Natural Wine

Photo by David Dworkind

This summer I got a call from a blocked number, and on the other end was a man identifying himself as Montreal police. The caller offered a vague warning to me that if I were to have any parties in my home, I should acquire the proper permit. Of course you can imagine my confusion, as we spoke, because I don’t need a permit to have a house party, thankyouverymuch.

I mean, who decides what’s a party and what’s an illegal bar?

Do friends pitching in to cover the cost of drinks constitute liquor sales? Do you cross a line when your start making money? How much money? Enough to cover the cost of paper towels and nice glassware? To re-invest in the next event?

Does it matter?

Surprisingly, through the course of hosting an illegal speakeasy/natural wine bar in my home, I learned that these questions really were irrelevant to my guests. And while it became a constant concern of mine that the police would show up and really ruin things for us, our guests really didn’t seem to care if we were making money on the event or not—by keeping mark-ups hilariously low, we were able to meet our mandate of accessibility and at the same time provide a really fun venue to drink really great wine.

The non-profitable mandate really only came, I think, from some kind of worry we felt around getting busted, and also in some kind of respect for dear friends of ours who run legitimate businesses trying to make money at the very same thing we were: selling wine and food.

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In 2014 I spent a few weeks visiting some friends in Reykjavik where I was confronted with an overwhelming Nordic hospitality that challenged my ability to be a good guest—so much was offered and no refusal accepted (navigating the refusal of insisted gifts/generosity is generally beyond my comprehension of codes of hospitality).

I also happened to spend a lot of time in Icelandic bars. One night we found ourselves headed to Architecture and Tapas, an unlisted and unregistered restaurant run inside a tiny basement storage locker. The operators were architects-turned-restaurateurs who converted the storage space—quite efficiently—into a small bar with four cinder block tables, and offered a menu of four items, a selection of home-brewed beers, and what turned out to be a great venue for making friends. The tables were so close together that we couldn’t help but include the whole restaurant’s conversations into our own, conversations about the food but inevitably also about our connection to the insiders-only illegal venue for our shared drinking and dining adventure.

In a small city overrun by tourists, the Icelandic grass-infused ale and shit-smoked lamb proved to be enjoyable, and specifically in the company of 12 other people crammed into the tiny space.

I don’t want to participate in the exoticization or extremist take on traditional Icelandic food—but what struck me was the importance of shared experience amongst the guests and between the hosts and guests. This kind of gregariousness leads to such direct engagement from the chef/brewer/server that I learned a lot about traditional Icelandic food, but also the ways that Icelanders are trying to bring these convivial small gatherings to bear on the contemporary food and drink scene.

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“It’s basically an illegal wine bar that serves as a forum for my pal Jordan and myself to share wines that we’re stoked on, at a negligible markup, with anyone who is interested in wine or wants to be interested in wine but basically has no idea what is going on, and to use this activity as a basis for tracing a slightly different kind of conviviality than normally prevails at a private party, a bar or restaurant, or an organized tasting. And it rules.”
—Jonah Campbell, Still Crapulent After All These Years

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I want to make the argument that a careful reading of hospitality in contemporary service venues reveals a specific type of connection to both products and the relationship of service to consumers.

Natural Wine

Photo by David Dworkind

The classic injunctions of hospitality (“make yourself at home,” “my home is your home,” etc.) name the very limitations of how hospitality is performed. My home is definitely not your home. But of course the act of hospitality is constituted by the idea of the guest, and the ungracious or impolite guest, that can test the limits of the welcome. Turn to Genesis 18: In the case of Abraham and Lot, the visitors clearly demand too much, but the giving of everything is also too much.

The way people engage with food is changing—the over-hyped and unusually opulent scale of “pop-up” restaurants is only growing, and I think we see a demand from consumers for not only closer connections to their food, but also to services and experiences that facilitate a unique experience that connects the object to its consumer. We demand more from service, and I think these demands are often suited to experiences in non-traditional venues. The problem, of course, is not only that having a wine bar in your home is illegal, but that it’s also weird to make your friends pay to hang out at your house.

I like to think of the different permissions the speakeasy/pop-up afford guests—which I do think are quite different than those at work in a restaurant—including the kind of gregariousness I mention above, but also the insider exclusivity of participating in something mildly illegal (but also definitely cool).

Natural wine, in some regards, has helped adjust what our expectations of wine can be— embracing some of the rougher edges of low/non-intervention wine-making, and in many ways making viticulture and vinification the primary subject of discussion. There is a lot to say about natural wine, and it’s not without controversy, but I think the point is that it is being made by people reacting against commercial, large scale, highly controlled wine-making.

Natural wine has been likened to punk rock, and while the complexities/congruities of the analogy are up for debate, I think it’s important to note that natural wine does generally lend itself to an accessibility of knowledge, detail, and the financial accessibility of the wine itself.

Is the pop-up or supper-club the answer to this question of how to democratize wine? Now that punks are making great wine, where can we drink these wines? I’ve never had an even remotely similar experience at a pop-up than at a restaurant, other than the fact that I put a bunch of stuff in my mouth. While the product itself demands to be distinct from its alternative, it seems we demand the right space to appreciate that product— and that venue is far from defined.

Jordan Crosthwaite works as a green-coffee buyer, roaster, and educator in the coffee industry, occasionally writing both creatively and technically. He studied at the University of Winnipeg and Concordia University, and currently serves wine under the radar in Montreal.

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