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As Wine Loses Its Stodgy Rep, Will Buffalo’s Scene Find Its Legs?

Maybe it’s our blue-collar roots or our fondness for drinking heavily on the cheap, but beer- and liquor-loving Buffalo has long lacked a vibrant, thriving wine scene.

Sure, $6 pours of nondescript pinot grigio and over-oaked chardonnay are commonplace, but they are designed for affordable inebriation at the expense of palatability. On the other end of the spectrum, there have always been high-minded strongholds for the archetypical money-dropping wine drinker. But their atmospheres are too often stuffy, or their menus too unapproachable and/or stolid for the everyday, unpretentious sort of consumption necessary for widespread appeal.

That may be changing. Or, at the very least, there is evidence for hope for change.

Last week’s visit to the Queen City by famed winemaker Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm is one such bright spot. La Clarine is an acclaimed vineyard in the Sierra Foothills of California that specializes in natural wine. And Beckmeyer, who has been described as “among the finest of the new generation of U.S. winemakers,” is a veritable rock star of the natural wine movement, which proselytizes an organic, minimalist approach to growing and production, and considers profit secondary to principle.

“We basically try to stay out of the plants’ way,” Beckmeyer explained to a receptive Buffalo audience. “We try to get the picking right, and then we stand back and watch what happens. Knock on wood, it usually turns out pretty good.”

From Beckmeyer’s perspective, “pretty good” means wines that are balanced, fun to drink, and full of character. They are wines meant to be enjoyed with food and friends, and they are wines that preserve the integrity of the fruit and the character of the soil in which they’re grown. Like other natural wines, they also flout decades of stodgy winemaking rules and the burdens of formal ratings systems, rendering them our best possible hope for the democratization of wine’s pleasures (the cost of wine notwithstanding). Natural wine’s fledgling but growing popularity in Buffalo, then, might be interpreted as a sign of good things to come.

Beckmeyer was in Buffalo to talk vinification philosophy and showcase the fruits of his labor at a five-course pairing dinner at the Dapper Goose—a New American eatery in Black Rock with, arguably, the most exciting wine program in the city. His appearance was more than a thrill for co-owner Keith Raimondi, who has admired the wines of La Clarine Farm since his days behind the bar at Townsend, a fine-dining destination in Philadelphia.

Gazpacho from dinner

“When you sit down with a winemaker, it’s just different,” Raimondi said. “Wine has always been this thing that seems really fancy, but it’s really just some cool, laidback people, mostly farmers, squeezing some grapes. And there’s really nothing fancy about that at all.”

In other words, wine, stripped of rules and pretense, is for everyone.

That’s a guiding principle of Paradise Wine—a second bright spot in the city for cool, accessible, approachable wine. Opened in 2015, Paradise has been described by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the best natural wine shops in the country. More importantly, it is a welcoming, intimate hunting ground for thoughtfully curated, progressive bottles at a variety of price points to fit most budgets. Its limited selection of owner-selected inventory means less overwhelm and greater odds you’ll find a wine that resonates with you, while its helpful staff eliminates the intimidation factor long associated with the industry.

Clam, shrimp, and scallop ceviche from la clarinet farm wine dinner at the dapper goose | Paired with 2016 petit mensang

Later this year, when Tommy and Mary Lombardo of Ristorante Lombardo open their new wine bar concept on Hertel Avenue, Buffalo will have additional opportunity to drink more of the progressive, provocative wines that have enthusiasts excited, including funky, natural pours by the glass. In a previous Buffalo Rising interview, Tommy insinuated that Buffalo’s wine scene is ripe for change.

“Buffalo has a lot of cocktail bars, craft beer places, etc., but there’s no place for wine enthusiasts looking for a wine bar that is fun and exciting,” he said. “We want to create a place where people can be educated about wines, if they want to be educated. Otherwise, they can just stop in and enjoy wines that they won’t be able to find at other places.”

He continued, “Mary and I want to change the wine culture in Buffalo. We want people to be able to geek out about wines like they do beer and cocktails. We want to offer people a place to celebrate wine, without being pretentious or stuffy.”

That last part is key. While the industry’s movement toward natural, biodynamic, minimal intervention, and other progressive, rule-breaking winemaking methods may be key to wine’s unbuttoning and its appeal as an everyman’s drink, they are not the end all be all of good wine. Even Raimondi doesn’t necessarily want to convince you of his preferences; he’s just hoping the conversation will lead to more wine drinking and a more robust and diverse wine scene locally:

“For a long time, people told you how you should enjoy wine and what you should like,” Raimondi said. “What we preach is you should like what you like. Hopefully, what we say introduces you to something new or helps you find something you really like or that fits your profile perfectly, but the truth is it’s not about us.”

Good Bets for Natural, Minimal Intervention & Other Progressive Wine

The Dapper Goose | 491 Amherst Street

Paradise Wine | 435 Rhode Island Street

Winkler & Samuels | 500 Seneca Street

Remedy House |429 Rhode Island Street

Dōbutsu | 500 Seneca Street

Lead image: Hank Beckmeyer (left) with Peggy Wong, Caitlin Graham, and Tim Leary

Written by Caitlin Hartney

Caitlin Hartney

Caitlin has covered local food and drink for Buffalo Rising since 2015, having previously written for Artvoice, the Public, and the Buffalo News. She works full time in marketing communications and is earning her master's degree in history at University at Buffalo, the latter of which occasionally informs her writing. Most importantly, she likes the word "moist" and doesn't care who knows it. How else do you describe a great piece of cake?

View All Articles by Caitlin Hartney
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