Denver has long been lauded as one of the U.S.’s leading beer meccas, where craft breweries see Black Friday-like lines upon the release of experimental brews. Spirits, bolstered primarily by whiskey, sit second.
Wine, on the other hand, has always been the third choice. But the natural wine fervor that has gripped the likes of New York City, San Francisco and the Midwest has made it to the Mile High City.
Denver is one of the country’s fastest growing urban sprawls, and many say that transplants have helped add to local cultural movements. Or that what happens in bigger cities impacts what people want in places like Denver.
But when it comes to natural wine, much credit for this surge has been attributed to one surprising demographic: the adventurous beer drinkers.
“We do still suffer from having a ‘semi-younger’ food and beverage scene,” says Mary Allison Wright.
With her husband, McLain Hedges, Wright was an early champion of natural wines in Colorado. The couple launched projects like the bottle shop The Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club, a cocktail bar with an all-natural wine list.
“But overall, because we have such a vast culture of craft beer, there’s this sense of open-mindedness that has allowed for natural wines to grow,” she says.
Denver’s natural wine scene is especially grateful to sour beer enthusiasts. Many in the wine business say this group has been the easiest to convert.
“Those who are really into sour beers in particular have started to take to natural wines,” says Hedges. He maintains that the esoteric flavors often associated with a pétillant-naturel appeal to those who favor sour ales and saisons. “These are the guys who are really interested in pushing their palates and trying things that maybe they didn’t initially understand.”
While the couple’s venues have since closed, wine geeks once flocked to each to sip natural wines from producers like Vignoble du Rêveur, Martha Stoumen and Partida Creus. The uninitiated were often beguiled when they saw a category like “Orange” on RiNo Yacht Club’s beverage menu.
Wright and Hedges are working to open another bar in Denver where they hope to continue what they started. They’re convinced that natural wines, and wine in general, won’t be in the shadows for very long. The Colorado Natural Wine Week has been staged each April since 2014. Expert-led tastings, pairing dinners at top restaurants and parties focused on natural wines were organized all over the city.
Troy Bowen, one the event’s founders, previously worked as a sales representative for natural wine importer Jenny & François Selections. Even when natural wine didn’t really have the fanbase it does today, he says, there was enough product and interest in Denver to make it work.
“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’re gonna teach the trade and the public, and then maybe we’ll have a reason to continue to have these wines in this market.”
And maybe that’s exactly what happened.
Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits has built out its natty inventory impressively since it opened in 2009. Only about 5% of its stock featured low-intervention bottlings in the beginning.
“There was virtually no natural wine distributed in Colorado when we first opened,” says owner Jared Blauweiss. “But in our first few years, we were still able to put some great producers on our shelves, including Elisabetta Foradori, Radikon and López de Heredia.”
Blauweiss has worked to grow his selection, and Mr. B’s has asserted itself as a major natural wine resource in Colorado and beyond.
In September 2020, it opened a third location, this one in downtown Denver’s Golden Triangle district, where 439 natural wine bottlings make up nearly 80% of the inventory.
Blauweiss says that Mr. B’s could have the largest natural wine selection between Chicago and the Pacific Ocean.
“We’ve had people drive from out of state to shop here,” he says. Denver may have been slow to catch on, but as people learned more about natural wine, the more they wanted it, says Blauweiss.
The region’s distribution network has met this uptick in interest. Benny & Zoid Selections, cofounded by musician Eric Bloom, has focused on getting the likes of Kmetija Štekar from Slovenia and Spain’s Esencia Rural to Denver cellars for years. But newer players like John Trahan, who has helped bring more natural bottles to top Denver wine shops like Mondo Vino, have entered the fray.
“Colorado is the kind place where people care about where their produce comes from or whether their coffee is organic and fair trade,” says Trahan, who owns distribution company Yes Wines. “That mindset was maybe a little late when it came to their wine, but what’s cool about it is that there’s a lot of people here who are potentially entering that world through natural wine.”
In addition to stores like Foss Wine Company and Denver Wine Merchant, Trahan also supplies buzzy restaurants like Safta and Noble Riot, which Bowen opened to great acclaim in the River North (RiNo) Arts District in 2018.
Bowen’s eatery is the type of hangout where you squeeze into an oversize velvet booth pushed up against graffitied floor-to-ceiling windows. A bucket of fried chicken can be paired with a tasting flight of pét-nats from all over the world, or maybe even a natural Pinot from one of Colorado’s up-and-coming viticultural areas.
Such whimsical, unexpected food-and-wine programs might be old hat in Paris or Barcelona, but it’s a new experience that’s taking off in Denver.
Head to James Beard-nominated chef Kelly Whitaker’s Brutø, where you can wash down suadero tacos with a Bichi rosé. At Hop Alley, the spice of a Sichuan catfish stew is mellowed with Thierry Germain’s dry, mineral Clos du Moulin Chenin Blanc.
These may not be as quintessential a Denver pairing as a green-chili burrito and limited-edition, small batch IPA, but they could be on their way.