Just How Big Is Natural Wine In America?

Food & Drink

Menus from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine are featuring natural wines like never before. And just this month, the James Beard Foundation named Frenchette, a New York bistro known for its low-intervention wine list, as Best New Restaurant.

But the financial state of the so-called natural wine movement is hard to track. “Natural wine” is anything that uses little to no commercial additives and preservatives during the fermentation and bottling process. The grapes used are often farmed with the full ecosystem in mind. It can take lots of different forms: labels tout biodynamic farming certifications or organic grape certifications, and sometimes they list the additives they avoid, like sulfites, a common but controversial preservative included to prevent oxidation and spoilage. “There’s no good data because there’s no good definition for natural wine,” says Rob McMillan, the founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. “I believe we will see a revolution. You have a whole population of young people who want natural, organic and local.”

On the retail side, organic wine sales in the U.S. top around $200 million annually. That’s still a conservative estimate. Experts say there’s a lot of wine made with organic grapes that doesn’t get included in government data because many organic winemakers choose to add in some sulfites, and since that’s prohibited under the USDA’s guidelines for organic wine, they opt out of advertising their bottles with the certification. Clouding things further, there’s also an increasing number of grape growers globally who are opting out of organic certifications, but still don’t use any pesticides or herbicides.

Forecasts for organic wine sales suggest consumers want more of these often zesty and unfiltered wines. Global consumption of organic still wine is set to top 1 billion bottles annually by 2022, up from 349 million bottles sold in 2012, according to wine and spirits consultancy IWSR. In the U.S., consumption is expected to rise 14% in that period.

“It’s growing everywhere. Places like Austin, Denver, Detroit, pretty much all over the U.S. where you have a young, dynamic, urban crowd, you’re seeing a lot of progress. Natural wine importers are setting up distribution channels in more states,” says Isabelle Legeron, the founder of Raw Wine, a traveling natural wine trade show which pops up in New York and Los Angeles each year, along with London, Berlin and Montreal.

Through Raw Wine, Legeron has become one of the best advocates for natural in the U.S., where she has consulted with restaurants and helped develop networks for importing natural wines from small producers. As demand continues to grow, Legeron is now expanding Raw Wine further. The organization will start hosting a pop-up fair in a new city each year, and the first will be held in October in Miami, a city Legeron says is “just starting out on its natural wine journey.” Legeron said she picked Miami after requests from distributors to help develop interest in natural wine alongside the city’s already thriving food landscape. “It is an under-developed market, dominated by cocktail culture, so we have an opportunity to make a difference by helping kickstart the local scene,” says Legeron, a native of France who became the country’s first female Master of Wine.

Legeron, who lives in London, will also hold a new natural wine festival in New York this July, after the Brooklyn trade show last November saw a 20% increase in attendance. “A lot of people are starting on the natural wine journey. More and more are visiting the bars and restaurants but sometimes it can be hard to navigate. This will be an environment that is more relaxed,” Legeron says.

She says she can add to Raw Wine’s roster in the U.S. because of the growing number of producers, particularly on the West Coast, who are committed to making these kinds of wines. Last year’s L.A. fair, for example, featured 32 American growers, 10 more than the previous year. “The conversation used to revolve around what was going on in Europe,” Legeron says. “Last year, we had European visitors for the first time come to Los Angeles to try the wines. For me, that’s a real success. It shows how dynamic the producing scene is in the States.”

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