"They were a hard sell, sometimes even hard to give away." Adele Corrigan, general manager and sommelier of Midtown wine bar, 13 Celsius, recalls the early days of selling natural wine in Houston. The movement started by independent French winemakers in the early 1980s took decades to make its way to Texas. For years, the few Houston bars selling the stuff were not selling much of it, and it took the persistence of a few committed enthusiasts to keep the movement alive in the Bayou City.
Ironically, the wines she's referring to, the one's she couldn't give away, were the Sicilian natural wines of Frank Cornelissen; now considered some of the best natural wines in the world, and sold in bars from here to Brooklyn by the magnum.
Houston is by no means a hot bed of natural wine buzz. The movement is still happening in niche bars and among educated and adventurous chefs and sommeliers. Still, a trend is no doubt taking shape. Thanks to professionals like Corrigan, and Public Service's Justin Vann, Houstonians are being exposed to not only the wines, but the philosophy and driving motives behind natural wine making.
While far from mainstream, even among the world's foremost wine enthusiasts, the natural wine movement has garnered the attention of the international culinary community. Its application of sustainable farming and focus on wholesome wines made with minimal intervention makes the practice all the more intriguing in a world of industrialized agriculture.
Despite a lack of concrete laws for what "natural" truly means, several international organizations have established their own (slightly varying) sets of requirements. The most critical defining aspect of the natural process is the lack of human intervention. Unlike conventional winemakers, who use all manner of additives, industrial yeast, sulphites, and modern filtration techniques, natural winemakers avoid as many of these practices as possible. They opt instead for a process that respects the organic microbes present in both the growing and fermentation process, and attempt to neither add nor remove anymore from the wine than is absolutely necessary.
"You either love it, or you hate it," is a sentiment commonly associated with the taste of natural wine. It has been described as funky, unrefined, and lacking complexity. Alternatively, it has been lauded for its earthy authenticity and honest representation of the grapes. Ironically, good natural wine is considered to be far more complex than most conventional wines by those who love and appreciate it.
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In the northernmost reaches of downtown sits the classically cool whiskey and wine bar, Public Services. The bar is housed in the historic 1884 Cotton Exchange — a building listed on the national register of historic places and one of Houston's few structures predating 2002. Wine buyer and co-proprietor Justin Vann knows a thing or two about natural wine (he knows a thing or two about conventional wine as well, and whiskey, and bartending). Vann incorporates natural and organic bottles heavily into the wine list at Public Services. He did the same for Houston culinary darlings Oxheart and Theodore Rex (for whose bar programs he consulted).
Vann believes that any good wine list must include at least a few organics, and recommends researching natural wine pioneer, Marcel Lapierre. He jokes about the oddity of seeing Action Bronson sipping from a magnum of natural wine on his Viceland TV shows, but is thrilled that natural winemakers are garnering such international attention.
Soon, 13 Celsius and Public Services won't be the only Houston bars offering extensive selections of natural wines. Vibrant, an organic concept opening later this summer in Montrose, will host an exclusively natural wine inventory, fitting with a commitment to use all natural, all wholesome ingredients in every aspect of their kitchen. The beautifully designed space will offer natural wine to a much more mainstream clientele, exposing thousands of Houstonians to the culture and philosophy behind these wines.
Earlier this year, Corrigan and her team at 13 Celsius hosted a series of "Natty Wine Nights". Special wine tastings every Tuesday night in March that served as educational experiences for wine drinkers of every background and level of knowledge. The series is set to return in October, offering another opportunity for locals to experience the unique flavor and extraordinary culture of natural wine.