottles.
When Willey does add a natural wine to the list at a Foreman Wolf restaurant, she’ll often give a heads up to staff to let them know that there could be more variations from bottle to bottle. “They’re going to evolve in a different way than a more stable wine. Every bottle you open could be a little bit different.”
To some, that volatility and individualism is part of the charm.
The slower fermentation of natural wine “gives more complexity,” says Fiering. She quotes a friend who says “A wine without volatility is a wine without life.”
“I’ve definitely had a few [where I thought] ‘Woo — not for me,'" said Coelum sommelier Ryan Thacker, who features a few on the wine list at his Canton restaurant. Overall, he’s supportive of the movement.