The Midwesterners Creating Their Own Natural Wine Scene

Jill Mott Midwestern wine
Jill Mott / Photo by Isabel Subtil

When Jill Mott returned home to Minneapolis after she received her sommelier certificate in Chicago in 2011, she wanted to change the city’s wine scene. She felt that, outside of Chicago, the Midwestern market for low-intervention wines lagged behind places like New York City and Los Angeles.

“We needed to have these natural wines that I had in Chicago, like Louis/Dressner, and other importers that were around at the time,” she says.

Mott strived to source natural bottles in the area, using personal contacts to bring in wines not previously available in the state. Meanwhile, a few local wine retailers and restaurants pressured distributors to bring in natural-wine-focused importers.

“There’s always been this sort of the side natural wine crew,” says Mott. “At that time, we were kind of like the odd kids out.”

Henry & Son
Natural wine shop Henry & Son opened in Minneapolis in 2015 / Photo by Dodd Demas

In the last two years, Mott noticed tides starting to turn as customers at wine shops and diners in restaurants began to express more interest in natural and low-intervention wines. “When people on the coasts write about it more, then of course, people in the Midwest read those publications and think ‘What is an orange wine? I want to try one.’ ”

Those curious consumers might end up at Henry & Son in Minneapolis, a small shop home to one of the state’s most specialized and sizable natural wine selections. The owners, Gretchen Skedsvold and Mark Henry, landed in the area in 2012 after years in New York City.

“I never thought I would own a wine shop,” says Skedsvold, who also has a career in finance. But she saw a gap in her favorite restaurants’ wine lists and on retail shelves. She grew frustrated with the lack of options.

“I would just drive around and grab a few bottles here, a few bottles there, and realized, ‘Minneapolis could use a natural wine shop,’ ” she says. So, in 2015, she and Henry opened one themselves.

Now, more small natural wine shops and distributors have popped up throughout the Midwest. Many are driven by consumers-turned-wine professionals who open businesses to address the lack of access to their preferred wines in their region.

Frederique Boudouani Brian Bruening
Frederique Boudouani (right) started a distributor to bring natural wines to the Algerian restaurant he runs in Elkader, Iowa with his partner, Brian Bruening (left) / Photo by Naomi Rose

At Nonfiction Wines in Milwaukee, Allie and Brad Kruse pack 250 natural wines into a 500-square-foot shop. Opened in 2019, it’s the state’s first store that exclusively sells natural wine.

Alison Dillion, a Milwaukee resident and Nonfiction regular, was turned on to low-intervention wine through work in the restaurant industry. She was thrilled to see inventory available in her town that reflected her taste. “I knew these producers and winemakers, and was really excited to actually drink their wine at home,” she says.

“When I started bringing natural wines into Iowa, other distributors would ask, ‘Who are you going to sell this to? Who in Iowa will buy this?’ As if these wines are only for people on the coasts.”—Ferederique Boudouani, Abu Nawas Beverage Company

In Des Moines, natural wine bar and bottle shop The Cave DSM opened its doors in August. Iowan owners Nick and Heather Leo were exposed to natural wines while living in Europe.

While the bar business is on hold due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, “reactions have been so positive,” says Nick. “It’s been a mix of people that are just curious, but also a surprising amount of people who are already familiar with these wines.”

Nick Heather Leo
Iowans Nick and Heather Leo opened The Cave DSM, a natural wine store and bar, in Des Moines in August 2020 / Photo by Joey Leaming

Nick McManus, a wine distributor with Okoboji Wines, thinks Midwestern consumers’ interest in natural wine might eclipse supply.

“The demand is here, and I think it’s poised to just take off in the exact same way that it has in the on the coasts,” says McManus. “Iowa, or the Midwest in general, just seems to lag behind a bit.”

Importers and distributors are beginning to see the viability of bringing natural wines to the region.

“Within the past couple of years, we have seen more importers come into the market,” says Andrea Hillsey, owner of Square Wines, a bottle shop in Madison, Wisconsin. Last year, Chromatic Wines, which exclusively distributes natural wines, debuted in Milwaukee. That move, in turn, encouraged the Kruses to open Nonfiction.

“We needed to get fresh faces,” says Hillsey. “I think a lot of established distributors in the market just wouldn’t be willing to take the chances that a small startup distributor will.”

Andrea Hillsey Square wine
Andrea Hillsey owns Square Wines, a natural wine bottle shop in Madison, Wisconsin / Photo by Dutcher Photography

Frederique Boudouani has been taking those sorts of chances since 2011. He moved from Boston to Elkader, Iowa, a town of 1,300 people, and started Abu Nawas Beverage Company. The aim was to provide the sorts of beverages he wanted to serve at Schera’s, the Algerian restaurant he operates in town with his partner, Iowa native Brian Bruening.

“When I started bringing natural wines into Iowa, other distributors would ask, ‘Who are you going to sell this to? Who in Iowa will buy this?’ ” says Boudouani. “As if these wines are only for people on the coasts.”

Before Abu Nawas, he would travel hours each week to acquire inventory. He reached out to distributors, but when they heard his address?

“Everybody turned me down,” he says. “So, I just did it myself.”

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Boudouani has since grown his distribution company’s offerings from a handful of beers to a selection of brews, wines, imported foods and cured meats. There’s a theme in Boudouani’s story, and the stories of wine professionals focusing on natural throughout the region: Don’t discount the Midwestern consumer.

“As long as you believe in people, and put the time into not putting them down, but rather educating them and developing their palate, people anywhere respond positively to that,” says Boudouani.

Published on January 14, 2021
Topics: Natural Wine