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Natural wine is having a moment in the Tampa Bay area

From pét-nats to skin-contact whites, natural wines are popping up at restaurants, coffee shops and wine bars across the bay.

You may have caught the buzz about natural wines.

Maybe you’ve heard someone describe a wine as funky, or having a barnyardlike aroma. Maybe you’ve been inundated by Instagram posts of pale, fizzy “pét-nats,” or admired some of the colorful labels adorning bottles at your local wine shop. Maybe you’ve noticed the person sitting next to you drinking something that looks cloudy, almost ... orange?

Natural wines at Bandit Coffee Co., which sells them by the bottle and some by the glass. [ MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Though the term is somewhat ambiguous, natural wines are generally made with minimal intervention and little to no additives. It’s not a new concept — it’s more of a return to the way wine has been made for thousands of years. The genre has taken off in the past couple of years, especially in bigger cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, where the natural, or “natty,” wine scene is booming.

While the trend has been a little slower to catch on in the Tampa Bay area, a growing number of wine shops, restaurants and cafes are beginning to highlight the wines. Several new wine bars with a natural wine focus are set to open by the end of 2019.

Distributors, wine merchants and oenophiles on both sides of the bay seem to agree on one thing: Natural wine is here to stay.

RELATED: Eight natural wines to try in the Tampa Bay area

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Ask anyone worth their beaujolais about the natural wine scene in Tampa Bay area and they’ll likely point in the same direction: Cru Cellars. The Palma Ceia merchant and wine bar was one of the pioneers in the local natural wine movement and carries one of the most extensive selections in town. The shop frequently hosts natural wine seminars, and the company has mentored several up-and-coming wine enthusiasts and sommeliers, several of whom have since branched out to open businesses of their own where natural wines are the focus.

Cru Cellars owner Jen Bingham poses for a portrait alongside wine director Zach Groseclose. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

When Cru’s wine director Zach Groseclose started with the company in 2016, natural wines were still relatively unheard of in the area. He had been exposed to them before, while working in fine-dining restaurants and wine retail in New York City, but it was all but impossible to find any locally.

One day Groseclose was approached by the owner of a local wine distributor who was trying to get more natural wines on the Florida market. He poured him a wine he recognized: 2 Anes Fontanilles — a deep ruby blend of carignan, syrah and grenache noir from the Languedoc region of France.

“I thought ... ‘I know that wine,’” Groseclose said. “'But what is this doing in Florida?’”

Groseclose decided to test the waters and put a couple of natural wines on Cru’s bottle list. The response was positive, so he kept adding more bottles, eventually expanding into the by-the-glass menu. Customers were curious, and it wasn’t just the wine geeks and cork dorks. More and more, people started inquiring about natural wines, sometimes pulling up a wine they had seen on a social media account or sampled while traveling in another city.

Natural wines at Cru Cellars in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Natural wine is now a huge focus at both the Armature Works offshoot and the South Tampa flagship store on MacDill Avenue, where the selections account for roughly 40 percent of their wine list and about 25 to 30 percent of their retail inventory.

For Cru Cellars owner Jen Bingham, the progression and increased interest from customers felt, well, natural, “like a sign of the times."

“Tampa is growing, and people are moving here from (places like) New York and Chicago," she said. "And I think that you’ll hopefully see customers putting the pressure on and asking for it.”

The natural wine scene in Tampa Bay is growing rapidly. Coffee shops like Tampa’s King State and St. Petersburg’s Bandit Coffee Co. are now carrying natural wines, as are bottle shops specializing in craft beer, like St. Petersburg’s Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe and Tampa’s Jug & Bottle Dept. in Seminole Heights. Restaurants, too, are starting to stock more natural wines on their lists, including Tampa’s Edison: Food + Drink Lab and St. Petersburg’s Brick & Mortar, where owner Hope Montgomery said the customer base has been eager to experiment with new wines.

Later this fall, two new wine bars are opening in St. Petersburg: Book + Bottle in downtown and CellarMasters in the Edge District. The big focus at both? Natural wine.

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So, what exactly is natural wine?

The word “natural” has been accompanied by some controversy. Many industry professionals have taken to terms like “minimal intervention” or “raw” when describing the wines, though these terms can feel similarly ambiguous.

“There’s this gray area, because there’s no definition of natural wine, so everybody who makes natural wine interprets that definition differently,” Groseclose said. “There’s all different types of levels: There are people that only have certified organic or biodynamic fruit but operate as a natural winery, and there are some people who are strict adherents who don’t add anything or take anything away from the wines — so there’s a huge spectrum, which is why it’s so hard to sum up to people what it is.”

A bottle of Ovin, a red table wine from France, is pictured at Edison: Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Most wine connoisseurs agree on at least a few basic tenets: The wines don’t use pesticides or chemicals in either the vineyard or the cellar; the wines aren’t filtered and feature only naturally occurring “ambient” or indigenous yeasts, as opposed to purchased ones.

The process is less of a correction than a return to traditional winemaking methods. Post-World War II, winemakers started relying on industrial techniques that leaned heavily on everything from preharvest pesticides and fertilizers to postfermentation correcting agents and additives, and the “natural” process became increasingly less so.

It makes sense then, that in our increasingly health-focused world, wines made in a progressive and eco-friendly manner would catch on with consumers.

Terra Initia, 2017, from Eastern Europe in Georgia, is poured at Edison: Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The flavor spectrum for natural wines varies widely, but the red wines tend to skew a little on the lighter and brighter side, with higher acidity and slightly lower alcohol. Seth Davis, who oversees the wine program at Bandit Coffee Co., said it was these “light, chillable reds” that first got him into natural wine.

Skin-contact whites, also called orange wines, are made with white grapes but in the same production method as red wine, where the skins are left on to interact with the grapes. This lends the wine its characteristic light golden, or orange, hue. These wines can be a little bit more tannic, and have more texture and body than other whites.

Pét-nats, or pétillant naturel (a French term meaning “naturally sparkling”), are sparkling wines made in the ancient way, bottled before completing the first fermentation so that they finish fermenting in the bottle. The style is a little softer than something like Champagne, with bubbles that are less aggressive. The wines sometimes have a little bit of residual sugar left, which can make them fruity, soft and easy to drink.

Natural wines at Bandit Coffee Co. [ MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Despite their popularity, natural wines are not always an easy sell. There can be a steep learning curve for drinkers accustomed to drinking big Napa cabernets or buttery, vanilla-laced chardonnay. Some restaurants and wine stores have been reluctant to focus too heavily on natural wines, partly out of fear they might alienate less adventurous imbibers.

"You got to really ease people in and start light, and kind of get people used to the fact that they might like something different,” said Katie Glenz, the sommelier at Edison: Food + Drink Lab and another natural wine proselytizer. “People here are just used to such traditional styles, so you have to go slow.”

Katie Glenz is the sommelier at Edison: Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Before coming to Edison, Glenz was the beverage director at Mise en Place for three years, where she began experimenting with natural wines and adding them to the restaurant’s list.

The response from customers at both places has been overwhelmingly positive, Glenz said, but keeping a well-stocked inventory of traditional wines is crucial. Educating her guests and listening to their preferences has been key.

“Some of these wines, people wouldn’t even know that they were natural," she said. "You just have to really listen to your guests.”

A bottle of Cecelia, 2018, from the Sierra Foothills in California, at Cru Cellars in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

7 places to find natural wines

Cru Cellars

2506 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-1117

1910 N Ola Ave. (inside Heights Public Market), Tampa; (813) 559-0059

Edison: Food + Drink Lab

912 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-7411

Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe

2927 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 800-2810

Bandit Coffee Co.

2662 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

Brick & Mortar

539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 822-6540

Jug & Bottle Dept.

6203 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 675-4522

King State

520 E Floribraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 221-2100