If you’re not yet drinking natural wines, you should be. Some are organic, some are biodynamic (think pagan, uber-organic), and some you just have to ask about. Some are funky to the point that you may not recognize your favorite wine grapes, and some taste as you’d expect, perhaps with a bit more character. While there’s no consensus on what “natural wine” means, it’s essentially winemaking without much, if any, intervention.
What do we mean by intervention? With conventional wine, winemaking can become a big science experiment. Sulfur is one of the more common additives, but there are dozens more. Want your wine to be more tannic or acidic? Just dump in some manufactured tannins or acidity. Want your wine to taste more like licorice and black currants? Throw in some yeast that’s been modified to bring out exactly those flavors. Yeast not working so well? There’s yeast food you can add. As long as the final product tastes the way consumers expect and as long as the additives are on the long list of what’s allowed, no one bats an eye.
Look at a wine label, though, and you’ll see nothing about this. The winemaker could have added any number of ingredients, including sugar before or during fermentation (a process called chaptalization), but there’s no requirement to disclose those ingredients. A few wineries, including the California-based Ridge Vineyards and Donkey & Goat, have chosen to start labeling theirs, a wonderful start. For many natural wines, though, you just have to know where to go and what to drink, which is why the natural wine scene can sometimes feel like a party that you weren’t invited to. Don’t worry, though, you’re invited.
With the advent of locally sourced, farm-to-table food, we’re finding that transparency in food is more delicious and more fun. Natural wine is the same way. Read on for six of our favorite spots to join the party.
Marvin, a wine imaginarium that describes itself as “vibey,” is one of the most fun spots to drink natural wine in L.A. The service can be iffy, depending on the day, but just about everything else is consistently excellent. The food menu ranges from cheese and charcuterie to salads, large plates and small bites — don’t miss the jamón tomate. The octopus salad and rigatoni Bolognese are lovely as well. The bottle list is robust and well-priced, and the by-the-glass options include the very trendy and tasty Frank Cornelissen Etna Rosato (Sicilian rosé). Snap a shot for your Instagram and watch the envious comments from your natural wine–loving friends pour in. Marvin’s sherry list, which ranges from sweet to bone dry, also is exceptional.
8114 Beverly Blvd, Beverly Grove; (323) 655-5553, chezmarvin.com.
There’s no dinner menu at sleek, cozy Bar Bandini, although the bar snacks are delicious (locals love the cheese plate). Bandini is in business to serve you wine, and does so well. In scrolling through its Instagram, full of well-lit bottle shots, you’ll see a who’s who of natural wine. Almost everything offered by the bottle is also offered by the glass, which makes Bandini an excellent spot to try something you’ve never had before. We love it as a first-date spot — even if you don’t like the person, at least you’ll fall in love with the wine.
2150 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; barbandini.com.
The first obstacle in learning about wine is learning how to talk about it. The friend you’re splitting a bottle with may say she’s picking up notes of persimmon and clove. You smell, uh, wine. Knowing how to pick out tasting notes is a skill that you can learn if you want to, but for now, stop by Bar Covell in Hotel Covell and use whatever wine vocabulary you do have when you go over to the “Order Here” sign. Do you like a robust Italian red? A crisp, bright white? A chilled summer red? This is the genius of Bar Covell — there’s no printed menu, so you have to actually talk to someone (and taste a few things!) to get what you want. Turns out, it’s the best way to walk away happy. While you’re at it, order some spicy mac and cheese.
4628 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 660-4400, barcovell.com.
If you spend too much time browsing the famed, lengthy Botanica wine list, you may start to feel in over your head. If you really start feeling panicked, just order one of the many delicious cocktails — we love the citrus vermouth and soda — but it’s worth taking your time with the wine list. Once you get over your “I have no idea what I want” anxiety, you may even start to enjoy reading it. One Sicilian white is described as a “sassy Italian island babe with a bit of salt and stony ’tude.” An Alsatian skin-contact wine (“orange wine”) is called an “elegant, lush, golden quaff.” Look up from the menu and you’ll see other guests — some of whom are probably celebrities — enjoying a rainbow of other wines. The food menu is very Silver Lake–y, featuring options like maple tahini toast, summer chicken congee and something gluten-free called Cake for Breakfast. The Turkish eggs are especially popular, though everything is light and tasty. It’s open all day, so go anytime you need something delicious.
1620 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 522-6106, botanicarestaurant.com.
Augustine Wine Bar
Augustine’s by-the-glass list is remarkable — 50+ options, with an unmatched variety of origins, varietals and vintages. Jonesing for a glass of a 2010 Bordeaux? What about a refreshing rosé from Morocco? There’s always a glass of 2010 Chardonnay from France’s Jura region or a 2012 white from Jerusalem. The food menu is similarly varied — whether you’re in the mood for duck breast, a baby lettuce salad or spicy tater tots, you’ll be just fine. The chocolate pot de crème is a wonderful end to the evening, though you may not want it to end at all.
13456 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks; (818) 990-0938, augustinewinebar.com.
If you’ve heard of Mignon, it may have been for its marvelous lunchtime pasta, which is served under the name Cento Pasta Bar. Mignon’s wine list is nothing to sneeze at: a tidy list, with 15 by-the-glass options. Selections are mostly European, with two exceptions — the beloved Swick pinot noir from Oregon and a white from Georgia that we dare you to pronounce (Kindzmarauli Marani from the Rkatsiteli grape). The menu is mostly bistro fare, including the popular ham and brie sandwich and the equally loved oeufs en cocotte. It’s a cozy option, at around 18 seats, and is a perfect happy hour stop; a few of the glasses go down to $6 each, as do a few of the food items.
128 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 489-0131, mignonla.com.
Night + Market (several locations)
If you’re a fan of Jonathan Gold, authentic Thai food or simply tasty, playful menus, you probably already know the various Night + Market locations. But you may not know how expansive its wine list is: 40 or so bottles, with around 10 by-the-glass options. Descriptors range from “patio pounder” to “clean, lithe” to ”plum sauce, like a floral bouquet with herbs mixed in.” While there are plenty of options for those new to natural wine — prosecco, crisp sauvignon blanc, etc. — there are some fun off-the-beaten path options, like La Guerrarie Qveri, an amphora-aged Gamay from the Loire Valley, or Pet-Mex, a sparkling rosé from Baja, Mexico. On the menu, you’ll find a quote from chef-owner Kris Yenbamroong: “I always fantasized that someone would come in here and order a bottle of wine and not eat anything. Actually, I wanted to open Night + Market as a wine bar as much as a restaurant.” Seems like a dream we can all help make true, although once you see the menu, which varies by location, you may not be able to pass up ordering at least a snack.
9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 275-9724; 3322 Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake, (323) 665-5899; 2533 Lincoln Blvd., Venice; (310) 301-0333; nightmarketsong.com.