Natural Wine takes over beer-soaked Denver

It is a testament to the natural wine movement that there is any sort of event in Denver dedicated to exhibiting its wines, let alone a full week jam-packed with tastings, dinners, and fundraisers. This beer-soaked town's wine resume is growing and I couldn't be happier. I was able to attend several of the events but wanted to highlight the grand tasting, a showcase of hundreds of natural wines, from small boutique vignerons in Sonoma like Martha Stoumen to centuries-old Alsace producers Marcel Deiss.

Before I get to the main event, I want to include a short note about how little patience I have for critics of natural wines and the movement behind them. There seem to be a lot of them coming out of the woodwork these days, as if the corporate wine overlords started dispatching them once they realized these wines might affect their market share. The vast majority of these writers are ill-advised blowhards who have either 1) been paid by others to inaccurately depict one of the most exciting developments in wine in the last 100 years or 2) their anecdotal experience with one or two "extreme" natural wines has led them to believe that all natural wines are oxidized, sulfite-free, funktastic, orange wines made by a hermit who lives in a cave on a side of a hill in southeast France.

Attending a single event like the grand tasting in Denver will show any sentient being that the average level of quality in this diverse group of wines is incredibly high. Are there bad natural wines? Damn straight. But there are far more bad conventional wines in the world. Bad conventional wines commit a far more egregious crime. They are most commonly fit the trend of homogenous, manipulated juice that all tastes the same. It'll get you drunk but that's about it. A writer who ignores this fact is trying to hide some pre-conceived belief or intention and I think they should be scratched from the record entirely. Not only are most natural wines incredibly good, they are painstakingly more interesting and this benefits seasoned wine snobs and new wine consumers alike. The idea that natural wine can't and doesn't cater to new wine drinkers is a pile of shit. And natural wines aren't simply about going "back to the roots" to farm and make wine like they did hundreds of years ago. Many of the producers I tasted, some of which for the first time, are making wines that no one has ever made before. They are discovering new terroir, revitalizing long-forgotten and obscure varietals, and doing so without Mega Purple, oak chips, or stabilizers. 

 All of Ovum's Wines are $25-35 depending on where you find them.

All of Ovum's Wines are $25-35 depending on where you find them.

Now that I have that off my chest, let's start off with what I thought were the most exciting wines at the tasting: Ovum Wines. I can't remember the last time I tasted 6 wines from the same producer and was blown away by all of them. Let me just say, OVUM WINES IS A TOP 5 PRODUCER OF WHITE WINES IN THE US. John House, the owner and winemaker, earned his chops at Chehalem Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and his wines reminded me of the first time I tasted the riesling portfolio of Trisaetum Winery, another phenomenal riesling-focused winery in the area. Ovum's focus is also riesling, with a dash of other varietals like Gewurztraminer, and a laser focus on specific soil types/terroirs in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon. These wines are absolutely dripping with terroir: incredible minerality, a unique saltiness on some of them, a flinty/smokiness akin to some of Europe's best riesling, generous acidity, and some insane flavor characteristics that I haven't tasted in any other domestic rieslings. Best of all, these could age for decades, my guess is easily 20+ years. One of my favorites was the "Off the Grid" riesling, a gem from the Rogue Valley in Oregon. The wines range in price from $25-35, so not your everyday picnic wine but a great value for a wine you can store away for decades. If you come across these wines, buy them, you will not be disappointed. 



My next stop was Marcel Deiss, who had 10+ wines on offer. The winemaker, Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, flew all the way across the pond just to spend the week in Denver. Despite the event being busy, she took me patiently threw a number of the wines, noting differences in soil and terroir. She also spent a good amount of time elaborating on their commitment to biodynamics. While most of their wines are far out of my price range, her Premier Cru and Grand Cru bottles were unsurprisingly some of the best, if not the best, wines at the event. I don't drink Alsace too often and as a result, I forgot how lush and rich these wines can be. The 1998 Premier Cru Englegarten and the 2005 Premier Cru Gruenspiel were top notch but the 2000 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru was my favorite of the bunch and, again, out of my price range at $100. That being said, if good values exist for $100 bottles of wine, this is it! 

Next up was a somewhat surprising flight of 3 Aussie wines. I don't drink a ton of Aussie wines. I'm simply uninformed about the high quality natural producers that make it to the states. Also, I'm very aware that the Aussie's are smart enough to drink all of their best wines themselves, leaving little for us. That being said, I've had 3 or 4 in the last year that were phenomenal, one of them being from Ochota Barrels. I was introduced to them through a mystery case from Garagiste and every time I've drank them since, I've been blown away. Their wines are immensely drinkable yet thoroughly intriguing, a tough balancing act, especially in the natural wine world. Most of their red wines also have a unique medicinal component that I really enjoy. The "Green Room" Grenache/Syrah blend comes from the McLaren Vale and clocks in at under 14% alcohol. Very silky and juicy on the palate with an incredible perfume of roses, bright red fruits, and pepper that carries through to the palate. A great wine for both high-volume summer drinking or slow contemplation.

The other two wines were equally interesting. The BK Wines Syrah from Adelaide Hills was phenomenal, nearly a carbon copy of some northern Rhone syrahs I've had recently. Equal parts barnyard funk and purple fruit, I could drink this all day with a cassoulet in the winter. In a blind tasting, I would have been completely fooled and thought it to be authentically French. The Jamsheed Harem La Syrah was not my favorite, as it seemed overpowered by green/herbal components without much fruit. I'd have no problem drinking it but I wasn't sure what to think of it. All in all though, some great Aussie wines.

 BK Wines = new world northern Rhone to perfection. Jamsheed Wines = intriguing but so full of unfamiliar funk I didn't know what to think of it. Ochota Barrels = I haven't found a wine of theirs I don't love.

BK Wines = new world northern Rhone to perfection. Jamsheed Wines = intriguing but so full of unfamiliar funk I didn't know what to think of it. Ochota Barrels = I haven't found a wine of theirs I don't love.

 Stoumen's 'Post Flirtation' bottle of Carignan/Zinfandel deliciousness. A steal at $20.

Stoumen's 'Post Flirtation' bottle of Carignan/Zinfandel deliciousness. A steal at $20.

The next wines I came across were made by the one-and-only Martha Stoumen. I think it's important to highlight her wines because her focus is almost entirely unique in the US, "to work with sun-loving grapes: either those historic to California Viticulture, or those that flourish and maintain elegance in California's warmth, such as Carignane and Nero d'Avola." She has previously worked at Broc in Berkeley and COS in Italy so she couldn't be more prepared to make natural wines from these grapes. The three wines she was pouring-Carignan, Carignan/Zinfandel blend, and Zinfandel/Nero d'Avola blend-were not only incredibly pure and utterly drinkable, I've had few like them from the US. Certainly some similarities to the minimalist winemaking of Broc and to the style of the Italian varietals I tasted at Idlewild's tasting room in Healdsburg but I kept coming back to the incredible nose on all of the wines. So vibrant, so alive, so much to ponder. She has a few other wines she makes, including two rosés and a 100% varietal Nero d'Avola. She's got some solid talent crafting her label art too so be on the lookout for her wines!

I was so glad to see Oregon well-represented by Johan Vineyards at the tasting. Johan has always been a favorite of mine, going all the way back to my time living in Oregon. From my experience and unscientific guess, Oregon has some of the highest concentration of "natural" winemakers in the world. While some large of Oregon's original wineries have grown to become quite large, I still see a big commitment to natural viticulture and winemaking. Johan's vineyards at 100% certified biodynamic and they make some great pinot noir. They had several great wines on offer: Farmlands pinot noir, Estate Pinot Noir, and Nils pinot noir. Farmlands is one of the better "entry-level" Oregon pinot noir available today under $25 and the Estate and Nils bottles were classic Oregon pinot noir. Earth, berries, a nice little funk, everything I look for in Oregon pinot noir. Best of all, Johan is now making a pet nat (!!) from pinot noir. It was real good.

Other notable wines:

Jack Rabbit Hill Riesling
I live in Colorado so I'm well aware that there are actually some great wines made in the state but I was still surprised by this riesling. This comes from a working farm and is farmed 100% biodynamic. One of the highest commercial vineyards in the world at 5,000+ ft.

Foradori Nosiola
This was one of the few white Italian white wines at the tasting and boy was it a stunner. Tons of minerality and richness while only at 12% alcohol. This hails from Trentin-Alto-Adige in northeastern Italy. If you think that Pinot Grigio is all that Italy has to offer for white wines, give this a try. AWESOME.

COS Nero di Lupo 
COS is a widely recognized natural wine producer in southern Italy and this bottle is probably the most enjoyable Nero d'Avola I've ever had. Decidedly smooth tannins with generous notes of black and red cherry and a type of southern Italian garrigue of leather, licorice, and spices. Very, very well-balanced and dangerously gulpable. Wow. 

Whitcraft Winery
This winery was entirely new to me and I'm mad that I didn't know they existed when I was in Santa Barbara at the end of last year. They make a variety of wines but only had a pinot noir and syrah available for tasting. These wines were two of the most restrained and elegant California wines I've had in awhile. Very low alcohol in the 13-14% range but health acidity and great complexity. 

A few of my other favorites from the USA: Omero Cellars and Minimus Wines, Broc Cellars, Idlewild Wines, and Scribe. You can scroll through the photo carousel below to see photos of most of the wines I discuss in the article.


Where to Find Screaming Wine Deals on the Internet

Best way to consistently get a great bottle of wine? Make friends with your local wine shop. If luck falls your way, you'll find an unpretentious wine nerd at the helm who is eager to meet your needs. Unfortunately, not all of us have easy access to a small and cute neighborhood wine shop that sells boutique natural wines, hence the necessity of this article.

I buy the majority of my wine at local shops in Denver (Proof Wine & Spirits, Cask & Craft, Mondo Vino, Argonaut, Boulder Wine Merchant), but I also spend a good amount of time scouring the web for wine deals. Denver's wine game has improved significantly over the last few years (we even have a Natural Wine Week!), but it is a long way away from being New York City or San Francisco. There is still a lot of great wine that isn't making it to Colorado. 

A quick caution before we get to the recommendations. BEWARE OF FAKE WINE DEAL SITES, e.g., super discounted wine clubs. A number of opportunistic wine clubs claim to offer ridiculous savings on first shipments, anywhere from 50-90% off. Don't believe it. Most of these clubs, like Laithwaites Wine and Heartwood & Oak, are merely crappy wine with nice labels and aren't worth more than a mediocre $5 bottle from Trader Joe's. The business model for these clubs is to "custom" label otherwise mediocre wine. They claim they are saving you 80% off of retail, but those wines are rarely sold at retail. It's often tough, or impossible, to tell which club is actually offering value, which is why, again, I recommend talking with your local wine shop, many of which now have their own clubs. With that being said, here is my curated selection of the best places online to find great deals on wine.

My favorite online wine dealer is not really online at all unless you count good ole' email marketing. I'd be surprised if you read my blog regularly and didn't know about Garagiste, but in my opinion, the best wine deals online are sold through a 100% text, old-school email run by a guy named Jon Rimmerman in Seattle. It is tough to explain just how amazing the wine deals are that he offers, but he has spent the last 20 years building up relationships directly with growers all over the world and he genuinely wants to pass the savings onto customers. He focuses on small, independent, and sustainable producers that make terroir-driven wines. But not only that, he offers everything from $8 quaffers to $500 verticals of Brunello. Given my status in Denver, he is the closest I get to 1948 Rivesaltes, crazy funky Chinon, and small cutting edge producers on the West Coast.  His selection is wide and vast and he sends anywhere from 1-2 emails a day, each offering a different wine. I encourage everyone I know to sign up for his "newsletter", but beware, your bank account may be in a world of pain once you see what he has to offer.

For a more in-depth take on Garagiste, check out this New York Times Magazine article.

Last Bottle
Last Bottle has a great app and is one of my favorite deal sites. They run through several wines a day, which can be tough to keep track of, but if you pay attention, you can find a ton of great bottles in $10-20 range. They offer free shipping if you order four bottles at a time. Download the app and give them a shot.

Wine Till Sold Out (WTSO)
WTSO is one of the original wine deal sites, if not the original, and consistently has outrageous deals. I love their selection of French and Italian wines, many of which are hard to find in the US. Generally, the wines offered have been reviewed and scored 90+ points. They also offer community feedback in the wine has been sold before so you can be confident that the wine you are getting us truly discounted and worth ordering. Download their app and see what you can find!

Wine Spies
Another great website that has been in the online wine deal game for awhile. I've ordered from them several times and they generally offer very high quality wines with a focus on domestic. 

Last Call
Last Call has a similar model to all of the sites above but they offer multiple wines at a time. I haven't ordered from them but I check the site regularly and there are some great wines on offer.

Winecrasher takes the Hotwire/Priceline approach to selling wine with crash pricing. Wines are offered at deep discounts but you don't know what the exact wine is, just the year, region, varietal, etc. The model doesn't make as much sense with wine but the site has some great deals. I was sent two sample wines for free at no cost by their team but I haven't tasted them yet. I can confirm they were very high quality and good deals for what they were listed for on their website.

Cinderella Wine
Cinderella's approach is very similar to WTSO. One wine at a time and the deals are usually very solid. Nothing special here but another site to keep an eye on for great finds.

I've followed Lot18 for several years now and have ordered from them multiple times. They've had a rocky past, with expansion and then lay offs, but they kept to the core of their business and seem to be afloat. While you won't have the biggest discounts on wines, their deals are consistently good values. They've also got an intriguing "Tasting Room" wine club that is unique in its approach. Check it out!