Why Denver’s Wine Scene Just Became Way Cooler

Why Denver’s Wine Scene Just Became Way Cooler

The opening of Noble Riot—the Mile High City’s first natural-wine-focused bar—signifies an exciting transformation.

I have a confession: Although I’ve been happily writing about food and booze for the better part of a decade, I’ve always hated writing about wine.

It’s not because wine writing is technical or hard-to-understand or complicated (although it is). It’s not because I don’t like drinking wine (I absolutely do). It’s that writing about wine has always felt, well, boring. “There’s a story behind this bottle,” wine pros would gush at tasting events as I swirled, sniffed, and sipped, solemnly nodding in agreement about the notes of cassis I may (or may not) have detected. And the stories, almost always, turned out to be snore-fests.

But something fascinating has been happening with wine culture over the past few years. As natural wine—very simply defined as vino that’s produced with hand-harvested grapes, grown either organically or biodynamically, using native yeasts and none of the 200-some additives allowed by law—has risen in popularity, wine has become fun again. Consider the fact that Bon Appétit tapped natural-wine advocate (and hilarious, bottle-swigging Instagrammer) Marissa Ross to shape its millennial-friendly wine coverage in 2016, and that even Kourtney Kardashian is dishing out natural wine recommendations on her new Goop-esque lifestyle website, Poosh.

Here in Denver, the trend has been catching on: Colorado Natural Wine Week is next week (April 15-20), followed by Two Parts’ new wine festival, Vinochromatic (April 27), not to mention Mary Allison Wright has designed a 100-percent natural wine list at LoDo’s Morin. But the opening of Noble Riot, a new wine bar in RiNo, is the watershed moment for the Denver’s burgeoning #natty movement.

Noble Riot is a project from Nicole and Scott Mattson (who also own Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club next door to the new bar), as well as Natural Wine Consortium founder Troy Bowen and wine pro Joel Kampfe (who curated the wine program for Eno Wine Bar in San Francisco and Chicago). They’re resisting the “natural wine” label for Noble Riot—according to Kampfe, there’s too much controversy about what actually defines natural wine—instead highlighting what they’re calling “honest wines.” “We’re focusing on pure-style wines with low manipulation and attention to detail in the vineyard,” Kampfe says. (Whether traditional wine producers take umbrage at the phrasing is a story for another time.)

And while “pure-style” wine may sound rather serious to more casual imbibers, Noble Riot’s menu is anything but. It’s actually a zine, complete with manifestos on soil microbes and the bar’s 19 percent service fee, plus art from local impressionist Joe Ziegler. More importantly, as the crew writes in the first page of the zine: “…it’s easy to forget the very best thing about wine…It’s fucking fun.”

The theme and menu at Noble Riot will change every 60 days or so, but the current zine’s theme is dirt; that focus underscores why I’ve found the stories and makers behind natural wine production so compelling. To me, at least, thinking of wine as a conduit for celebrating small-scale, sustainable agriculture and minimal-intervention winemaking is far more interesting than getting lost in stuffy tasting notes. Of course, Kampfe and the Noble Riot staff are happy to dive into such tasting notes, but they can also speak to the way the vineyards were managed and how the grapes were picked. This is a place where conversation and exploration are encouraged, and much of the pretense found in traditional wine bars is absent.

The list of “juice” spans a roster of funky, small-production wineries from the New World and the Old. There are skin-contact wines (sometimes called “orange” wines), like the slightly funky, easy-drinking Viña Gonzáles Bastías Naranjo from Chile. There are bottles made with lesser-seen grapes from unfamiliar regions, such as the Rojac Refošk made in Primorska, Slovenia, with Refosco grapes. There also more straightforward options, like the Domaine Des Hauts Baigneux Les Chênes Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley, which Kampfe calls a “pure expression of the grape.”

Such exciting wine options, married with Noble Riot’s concise food menu (charcuterie and cheeses, elk tartare, gougères, and the like), cozy but comfortable digs, and hip playlists—Noble Riot has a Spotify page if you’d like a listen—set the stage for it to become a go-to spot for both wine geeks and the (born-again) wine curious, like myself.

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