Denver has long been hailed as one of the leading beer meccas in the United States, where craft breweries see Black Friday-like lines in releasing experimental beers. In second place are spirits, which are mainly strengthened by whiskey.
Wine, on the other hand, has always been the third choice. But the natural love of wine that has gripped New York City, San Francisco, and the Midwest has made it to Mile High City.
Denver is one of the fastest growing urban sprawl in the country, and many say transplants helped fuel local cultural movements. Or that what happens in bigger cities affects what people want in places like Denver.
Noble uprising / Photo by Armando Martinez
But when it comes to natural wine, that surge has been attributed to a surprising demographic: the adventurous beer drinkers.
“We’re still suffering from a ‘half-young’ food and drink scene,” says Mary Allison Wright.
With her husband McLain Hedges, Wright was an early natural wine advocate in Colorado. The couple started projects like the bottle shop The Proper Pour and the RiNo Yacht Club, a cocktail bar with a natural wine list.
“But overall, because we have such a great craft beer culture, there is this sense of openness that has allowed natural wines to grow,” she says.
The natural wine scene in Denver is especially grateful to sour beer lovers. Many in the wine business say this group was the easiest to convert.
“Those who are particularly interested in sour beers have started looking into natural wines,” says Hedges. He claims that the esoteric flavors often associated with a pétillant-naturel appeal to those who prefer sour ales and seasons. “These are the people who are really interested in pushing their taste buds and trying things that they may not have understood at first.”
While the couple’s venues have now closed, wine freaks once flocked to everyone to enjoy natural wines from producers like Vignoble du Rêveur, Martha Stoumen, and Partida Creus. The uninitiated were often seduced when they saw a category like “orange” on the RiNo Yacht Club’s drinks menu.
Wright and Hedges are working to open another bar in Denver where they hope to continue what they started. They are convinced that natural wines, and wine in general, will not be overshadowed for long. Colorado Natural Wine Week has been held every April since 2014. Expert-led tastings, dinners at top restaurants, and parties focusing on natural wines have been organized across town.
Troy Bowen, one of the founders of the event, previously worked as a sales representative for the natural wine importer Jenny & François Selections. Even if natural wine didn’t really have the following it has today, there have been enough products and interest in Denver to make it work.
Tasting at Colorado Natural Wine Week / Photo courtesy Colorado Natural Wine Week
“Wine week was like a safety net,” he says. While the founding partners were able to cobble together decent events, the first few iterations were a very limited experience.
“We will educate the trade and the public, and then we may have a reason to keep these wines in this market.”
And maybe that’s what happened.
Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits has had an impressive addition to its chic inventory since it opened in 2009. Only about 5% of his inventory initially contained bottlings with little intervention.
“Virtually no natural wine was sold in Colorado when we opened,” says owner Jared Blauweiss. “But in our early years we still got some great producers on our shelves, including Elisabetta Foradori, Radikon and López de Heredia.”
Blauweiss has worked to expand its selection, and Mr. B’s has established itself as an important natural wine resource in Colorado and beyond.
In September 2020, a third location opened in the Golden Triangle in downtown Denver, with 439 natural bottlings accounting for nearly 80% of the inventory.
The aisles are stocked with coveted bottles such as the Rosé Let’s Go Disco 2019 by Anders Frederik Steen and the Hautkontakt 2017 Hiyu Aura by the winemaker Nate Ready from Oregon.
Inside Noble Riot / Photo by Armando Martinez
Blauweiss says Mr. B’s could have the largest selection of natural wines between Chicago and the Pacific.
“We let people from abroad go shopping here,” he says. Denver may have been slow to take off, but as people learned more about natural wine, they wanted it even more, says Blauweiss.
The region’s sales network has achieved this surge in interest. Benny & Zoid Selections, co-founder of musician Eric Bloom, has focused for years on bringing Kmetija Štekar from Slovenia and Esencia Rural, Spain, to the Denver cellars. But newer players like John Trahan, who helped bring more natural bottles to Denver’s best wine stores like Mondo Vino, have joined the fight.
“Colorado is the friendly place where people care about where their products come from or whether their coffee is organic and fairly traded,” says Trahan, who owns the Yes Wines distribution company. “That mindset may have been a bit late when it came to their wine, but the cool thing is that there are a lot of people here who may come into this world through natural wine.”
Trahan’s offerings include Lelarge-Pugeot, Fond Cyprès Premier Jus and Les Dolomies’ sometimes hard-to-find bottles from the Jura in France.
In addition to stores like Foss Wine Company and Denver Wine Merchant, Trahan also supplies lively restaurants like Safta and Noble Riot, which Bowen opened with great success in 2018 in the River North (RiNo) arts district.
Bowens Restaurant is the kind of hangout where you squeeze into an oversized velvet cabin that is pressed against floor-to-ceiling windows adorned with graffiti. A bucket of fried chicken can be paired with a tasting flight of pét-nats from around the world or even a natural pinot from one of Colorado’s up-and-coming wine-growing regions.
Such quirky, unexpected food and wine programs may be old hat in Paris or Barcelona, but it’s a new experience starting in Denver.
Photo courtesy Colorado Natural Wine Week
Head to Kelly Whitaker’s James Beard-nominated Brutø, where you can wash off suadero tacos with a bichi rosé. In Hop Alley, the seasoning of a Sichuan catfish stew is softened with Thierry Germain’s dry mineral Clos du Moulin Chenin Blanc.
These might not be as typical a Denver pairing as a green chilli burrito and limited edition IPA series, but they might be on the way.