With one-year-old Washington Avenue retail shop Maine & Loire a certified success and a bar called Drifter’s Wife under development in the front of the same space, business and life partners Orenda and Peter Hale are thrusting Maine to the forefront of the natural wine movement.
“There’s definitely something afoot,” says Peter. Though it gets a lot of attention from high-end publications, natural wine is mostly only popular in “tiny pockets within larger markets” like New York City or the Bay Area. That means Portland, “proportionally, is way ahead of the game” with its single dedicated shop, and Maine is even home to a cutting edge producer in Oyster River Winegrowers, based in Warren.
There’s no doubt that Maine & Loire is both stoking and supplying a growing demand for unusual wines. Yet Peter and Orenda moved to Maine to start a family after years in restaurants in New York City, and Peter says their retail idea came about simply when they couldn’t find the wines they loved. “It’s a business model to have something people haven’t seen before,” Peter recognizes, and they also also love sharing their excitement, but he says he and his wife brought these products to the state “selfishly.” Altruistic or not, their gain is Maine’s gain.
This trend makes sense in a state so supportive of its local agriculture. Ned Swain, owner of natural wine-focused distributor Devenish Wines, explains that wine, and, of course, the grapes from which it’s made, is “an agricultural product just like tomatoes, or like beautiful butternut squash at the end of the season,” and should be appreciated as such.
Natural wine, Swain says, though not a legal term, is broadly understood to be any that’s “fermented with the natural yeast on the skins of the grapes,” rather than commercial yeasts cultivated to ferment “super quickly.” Furthermore, “grapes will only have really healthy natural yeasts if the farm or vineyard has been farmed naturally for years,” because pesticides and other chemicals can kill natural yeasts. And farming naturally requires “an absurd amount of manual labor,” such as hand harvesting to avoid unripe or rotten grapes.
Because of that, he feels natural wines, which make up perhaps 10 to 15 percent of all wine in the world, are not only good for the environment and the workers, but also the perfect expression of terroir, the term for wines that taste like where they come from.
He sees the restaurant and consumer thirst for natural wine as “an extension of the natural food movement, caring about where your food comes from,” the same idea that has allowed farmers’ markets, Rosemont Markets, farm-to-table eateries, and Maine & Loire to flourish. Next, Drifter’s Wife will highlight natural wines by the glass in an atmosphere evocative of the conviviality and high energy of French and New York wine bars.
It makes sense to me that the Hales would start with a retail shop, drum up attention for natural wines, then open a hip bar so people have even more direct and immediate access to the wines sold by the bottle mere steps away. Actually, that wasn’t planned, Peter says, but “we’ll take credit for it because it really has worked out that way.” In reality, the couple, who come from restaurant backgrounds, say “the reason we did retail initially was so we could have a baby and not be working until the wee hours of the morning.”
“For us it’s always been about the context in which you’re enjoying this stuff, the energy, the vibe, the experience, so that’s what we’re most excited about, to get back to service.”
(For more about Drifter’s Wife, see our Jan. 27 story on the business at http://portlandphoenix.me/2016/01/27/drink/maine-and-loires-next-step-drifters-wife-aims-to-bring-natural-wine-to-washington-ave/.)