Alex Bernardo of Vineyard Gate Selections walks us through the nuances of natty wine. Plus, eight natural wines to drink on the Peninsula right now.
When Alex Bernardo opened his natural wine shop in Millbrae in 1998, he couldn’t have imagined the meteoric rise the once-fringe category would have.
Today, natural wine is everywhere: on restaurant and wine bar menus, in the pages of The New Yorker, on the lips of millennials who have embraced the movement’s anti-commercial, of-the-land ideology. The exact definition of natural wine varies widely — to the point of causing consternation among many who work closely with and sell wine — but it generally refers to wine that is farmed organically with minimal intervention and no (or very few) additives.
In 2019, natural wine, now comfortably part of the mainstream, trended alongside other viral gastronomical trends such as the Popeyes chicken sandwich and White Claw. This year also saw the opening of what is likely the Peninsula’s first-ever dedicated natural wine bar, Salvaje in Palo Alto.
Millbrae—not a city known for its trendiness—is an unlikely place for a natural wine shop. But for 21 years, Vineyard Gate Selection has quietly persisted in geeky but approachable homage to what Bernardo prefers to call “artisanal wines,” or “wine made like wine.”
“What makes natural wine, natural wine … it’s still alive,” Bernardo said. “A lot of people, especially experts, mistake this as going bad. The very notion of making wine naturally is to allow all these things to evolve by themselves, and it can go into many places. In other words, it’s wild. It’s raw and wild.”
“You cannot predetermine what shape a banana should be,” he added, so why do so with wine?
Bernardo goes out of his way to stock hard-to-find wines from all over the world, from France to Georgia to Chile to California, and isn’t dogmatic about certain “natural” distinctions, such as the presence of sulfites. He makes annual pilgrimages to Europe to visit vineyards and meet producers, particularly in France, as well as Japan, whose burgeoning natural wine scene he predicts will be the next big thing.
Vineyard Gate also sells sake, beer, San Francisco’s Andytown Coffee and tinned Portuguese fish, which Bernardo sometimes opens up during the by-the-glass tastings at the shop.
I talked with Bernardo about why he sees natural wine as a good thing for the wine world, the appeal of lesser-known labels and his go-to move for drinking natural wine out and about on the Peninsula (find great restaurants that let you bring in your own bottle).
How do you define natural wine?
For me, I refer to everything as artisanal. Not to sound flippant but it’s wine made like wine. Wine is a product of nature. It’s handcrafted. It’s been like that for 8,000 years. … Even among the commercial (wine companies), they know this, and that’s the reason why when when you see all their marketing and imagery, they never show the bags of chemicals or even the industrial-looking tanks and pipes and pumps that they use. They only show you the vineyard, some farmer, the backdrop of the mountains and the landscape. They want to make money. That’s their primary objective. I don’t really hate those (wines). For me, in the end, I’m for wine. But for the people who believe in this kind of wine, that is not wine, in the real sense of that word.
Now, the term natural wine has taken on a very different definition. It’s focused almost entirely on methodology, particularly one ingredient, which is sulfites. That has sort of become the definition (for natural wine — wine without sulfites). I have a broader view of sulfites. I don’t define natural wine around sulfites. … It’s more nuanced than that, obviously, but the use of sulfites is not as evil and as narrow as some people in natural wine [think].
The thing I observed and this is just my observation having been in wine now for a while — a lot of people who came into natural wine, you might even say most, really happened in the last 10 years and much of that really in the last five years. There are a lot of young people who are very avid.
Do you mean in terms of consumers or producers?
Both, which is great. It keeps wine relevant because the way wine was going, at least the trend I observed was that it was headed to a big decline or at least some kind of disruption. What happened since the ’60s was that the luxury, elite quality of wine became more and more the dominant aspect of it rather than the true enjoyment. People like [Robert] Parker [U.S. wine critic and founder of publication The Wine Advocate] and all the experts became the main players. They promoted more rankings, more ‘what’s the best’ and this resulted in wine becoming, at least the wine that they chose, more and more expensive. It became more of a collectible pursuit.
What do you think is driving the renewed interest from younger people getting into natural wine right now?
More and more, wine became so expensive, so out of reach … even people who were into that started to not buy as much anymore. The children of many of these people who got into that kind of boat, they’re just not going to be able to afford that [kind of wine].
Natural wine came about just in the right time. You can view natural wine in so many ways. … one of the key facets about natural wine is it’s a reaction against the the prevailing trend for decades where wine was going. I view it almost in a philosophical sense: Wine finds a way to stay relevant. I think there was a danger of wine becoming irrelevant. Other things were coming along — craft beer, of course; coffee. There was a lot of interest that took people’s attention away from wine. Even to this day a lot of people say millennials really don’t drink wine as much as the previous generations, and that’s probably true. But natural wine came about and I think it saved the day for wine in general and hopefully as the years go by, it will generate an interest in wine overall.
Have you seen that reflected in the kinds of customers coming in or even your sales at the shop?
Totally. When we started, the availability of what you would call natural wine in the strictest sense of the word, which is no sulfites, were very, very limited. We carried a bunch of those, and they never sold. What kept us going here (was) we sold other wines. We sold a lot of conventional wines that I also like. We developed a good market for that and I used my wine knowledge to buy certain kinds of wine that would appeal. We compete primarily in that kind of market.
With the newer, younger people it really helped us because we were facing a decline in customer demand … one, because many of these people are now just flush with with wine, the people who are part of the Baby Boomers and even Generation X — they bought a ton of wine and they’re in every key wine club subscription mailing list already … they were not drinking that fast enough so their buying started to at some point decline. On top of that, the competition really just grew. … At some point you just compete on the basis of price. Unless you’re Costco and you’re also selling other things you cannot really make a lot of money in that kind of a market if you’re a small shop. That whole thing for us started to dry up. It just gave me more impetus to emphasize more the core of our selection here, which are the artisanal wines.
What’s your process for selecting wines?
It’s not the most business-minded way of doing it. I select things that no one carries or hardly anyone knows. That’s very important for me. The more unknown a product is, the more I’m drawn to it and I want to be the person to tell people about it.
I’m able to offer something that’s more affordable usually because the less known a wine is, a producer is, chances are it’s going to be selling at a good price. The reality is that no one has a monopoly on quality. These famous producers, I think they certainly deserve to be famous. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones making wine of that kind of style or quality. There are many more, and I intend to find those.
For someone who is curious about natural wine or knows they like it but isn’t sure how to try something new, what are some questions that you ask or information that is helpful to you to guide them?
I ask them what wine have they enjoyed in the past. That would give me a clue as to what flavor, are they looking for a lighter wine, heavy wine or full bodied wine, a certain type of flavor from a certain grape variety. And then, of course, price. The bulk of what we sell here is in the under $50 and within that, the highest percentage would be $30 and under. That to me is my aim because I like people to drink wine. I came from a generation of people collecting mostly expensive wine but for me, really, the pleasure of wine is to drink it.
What’s your background? How did you get into wine?
My background is business. I studied on the East Coast and worked for a bank in New York and then moved to Boston. I worked there for a consulting company, and then I was moved here by the consulting company in the mid-90s. During all this time, I was already drinking wine. I started drinking wine (when) I was 17. I’m 61 years old. It was flavor that got me into it. I’m always interested in flavor.
What makes natural wine, natural wine … is it’s going. It’s still alive. A lot of people, especially experts, mistake this as going bad. … The very notion of making wine naturally, is to allow all these things to evolve by themselves, and it can go into many places. In other words, it’s wild. It’s raw and wild. It’s no different from other things that are raw and wild. You cannot predetermine what shape a banana should be. … This is what natural wine is. (People) get surprised, they get turned off by all these extraneous flavors. They want to be able to tame it. That’s not natural wine. That’s what conventional wine people are doing.
But that’s the very beauty of it: It’s alive and wild and funky. Once you get to appreciate that, you will never really find the same kind of experience drinking anything else. This is its attraction. I’m not saying if I drink conventional wine and wines that have been treated with a lot of chemicals — to some extent I would still enjoy it. … but you would sense that it’s almost stale. It’s flat. There’s nothing in it that’s giving you a feeling of life, you know? And then you drink natural wine. There’s the feeling of life in it. That’s what is unique about about it.
Tell me about a bottle you’re really excited about right now.
Patrick Desplats — you couldn’t get wilder than this guy. He is about as wild as natural wine producers can be. He’s in Anjou, France. This is 100% chenin blanc. Anjou is chenin blanc country. Most of the chenin in Anjou is made sweet, but this is dry. It has some skin contact.
It’s a good illustration of a natural wine because it has everything you expect from natural wine. It’s an orange wine. There are no sulfites, but the unique thing about it is that it’s a 2007. He held this back before releasing it. … When a producer knows when to release a wine, it really helps. It’s very high acidity and that acidity is also helped by that volatility. You hear that term a lot — volatile acidity — and that’s part and parcel of wine. People who rail against it, it’s because they’ve been drinking nothing but conventional wine. Volatile acidity is part of any wine.
Is there anywhere you like to go to drink artisanal wine locally?
In the East Bay, I love The Punchdown. I like Ordinaire, too. On the Peninsula unfortunately … there’s no place here. But there are lots of good restaurants. I bring in my own wine. In Millbrae, Wonderful is great. Zen Sushi Bistro is a Chinese-owned Japanese restaurant. … they’re very welcoming of people bringing wine. In San Mateo there’s a yakitori place called Kokko, fabulous place. Yakitori is great with wine.
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Vineyard Gate Selections // 238 Broadway, Millbrae; 650.552.9530
Thirsty for more? We asked several Peninsula wine shop and restaurant owners to tell us about natural wines they’re excited about and serving right now. Here’s what they said.
We asked Peninsula restaurant and wine bar owners to share natural wines they’re really excited about right now. Here are their picks.
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