I’ve always had a problem with wine, it runs in the family. Wine has been a huge inspiration in my foodie career, especially the idea of terroir. For those who don’t spend too much time thinking about wine, terroir is the idea that wine is much more than a bottle of fermented grape juice, it is an expression of place, of the soil and land the grapes grew on, the air they grew in, the rhythm of the seasons and the traditions and stories of the people who grew them. It brings together place, people and time in a way nothing else manages. A bottle of wine isn’t just a vehicle for free conversation but also a captured moment, a liquid expression of a specific place in space and time. The way I cook has also been heavily influenced by this idea and is a major reason why I have eschewed the ubiquitous cashew nuts, dates and blueberries that seem to dominate so much of the plant-based cooking world. I want my food to be an expression of where I am, to feel like the place and the moment I am in. Why use a cashew when you can use a hazelnut, why use dates when you have apples. Not only is this better environmentally but also poetically, your soul settles when you can just be somewhere.
It is a great sadness then, that (and please whisper this) I’ve never really been able to drink wine. Often after no more than half a glass, my stomach churns and I can feel my temples tighten into a throbbing headache, my dad has the same thing. My wine journey became limited to a few sips of a new bottle in the restaurant or to find the perfect wine match. Any more than this and I feel horrible. You can imagine my surprise then when I had almost three-quarters of a bottle of 2018 Guttarolo Miro and felt, well nothing, just pleasantly relaxed. Guttarolo is a natural wine producer from Puglia in the south of Italy. I tried some other natural wines and found the same thing. It turns out that it wasn’t the wine itself but the sulphur that is added to nearly all wine that caused the problem. Sulphur is added because it brings consistency, in the high flying world of expensive wines being able to guarantee that every bottle is identical and won’t spoil is invaluable. But it also deadens a wine, it removes some of its character and, in my case at least, gives me an upset tummy and throbbing head. As I began to explore this world a little deeper I also found that there was more to it than just being able to drink without a headache.
Natural winemaking is about trying to create a wine that truly reflects the place and time it is from. In the commodity-driven world of the international market wines have become flattened and a little characterless. It is assumed that people want every Sauvignon Blanc that comes out of New Zealand to be fruity and clean and zesty, and every wine from the Rhone to taste like Chateauneuf du Pape. Regardless of grower, vineyard and year wine must taste the same. Without realising it wine has been disneyfied, turned into a pastiche of itself. Natural wines are about creating something that is alive, vibrant and from exactly where it is, exactly when it was grown, not better or worse per se but different, sometimes wildly. It turns out that natural wine growing is the truest expression of terroir, and like any place, it has beauty and also an occasional rough edge, but that is what makes it real and exciting. It is not just a drink to have with your meal or a chance to show off your sophistication and erudition but a genuine connection to another human and another place.
We have finally made the move and are moving the Acorn wine list over to natural wines, our Dela pop up already features only amazing natural wines and over the next few months, as cases run out, you will see all the wines in acorn go that way too. I’ve always believed that if you are going to run a restaurant you should do it properly and in line with what you believe to be the best. As we begin to grow some of our own produce, buy only organic ingredients and push harder than ever to create food that is honest and of a place, it feels only right that our wine should reflect this ethos too. There will be some kickback, we have cut our margins, sometimes by up to 20% to make the wines reasonably priced. We’ve had a few people who just want their wine to taste like the wine from the supermarket and have sent emails but we will keep going because, as with the food, I don’t want our wine to just fit into a generic box labeled, good wine, but to be genuine and real, to make you excited and really form a connection to the terroir. Also, and I won’t lie, I am excited that I can now sample a glass of wine after a hard day without feeling like death warmed up.