Wine is hard, but natural wine is even harder.
What exactly is it? How can we identify it without any help from labels? Why is it sometimes cloudy? Why is there more bottle variation than with other wines?
Enter Jill Mott and Dan Rice, two of the forces behind a new natural-wine bar in a long-abandoned building next door to a strip club that’s on its way out in Near North.
Either beverage director/sommelier Mott or co-owner Rice is at Bar Brava every night, ready, willing and eager to address queries about natural wine in general and any of their 150 bottles in particular. They provide equal doses of expertise and enthusiasm—plus some welcome context.
“Natural wine is where the farm-to-table movement was a few years ago,” Mott said, suggesting that paying greater attention to the production of food and beverage has moved beyond a coastal trend to a more mainstream movement. Rice added: “Natural wine isn’t a fad. It’s the way wine has been made for thousands of years.”
True, that. Until fairly recently, when technology and chemistry prompted wineries, especially the bigger ones, to make major modifications in vinous production, it was a pretty simple process: grow grapes, then crush, ferment, and bottle them. Now there are often so many additives that many people would be taken aback if wines actually listed all the ingredients.
Bar Brava affords customers something new, at least in the Twin Cities: a chance to explore and examine what these more elemental approaches can reap, one 3-ounce pour of a Negrette, Pet-nat or Assyrtiko at a time. Rice said the list of 15 or so by-the-glass pours will rotate every few weeks. In addition, Bar Brava offers flights, tap wines, ciders, and beers (all natural, of course).
Ironically, given the not-so-mad-scientist approach to popular manufactured wines, Bar Brava could be called a laboratory—but with its customers, not the producers, doing the experimenting.
One night just after it opened, Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur, owners of Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola restaurants, were enjoying sundry wines and dishes and conversing with Mott.
“I do think people have an aversion [to natural wine],” Kim said, “so when you have someone who can speak to it, that is really cool. Jill is the perfect person to expand on people’s perceptions and misperceptions. […] What we had was quite nice, and it expands my horizons and makes me want to dive deeper.”
But, but… just what is natural wine? Mott’s parameters are pretty standard: “The farming methods need to be organic, biodynamic, or sustainable. It needs to be hand-harvested, not adding any yeasts. Nothing added or taken away with the exception of a minute amount of sulfur [for preservation]. Filtering is a no-no [ergo, cloudy wines].
“Or, as Dan says, ‘there’s just no shit in the wine.’”
Groundwork has been laid
Timing is everything.
Okay, that’s a bit of a cliché, but it almost certainly was the case with Bar Brava’s November 2019 opening.
Mott and Rice credit a local merchant with indoctrinating curious but cautious customers. “Henry & Son has done so much to show what natural wines can be,” Rice said. “We owe those guys a debt of gratitude.” They also have forged what Mott calls “a really cool partnership.” When Bar Brava customers ask “where can I buy this?” the answer in many, if not most, cases is “Henry & Son.”
Providing that info and more is a rigorously trained staff, average age 25. “I know they won’t memorize every bottle,” Mott said. “It’s more about becoming correctly conversant.”
The staff also serves up an Iberia-meets-California menu of tasty tapas and main courses prepared by co-owner Nick Anderson. “We needed to have a space that allowed us to have a full kitchen,” Rice said. “This was too good an opportunity to settle for something that just had a wine and cheese program. Our view is when drinking wine, you need to be able to munch on good food.”
Between its beautifully restored white brick walls (reminiscent of so many stark but cozy breweries and distilleries around town), Bar Brava is an optimal spot to learn, as Mott puts it, that “the thing that’s cool about natural wine is it enables people to take off the white gloves.”
And while natural wine might not be the proverbial “next big thing,” it is a thing.
“People refer to it as a movement now,” Rice said. “Maybe that means it’s graduated beyond a niche. There’s now a realization that natural wine is for everyone, not just hipsters in Brooklyn. It’s for people who care about what they put in their bodies.”
1914 N. Washington Avenue, Minneapolis