Karina Iglesias is a one-woman show. It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night in Downtown Miami, and while other restaurants in town are taking advantage of low season, prepping the same way the state does for hurricanes, Iglesias’ Catalan-inspired NIU Kitchen is a snapshot of Barcelona’s bustling La Boqueria market.
Small plates of anchovies, sourced from Spain’s Cantabria region, and pata negra, Iberian ham, stream continuously from the open kitchen. As her daughter polishes wine glasses behind the bar, Iglesias, in a mod black leather vintage dress, sweeps across the dining floor, taking orderings and opening bottles of wine. She pauses for a moment behind the bar, for an impromptu wine tasting. She opens a bottle of 2016 Slobodné Vinártsvo "Interval 104," a natural white wine from Slovakia’s Trnava region reminiscent of a Riesling. She swirls, sniffs, sips, and says, “Yes, this is good. Yes, I like this.”
Iglesias, the restaurant’s wine director and one of the managing partners, started adding natural wine to NIU Kitchen’s list about four years ago, but her customers weren’t ready, not then.
“I see here in Miami people getting a bit confused, everyone thinks natural wine is funky,” she explains, adding that the wines she received in the beginning were a bit flawed. “I’m always up to try something different or something that doesn’t taste like classic wine we know, but a lot of these producers have been working this way for years.”
The definition as to what makes a natural wine, well natural, is cloudy, like some of the wines can be. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen is in food journalist Jeff Gordinier’s new book, Hungry.
He writes, “Living wine, raw wine, natural wine—whatever you wanted to call it, it was meant to be made with minimal interference from human beings, and (if possible) none of the additives that were frequently used to manipulate the color, stability, and hue … this was terroir to the nth power: The land created the wine that told a story about the land.”
Slowly, Iglesias started converting more of her list, and now it’s 100-percent natural. Customers are asking for these wines more and more, she says, and even mainstream distribution companies are trying to get their hands on more of these producers. By virtue of small farmers, however, these wines are relatively low in production and much more allocated, so availability varies by market—and Miami is still considered a relatively new market.
When Italian eatery Macchialina opened on South Beach seven years ago, they had one orange wine on the menu, a Radikon. It was slim pickings, says Italian-born beverage director Jacqueline Pirolo. But now the wine list is 75-percent natural or biodynamic.
“In the last year, the [natural wine scene] has grown exponentially in Miami, but there’s a few of us who have been fighting for it a lot longer than that,” she says.
Newer spots like Boia De, which opened in June in Buena Vista, have brought on sommeliers like South Florida-raised Bianca Sanon, whose resume counts stints at now-closed Michelin-starred tasting restaurant Semilla, in Brooklyn, known for its all-natural wine list. “At Semilla, I learned a lot about natural wine and how to marry fun and funky with more classic profiles, elevated wine with finesse,” she says.
When she moved down to Miami two years ago, she was scrolling on Instagram and came across Justin Flit’s now-closed Proof Pizza in Midtown. She saw pizza and natural wine and was sold.
“When I got to Miami, people were focusing on one particular style of natural wine—super funky, crazy—and while I love that stuff, a lot of people veer away from it because they think natural wine is only that,” she says. “It was nice to work with someone (like Flit) who cares about natural wine not as a trend, but as something to enjoy with good food.”
Isabelle Legeron, France’s first female Master of Wine (and author of Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally) estimates that natural wine comprises less than one percent of the global wine production; it’s still the minority, still niche. And while a vast majority of people “think natural wine is cuckoo and doesn’t make any sense, now people are more respectful, they see there’s a place for it,” she says.
In 2012, she launched the UK’s largest artisan wine fair, RAW WINE, in London, which has since expanded across the Atlantic like New York, Los Angeles, and Montreal. “When we started RAW, I was the odd one in the wine industry, the MS who defended natural wine,” she says. “People told me I was committing career suicide.”
“Part of doing the fair has always been supporting the community, and while it’s maybe a little too early for Miami, we can help,” she says, adding that a lot of growers who attend the fairs have recently found representation in Florida. “I get the sense the city is on the cusp of a change in terms of moving from a cocktail culture to a wine culture.”
The Regent Cocktail Club, Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Company, and Broken Shaker are a few of the bars responsible for Miami’s craft cocktail renaissance, when the city started shifting from bottle service in blingy nightclubs to award-worthy artisanal libations on par with cocktail capitals like Chicago.
“Wine is a bridge from cocktails, since you don’t drink cocktails with dinner,” says Miami-based natural wine distributor and importer Arash Hajianpour, who spent a decade in Paris working as the operations manager with Quixotic Projects (the group behind some of the city’s most celebrated bars, like Candelaria and Le Mary Celeste). “These wines are more drinkable, they’re not palate-depressing; they’re better with lighter food that’s more product-forward, less sauced-up.”
Natural wine is stylistically different from the Parkerization movement, when wine went bigger with more oak, more alcohol.
“When you have chefs that are making more delicate food now, as opposed to more of the steakhouse model, these high acidity, low alcohol natural wines are more appropriate,” says one of Hajianpour’s key importers, Brooklyn-based Zev Rovine.
Similar to the rise of smaller, locally driven restaurants that place the product at the center of the cuisine, natural wine is doing the same with the vignerons. “I think the small vigneron is this person people can culturally grip on to,” says Rovine, who compares the natural wine movement to the comeback of the artisanal bakery. “If you look at young, new restaurants and the way they are sourcing and making their food—they’re all about local, seasonal, organic—natural wine fits into that philosophy.”
In Miami, similar to Los Angeles, there’s a huge culture around health and wellness. But while juice bars and boutique fitness studios like Barry’s abound, the natural wine scene has lagged behind. “Five or six years ago, we used to sell most of our wines in California in the San Francisco Bay area, and now L.A. is a bigger market,” Rovine says. “It’s a mystery as to why it took them longer to figure it out, but once they did, they were all over it. And that happened for the same kind of reasons it might happen in Miami—this health-conscious culture.”
In Miami, there are chefs like Flit, who is gearing up to open a new spot in Coconut Grove called Navé, with a natural wine-focused list designed around the seafood-driven menu. There’s also finer dining tasting menu spots like Brag Kilgore’s Alter and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, who have added “natty” wines to their lists.
One of the most buzzed-about bar openings, though, is Margot Natural Wine & Aperitivo Bar Downtown from the Bar Lab duo (and Broken Shaker founders) Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta, whose Miami Beach eatery, 27 Restaurant, already boasts a selection of natural wines. A nod to Hemingway’s granddaughter, Margaux, who was named after Bordeaux’s Château Margaux, the bar (slated to open early 2020) will feature bottles championing female winemakers.
In September, Red Hook’s Hometown BBQ—which serves some of the strongest BBQ in New York—opened a Miami outpost in the former Brothers Produce warehouse space in Allapattah (a neighborhood some predict to be Miami’s next Wynwood), where their go-to dishes like lamb bahn mi and corn pudding are served alongside a carefully curated selection of natural wines that beverage director Jeff Porter believes “is the best pairing for our food.”
“I’m from Texas and a big barbecuer myself, and beer is fun, but it doesn’t enhance the flavor, specifically the feral nature of these wines, which lend themselves to the intense flavors of open-fire cooking,” he says.
On opening night, diners didn’t recognize any of the labels. But they weren’t opposed to trying them, Porter quickly adds.
“It’s a unique dichotomy between New York and Miami, but what I liked when I was going around town is seeing some of the homegrown wine bars popping up,” he says, referencing the wine list of “small, groovy producers” at places like Mandolin Aegean Bistro. “The beauty of what’s going on outside of New York is that everyone has this open idea that as long as the wine is good, they’ll drink it.”
Where to go:
NIU Kitchen, 134 NE 2nd Ave, Miami, FL
Boia De, 5205 NE 2nd Ave, Miami, FL
Macchialina, 5506, 820 Alton Rd, Miami Beach, FL
Hometown BBQ, 1200 NW 22nd St #100, Miami, FL