The Price for Surprise
Long before I first tried natural wine, my dad introduced me to the kind of wine that he loved. We liked to eat at a neighborhood steakhouse on special occasions, located a few minutes away from his house in the Bay Area suburbs. It was the only fancy place in town. Seated at a table set with sparkling silverware and napkins folded into pyramids, he would order a bottle of red wine from the waiter, usually a Napa Valley Cabernet, usually something around $100.
Swishing the wine in his glass, he would study the color, stick his nose into it and sniff, and then scrutinize the glass, watching for “legs,” the tear streaks formed along the glass bulb by wine droplets. “A good wine has good legs,” he would say, a nugget of wisdom he had gleaned from a community college “wine appreciation” class in the early 90s.
“But how would you know it’s a good wine from reading the menu?” I would ask, cluelessly scanning over the wine list’s nonsensical ordering of proper nouns.
“Well, the older the better,” he would say. “But also, like most things you buy, the higher the price, the better the quality.”
So for years, I assumed “good wine” is always expensive, a luxury, and by extension, elitist. I opted for the toxic sludge bottled from factory vineyards at corner stores for six dollars.
Once I discovered natural wine a year and a half ago, I learned my dad’s metric didn’t really apply anymore, at least not to the stuff I drink now.
The “price to quality” ratio is not as clear-cut when it comes to natural wine as it seems with conventional, non-natural wine.
When you go to your local, natural wine-focused shop, you’ll see most bottles are neither cheap nor prohibitively expensive. From what I’ve seen in New York, while the cheapest bottles are around $14, the vast majority of natural wine retails between $18 and $40. (Of course some bottles by hyped-up winemakers, like Frank Cornelissen, sell for hundreds of dollars, but that’s the special stuff for diehards). Based purely off of my own observations, I would say the bell curve peaks around $25. Most well-known natural winemakers sell their most bottled cuvée (a “batch” of wine, basically) at around this price.
What’s tricky is, the dollar amount you see on the shelf will not help you figure out whether you will like the wine or not. Wines that are acidic, fruity, light, big, bone-dry, perfumey, fresh, flawed or clean can fall within the $18 to $40 range. And when it comes to flawed versus clean wines, well, I can say from experience that it is possible to spend $35 on a wine you expect to like because you’ve tried the winemaker before, or it’s from a region you’re interested in, but after the first sip, you discover it tastes a little too much like reduced balsamic vinaigrette and wonder whether the wine is cooked, too young, or just “tastes like that.”
What’s exciting about buying natural wine is also what can make it frustrating: you can’t predict what you’re going to get, let alone whether you will like it or not, based on how much you pay. Oftentimes, I spend up to $30 to be surprised.
The sense of discovery inherent to trying a new natural wine does not inherently work in ones favor. It creates friction for casual newcomers. On the one hand, natural wine is accessible. Much of it is juicier, lighter, leaner, easier to drink, less likely to give a hangover. Some pet-nat’s, like the affordably priced sparkling wines by Costadilla, taste like fizzy, tart peach juice with a kick. But it’s also inaccessible, especially for those with little disposable income. When first getting into it, natural wine may seem like a black box with a moderately high price tag. After all, outside of France, and they only defined it earlier this year, the industry lacks a defined standard to what is and isn’t “natural.” This can confuse shoppers who find themselves surrounded by bottles with quirky label designs in a wine shop with no idea what to look for. At face value, twenty dollars is a lot for something you plan to drink without knowing how it will taste.
So how do you buy natural wine on a budget or without feeling like you may get ripped off by an expensive bottle you don’t like? Well, you can ask the wine shop salesperson what they like, assuming they have tasted enough of what’s on the shelves and your palette agrees with theirs.
If you know what importers you’ve bought from before, turn the cheaper bottles in the shop around and see if the distributor label looks familiar to you. Personally, I gravitate towards wines purveyed by Zev Rovine Selections, Terrell Wines, Scuola di Vino, and Louis/Dressner.
Or, just brace yourself for the unknown…