7: #IfYouKnowYouKnow, Part Two
The second of a two-part investigation into how Copenhagen became one of the world's top hubs for natural wine, and why that is both great and obnoxious
A couple of weeks ago I was buying wine at one of Copenhagen’s many great natural wine shops, although I almost didn’t get the chance. Because in the shop was another customer, a young tattooed man wearing soft pants and Windsor glasses, who was talking at length about the bottles in the shop. All the bottles. The shop owner followed him around, collecting the ones the young man picked from the shelves. I kept my distance in part because it was obviously going to be a really good sell for the little shop—much better than it would get from me, who only wanted to buy 2 or 3 bottles—but also because the young man was obviously someone pretty important in the wine- or resto- business. In the end, after a good 25 minutes, the young man finally ran out of words and pointed to one out of the now many, many bottles the owner was holding for him. "That one!" He ended up buying it--that one bottle— for 150 kroner. We were now six people waiting in the shop. And because of covid restrictions, two more were waiting in line outside.
Now this could be the story about one annoying customer in a wine shop but there is more to it. Because when my turn came, I asked the shop owner, “Who was that guy?” “ Nobody,” he replied. “But he used to be a waiter at a wine bar on Vesterbro.”
A couple of days later I spoke to another waiter at my local natural wine bar and told her about the experience. Asking her if she had noticed any change in the clientele over the years she looked at me and said, “Are you crazy?! There’s been a huge change.” That bar, she told me, had started out as a place for queer people, before becoming a place for straight people on dates—to such an extend that when the music stopped, you could hear the sounds of smooching from the tables in the corners. But now, she said, “We have all these young people coming in who are very enthusiastic about wine, and will talk for ages like they invented winemaking themselves.”
Coming back to back like that, the two conversations reminded me of just how much a part of life in Copenhagen natural wine has become. And they encapsulated some of the defining characteristics of that transformation: the quantity and variety, the enthusiasm and occasional arrogance, the way that all of that keeps changing— like the wines themselves—over time.
That’s what we’re trying to chart in this series. In Part One, we tracked the origins of the movement in this city, looking at some of the people and conditions that led to Copenhagen becoming one of the world’s main hubs for natural wine. In Part Two, below, we pick up the story, and look at how within the short span of the last decade or so, successive generations have embraced and—for better and worse—shaped the city’s natural wine culture.
The story is long as hell and full of names of people and places. And even so, it only scratches the surface. You might want to open a bottle of wine while you read it. But we hope you find it as fun as we have to contemplate the transformation. As one person I interviewed this week said to me, “If you told me back then that this is what it would become, I never would have believed you. Now, it’s all we drink.”
The night that Manfreds opened as a wine bar is a blur to Anders Frederik Steen, a blend of food, wine, and emotion so chaotic that even at the time, the events of it didn’t stick in his memory. But a decade later he does remember what happened once the guests and staff had left for the evening. “I sat alone in the dining room and finished a bottle of Épona 2006 from Les Griottes–at the time one of my favorite wines,” he says. “I knew then that, with the profile of wines we had put together, we were going to create something new.”
That night was actually Manfreds’ second opening. The first had occurred the year before, a few months before chef Christian Puglisi, who co-owned both places, opened Relæ across the street. The original Manfreds was an afterthought of sorts: a tiny café intended to improve Relæ’s economic and environmental sustainability by serving the parts of animals and vegetables the flagship couldn’t use in a simple dish of the day. Relæ would have a huge effect on Copenhagen: its creative use of simple ingredients, its kitchen pushed local cuisine in a new direction and, by drawing new life to the neighborhood, literally helped transform the city. But for all of its impact, the bigger story, at least when it comes to wine, may well have taken place across the street.
When a space next door to the original Manfreds became available in 2011, Puglisi and his partners expanded and opened it as an all-natural wine bar. Relæ had already gone made the leap. “Because we didn’t have room for a big cellar—we started with twenty bottles, ten white, ten red—we had a hard choice to make,” Puglisi says. “It forced us to think, what do we want to say with our wines? I was all about not giving people what they wanted and natural wines—grown on small farms with organic grapes and low intervention–communicated our core values. So we decided to go all out.”
You can say that again. At the time, there were a few wine bars in Copenhagen, like Terroiristen and Ved Stranden 10, that specialized in organic and biodynamic wines and sold a lot of natural bottles, but neither was purist about its selection. Manfreds, on the other hand, was hardcore. “We considered—and still consider— sulfur to be the biggest fault in wine and the only really efficient way to kill any living expression,” says Steen of the choices he and and his fellow sommelier made for the first list. “We wanted to prove that wines made without sulfur could age just as well as wines filled with chemicals, and that the quality and diversity of this style of wines was just as high as classical. And we worked only with winemakers we had visited ourselves and knew as friends, because it ensured that our passion and philosophy was shared.”
To make their case that wines without additives could age beautifully, the pair bought older and new vintages together, and cellared the latter. The resulting 800-strong wine list included bottles dating back to the early 80s from now revered winemakers like Claude Courtois, the Haquet sisters, and Bruno Schueller. Even now, natural wine expert Alice Feiring recalls being impressed with the list’s depth.
In its selection alone, the place would have an outsized impact. “Manfreds planted the flag,” says food writer Mattias Kroon. “Some things they sold were legendarily futuristic, other stuff was plainly undrinkable. But that was part of the spirit at the time: try all, taste all, make it up as you go along.”
Yet the wines themselves were not Manfreds only source of influence. Its style was decidedly downmarket: cement floor, mismatched second-hand furniture, and a disco ball illuminating the wine room. Served on plates meant for sharing, the food—mostly vegetables—was simple and earthy. And according to Alessandro Perricone, who after working as Relæ’s sommelier for a year or two became wine director for both places, the same could be said about their approach to wine service. “Before, to understand wine you had to wear a suit, you had to use points, you had to talk about tannins and acidity,” he says, sounding a lot like Sune Rosforth or Pontus Elofsson or Mia and Mads Rudolf when they describe their own, earlier attraction to natural wine. “And here we were saying to guests: you have a mouth, drink.”
Not everyone found the attitude entirely welcoming. “Manfreds did a good job of finding its own style early on, and it only got better in time.” says Jon Frederik Capoul, of Vinbonden. “But they also maybe helped create this sort of ironic distance to the wines.”
For many, it was a thrilling place. “Things were fermenting there,” says Perricone. “All the people working at Manfreds at the time were so passionate. Every single bottle was opened with lots of respect and lots of curiosity.” Respect, and a lot enjoyment; much of the time, Manfred’s felt like a party. “You’re not just here to navigate a serious collection of hard-to-find natural wines from cult vintners,” Oliver Strand noted in the New York Times in 2012. “You’re here to have fun.”
Fun--it was the same ethos that the first group of pioneers to bring natural wine had embraced, and continued to seek in Fri Vin’s biannual gatherings. Most of those working at Manfreds were in their 20s, a decade or so younger than their predecessors, and their youth helped shape the party ambiance there and throughout the city.
For Perricone, who had worked in restaurants in Italy before moving to Copenhagen, it was intoxicating to have his skills and knowledge taken seriously. “I had a credit card to go and travel and search for quality,” he recalls. “Despite being 24 or 26, I was looked at as a professional for the first time, I felt like, ok, my job is important. And I had an army of colleagues the same age who were also ready to taste, discover, share wine with me. We were all really passionate about wine, and somehow we had created a community.”
The Second Generation
Outside of Manfreds, other passionate 20-somethings were also pushing Copenhagen’s wine scene in new directions. Chief among them was Mads Kleppe, who came to the city in 2010 after years of working with classical wines in Norway, and was in fact supposed to be starting a job at Per Se in New York before his chef insisted he go to Noma instead, telling him, “It’s the future.” Ten months after he arrived there, Kleppe replaced Pontus Elofsson as wine director and started making some big changes. “Pontus had done really well creating a list that was mainly focused on farming. And farming is of course very important--that’s still the main focus,” he says. “But I could see that we needed a new expression, and I wanted to move very fast. The food was changing, and it was necessary for the flavors and the menu, for everything we were creating at Noma.”
In hindsight, 2011, the year in which Kleppe took over and Manfreds re-opened, seems pivotal. “It was a big shift,” he says. “To go from not just being about organic farming, but about working with wines you don’t do anything to. All the sudden there were a lot of people that were ready to go a step further, that were opening shops around Europe, and Copenhagen in particular. And alll of a sudden, we were all getting introduced to a lot of more people.”
Compared with its predecessors (the “these are just the wines we like” generation), this second generation could be more strident in its advocacy for natural wine. In part that was a reaction to the ever-more inflamed rhetoric emanating from defenders of classical wine. Food and wine writer Bruce Palling, who identified the vogue for natural wines as originating with New Nordic cuisine, for example, noted that he avoided Relæ because of its all-natural list, and described natural wine in general as tasting “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry, or—just as bad—characterless, bland, and acidic.”
By then, it had become common for critics like Palling to depict natural wine advocates as cult members or brainwashed religious acolytes. Even people like Jylland-Postens restaurant Niels Lillelund, who describes himself as enjoying natural wines, was put off by what he took to be the fanaticism of its adherents. “You renounce everything you have drunk before, and spend a lot of energy on hating [conventional wine], he said in a 2012 interview with Rasmus Palsgård.” “You almost get the impression that these people are meeting to pour the sulfite-containing wines in their cellars down the sewer, while singing 'Closer My God to Thee.”
But there was also an element of truth to the depiction, Perricone admits. “It became almost a religious thing: do you drink natural wine or do you drink shitty wine? If you weren’t part of the natural wine movement, you just weren’t interesting. And whether you did a little bit to your wine or a lot, it didn’t matter--it was all poisoning.”
These days, he chalks that attitude up to age. “Now I try not to have preconceptions; I try to listen more and understand other people’s reasons,” he says. “But when you're young and you’ve discovered this thing for the first time, you think you know everything. That’s where I was and that’s where most of us were. It’s not that I regret the attitude because I still think it was necessary to prove the point and make a change. But now I know there’s a lot I don’t know.”
The sense of having to declare yourself on one side or the other was not limited to Manfreds; by the time he won the 2012 Waiter of the Year award for his work at Geranium, Peter Pepke was already questioning why [at the time] there were no classical wines on their list to serve to guests who requested them. But Manfreds’ success helped pave the way for more all-natural wine lists outside of the fine dining places that had been first to adopt them. They started appearing in more casual places like Radio, Pony, and Pluto (all 2012) and new wine bars, like Den Vandrette (2013).
As the number of places grew, so too did the number of people--again, generally young--who flocked to Copenhagen to work in its natural wine scene. Just as the city’s reputation for groundbreaking cuisine led legions of ambitious young cooks from around the world to move to Denmark, so too did the city’s burgeoning reputation as a hub for natural wine have a magnetic effect. “It became like, hmm, should I take a season as a ski bum in the Alps?” says Mads Rudolf. “Or should I go to Copenhagen and take a season pouring wine?”
Some of those who came had broad experience with wine. And of course one of the appeals of natural wine has always been its relatively low barrier to entry, which meant that even those without a lot of knowledge could acquire it fairly easily. But because so many here learned about wine in general not through study or formal training, but simply by waiting tables in a place that served it, their perspective could be fairly circumscribed. Many came up through the profession having drunk nothing but.
That phenomenon was reinforced, in Pepke’s opinion, with a larger industry trend. “We've seen a great decline in waiters and somms over the last many years,” he says. “Denmark has become such a rich country that everybody expects service, but nobody wants to give service.” The lack of locals willing to dedicate themselves to the profession meant that it was often younger people from abroad who would fill those jobs. “Yet it’s very hard to just step into the classic wine scene because it’s so vast and there’s so much to learn,” he notes. “And ten years ago, the natural wine scene was just budding. So yes, it was exciting and it matched the cuisine much better. But this new idea of how to work with wine was also easier to learn.”
That kind of experience could intensify the Us vs. Them, natural vs. classical mentality, and sometimes came coupled with a developing sense that even within the natural wine world, some parts were cooler than others. Although Capoul comes from an organic winemaking family in France, and his shop Vinbonden only sells natural wines, the fact that he had never worked as a waiter in this city, and thus lacked the connections of those who did, made it hard for him, he says, to establish a network. “For the first year, I was just a neighborhood shop. Now it’s shifted, and customers seek me out because they’re interested in good wines, and they tag it on Instagram and all that. But it can take a while for the cool kids to accept you.”
Pepke, who is today general manager and wine director at Esmée, knows the feeling. Although he has been working in wine since he was a teenager, he sometimes finds himself excluded on the grounds of not quite looking the part. “Den Vandrette is one of my favorite wine bars in Copenhagen, but if they have no idea who you are—and especially if you come in wearing a suit like I sometimes do—they expect you don’t know anything about anything, and they look at you like ‘why are you here? It always ends up well, but you sometimes have to prove yourself first.”
In time, the associations with fun, partying, and coolness eventually eventually helped turn natural wine, in some quarters, from something you drank, to something you are. “You could do a sociological study and see that, among a certain group of people--young, urban, progressive, university educated--it became a sign of cultural capital,” says Capoul. Or, as Mattias Kroon puts it, “It became an identity. Part of a general hipster thing.”
Hipsters: those strange denizens of cities across the globe whom everyone knows but no one ever admits to being. Most often identifiable by their symbols: beards, tattoos, and fixies. And these days, by the natural wine they drink.
That transformation has had some effects. For wine to work as a symbol of identity, after all, it has to communicate its naturalness. “We started seeing people buy labels much more,” says Mia Rudolf of Pétillant. “Not necessarily the name on the label but the label itself. It has to ‘say’ natural--it has to be colorful and cool and weird. If the wine is orange, even better. In that case, it’s like, ‘can we have two bottles?’” Kroon has a similar, if perhaps more vivid, take. “Put an erect penis with a lot of hair on the label,” he says. “And you’ll sell a lot of wine.”
It’s not just the labels that communicate, however; it’s also the taste. Excess oxidation, barnyard flavors, even mousiness were heralded by people who didn’t have the experience to recognize those characteristics as faults and thought natural wine always meant glou glou. “They just want something ‘funky,’ says Mia Rudolf. They don’t necessarily have the palate, and think that If the wine doesn’t have some faults then it’s not natural and they don’t want it.”
Perricone has observed the same. “I have my moments, not only with guests but also with some of my colleagues from other companies, where they’ll tell me that a wine is not natural if it’s not glou glou, or if it’s not funky. But they don’t know why a wine is funky or glou glou. They think it’s glou glou because there are no chemicals, and a full red tastes the way it does because there are chemicals.”
Indeed, even though the city remains a beacon for some of the finest iterations of natural wine, it’s also acquired a reputation as a place that will buy just about anything.”You can sell vinegar there,” one producer told Kroon. “If you have to get rid of some wine because it’s not good, you just ship it to Copenhagen.”
A Third Generation? Already?
The conversion of natural wine into an identity, the hipster associations, the lack of deeper understanding--in this too, the city is part of a much more universal phenomenon. “Right now it’s going through its coffee barista phase everywhere and it’s frustrating as hell,” says Alice Feiring of the scene as a whole. “They want a party wine, a fucked-up wine, and they lose everything else. Where is the agriculture and the knowledge? Where is the wine?”
Many of the repercussions of that emphasis are also global. The popularity of natural wine has meant some big conventional wine producers are now slapping ironic labels on their bottles in an effort to get in on the profits, or even making wines that perhaps lack added sulfites but are in other ways the equivalent of the ‘industrial organic’ foods that Michael Pollan identified years ago. It’s also induced more and more young people to start making it, which is exciting and revitalizing in many ways, but can also result in more flawed wines on the market--in part because those younger growers themselves may come to think that natural wine should taste of those faults, and in part because, as Mads Rudolf explains, they lack the financial reserves to withstand a bad vintage. “It’s very often the younger growers [exporting] the flawed wines,” he explains, “because they can't afford to not sell them.” And as natural wine has broken through, it’s been accompanied by speculation as buyers with deep pockets drive up the prices in their quest to obtain hard-to-find bottles. “That’s something we never saw coming,” says Rudolf. “And honestly, we’re not sure how to handle it.”
All those effects are, again, universal. But because Copenhagen is so small, the increased popularity of natural wine and its transformation into an identity has perhaps a greater-than-average impact. The number of bars, shops, restaurants, subscription services, and events featuring natural wine seems to grow exponentially every time you look up (and if you need evidence that Amager--a part of the city once known for its tanning salons and Hells Angels chapter—is gentrifying, look no further than the recently launched here).
More than anything, the number of importers has skyrocketed. Many of them are doing it more as a hobby than a business (the ease of establishing a wine import company here, especially compared with other Nordic countries, is another part of the explanation for Copenhagen’s centrality), and as Mia Rudolf points out, “they’re all walking around to restaurants or shops with a couple of bottles in their backpacks saying, ‘hey, do you want to try some funky juice?’” And yet demand is still high enough that none of the importers we spoke with felt like there was excessive competition for customers.
The same cannot be said of competition for producers. “There’s not a week that goes by when someone doesn’t try to fish around and see if they can get some of our growers to change,” says Mads Rudolf. “It’s very annoying.”
That’s a big change from the kind of cooperation that used to exist. “When we started, and even ten years ago, we all collaborated. We could sit down with Sune and show our cards--say I’m thinking about starting with some new people in Languedoc and he’d be like, yeah, I’ve thought about that too. And then we could be, ok: you go with that one and I’ll go with this one.” But it’s also meant that importers no longer have the luxury of allowing winemakers the time to develop. “If we came across a young winemaker and thought, oh, she’s going to be good in a couple of years, we could wait and see, because we talked to each other. But nowadays there would be 25 young importers from Denmark, and another 25 from Sweden, waiting to snatch them up. So you have to put down your bet right away.”
Natural wine remains a very small part of the market compared with conventional, but all that growth has meant, as Tue Bach Pedersen who opened his own shop, Volatil, four years ago, puts it, “you can’t really say it’s underground anymore.”
That’s the thing about hipsterism: it tends to elide into the mainstream. Over time, as tastes and movements that were once underground or rebellious become widely popular, the signs that once differentiated them make them just another fashionable product to consume. So it is perhaps not surprising that this kind of winemaking that in its origins was all about purity and craft, caring for the land on small farms, and breaking with the rigid, snooty gatekeepers who kept people from simply enjoying what they drank has become, for many, just another brand.
In Copenhagen now there are wine bars frequented and staffed by business school students whose knowledge of natural wine does not seem to have extended beyond the ironic rhetoric. (“We love nature and the Kardashians,” declares the window of one.) There are “collaborations” with Danish rappers where a lack of knowledge is actually presented as a selling point (“It was macerated for a long time. Thirty days? Actually I don’t know how long it was macerated. It’s an orange wine.”) There are natural wine influencers and hashtags like the one that gives this series its title. There is merch.
Not everyone sees that as a bad thing. Simon Plambæk, who is 29 and waits tables at Restaurant Omar, shares the concerns about how fashion and a lack of knowledge has led, in some circles, for natural wine to be identified with its faults. “I was at a restaurant recently and was served a wine that reeked of nail polish. I told the server that I thought it was bad, and he came back and said, no we love it, we’ll drink it after service. I was like, ‘Ok, you do you.’”
But Plambæk has no problem with the consumerism attached to natural wine as a lifestyle. “Anything that exposes people to natural wine is good,” he says. “So if you’re an OG type and want it to be about biodiversity and small producers and respecting terroir, that’s fine. But if you’re doing it because it makes you one of the cool kids and you can put it on Instagram, I’m fine with that too. I love that it’s trendy because that means more people will make it and import it and there will be more wine bars for me to drink at.”
He’s got a point. But what is especially interesting is the way that he sees it as a specifically young phenomenon. “I really like that it’s something that kids have for themselves. Drinking natural wine in a Nørrebro bar out of small glasses that cost 50 kroner— old people aren’t going to want that.”
Some of the people who first brought natural wine to Copenhagen might beg to differ. But Plambæk’s perspective speaks of how, in the span of just twenty or so years, natural wine as a phenomenon keeps being rediscovered and redefined, claimed time and again by succeeding generations and positioned against whatever or whomever came before. “We left the war between natural and conventional wine, and that’s a good thing,” says Mads Rudolf. “But it’s a bigger scene now, so it’s going to be more separated too.”
Although they lament the lack of knowledge and competition for producers that have changed the natural wine community here, neither he nor Mia is too worried about its future. “It’s a fashion now, and fashions come and go,” Mia says. “But natural wine will stay, and will probably develop even further. There will be more bad wines, but there will be more good wines too--just more wine in general.”
Copenhagen too will likely continue in its central role. “There’s always been a really beautiful synergy here between the growers and restaurants and importers and everyone,” says John Wurdeman, the co-founder of the Georgian winery Pheasant’s Tears who was in town this past week for a pop-up. “It brings a new aesthetic, a new texture, a new approach to things that you don’t necessarily see in other cities.”
That was certainly the case for Annamária Réka Koncz. She moved to Copenhagen from Hungary in 2012 to get her Masters degree, and started working at Terroiristen--just down the street from Manfreds— to earn some money. Although she had a background in horticulture, she didn’t know much about wine at the time, but the bar’s owner, Stefan Jensen, whose Winewise was one of the first to import natural wines, proved an excellent mentor.
“Before, I thought winemaking was the hobby of rich people, or that you needed to produce hundreds of thousands of bottles to be considered a winemaker,” she says. “So even though I was interested in wine, I never saw a place for me in that world. But because I lived in Copenhagen I learned that if you're a small producer but your product is remarkable, you can sell it.” Inspired by that notion she had bought a vineyard in Hungary, and is now producing 10,000 bottles of wine a year, some of which, in a nice bit of symmetry, Jensen now imports. “It’s all been,” she says, “because of Copenhagen.”