The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t collect data on the concentration of natural-wine bars per capita in metropolitan statistical areas. But if it did, Manhattan’s Lower East Side would probably top the list.
Here you’ll find pet-nats and piquettes, as well as wine aged underground in qvevri rather than in oak barrels stacked in pristine cellars. The mantra is low-intervention and nonconventional. Your wine may taste like kombucha and cost as much as fine burgundy. And there’s a good chance you’ll find something you’ve never tasted before. You might even like it.
On a recent visit to New York City with a small coterie of Virginia winemakers in town for a promotional event, I checked out the Ten Bells, a tiny wine bar on Broome Street, a block south of Delancey. Broome Street is the center of gravity for this natural-wine neighborhood, and the Ten Bells was the pioneer when it opened in 2008, at the early stages of the natural-wine movement. I was keen on trying wine from La Garagista winery in Vermont, a natural-wine darling. Alas, although several bottles were listed on the Ten Bells’ website, there was no La Garagista to be had when we visited.
This is both the bane and the boon of natural wine: These are boutique wines, made in small quantities, and the selection in any store or restaurant changes frequently. If you like something, buy it, because it may not be there the next time. And although I’ve been writing about wine for a long time, most of the wineries on the list were unfamiliar to me. There’s a wide world of wine out there to explore.
After enjoying wines from Austria and the Loire Valley, we went across the street to Somm Time and closed that place down with muscadet and beaujolais. It was a brief parachute visit to a wine-friendly neighborhood that deserves deeper exploration.
So what makes the Lower East Side so attractive to fans of natural wines? Is it generational demographics, artistic creativity? Innate anarchist impulses?
“Honestly, no idea,” said Fabian von Hauske, co-founder with Jeremiah Stone of Contra in 2013 and later Wildair, a more casual wine bar. “When we opened, there was nothing but us and the amazing Ten Bells serving natural wine in this area. I would like to think we helped start something special.”
Several establishments featuring natural wine began opening around 2016, Stone said, including Wildair and Skin Contact. Le Dive, on Canal Street, is a recent entrant to the scene, he said. “The real estate is good, and it’s busy on weekends,” Stone said. He and von Hauske opened Peoples Wine, a natural wine store and bar on Delancey Street.
The neighborhood attracts “innovative people,” said Doreen Winkler, a “natural-wine sommelier” who consults for several restaurants interested in featuring natural wines. “Broome Street and Orchard Street are the nightlife of the Lower East Side,” she said. “There’s no Starbucks on the corner, but there is an amazing ice cream shop and a cool bookstore that sells pickles and some insane merch.”
Winkler started a wine club called Orange Glou in 2019, just in time to get established before the pandemic shuttered restaurants and wine bars. Sales for the club soared, and in June of last year, she opened Orange Glou as a bricks-and-mortar store on Broome Street, a block away from the Ten Bells and Somm Time. She said it’s the world’s only store dedicated exclusively to orange wine, which is white wine fermented on its skins to give it color and structure. Glou is short for glou glou, a French term popular among natural-wine advocates. It connotes glugable, easy-drinking wine you can enjoy without writing an honors thesis about its flavor components and terroir.
The Lower East Side does have a distinctive demographic, “first to embrace head shops and weed stores,” said Gianni Cavicchi, head of the beverage program at One19 Wine Bar + Food, a new speakeasy joint behind a deli on Essex Street. Cavicchi features a cleaner, less funky style of natural wine, including several on tap. The clientele skews younger, between 25 to 50, he said. And there are neighborhood differences.
“I live on the Upper East Side,” Cavicchi said. “Ask for an orange wine up here, you get a mimosa. And I have friends down there [on the Lower East Side] who won’t venture above 14th Street.”
But they will cross the Williamsburg Bridge, where the natural-wine vibe spills into Brooklyn along Bedford Street, Cavicchi said. There the atmosphere is like the Lower East Side, “but with more tattoos.”