Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

No. 9 Park

Winning James Beard awards for Outstanding Service and Outstanding Wine Program is impressive – winning them without an appointed sommelier is downright spectacular. How did Boston’s No. 9 Park restaurant accomplish this? Wine Director Cat Silirie attributes it to her professional credo: “Ten sommeliers are better than one.”

Silirie, Executive Wine Director and Wine Buyer for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, leads two other directors, the self-proclaimed “Team Wine Super Heroes,” for No. 9 Park, as well as sister restaurants Menton, and The Butcher Shop. Weekly wine classes are held at each place with the goal of “making wine more approachable not only for ourselves but for our guests too.”

“It’s not this cult of personality of just one person who knows the entire wine list,“ says Kate Gilarde, who started as an intern 10 years ago and now helps shape the wine program. ”We have a team of people and they all love wine. Your decisions as a guest are based on what they can do to help you.”

The diverse wine list at No. 9 Park reflects the interests of the entire team. The cuisine inspires traditional French and Italian selections, but also represents other parts of Europe and the United States. “We have this fascination with Sherry, which is really spurred on by my colleague Melodie Reynolds,” says Gilarde, while tends to lean towards Burgundy. “It’s natural to have food that echoes something from the old world, and then to have wine that beautifully underscores it.”

The preference for traditional styles of production often leads to wineries that practice organic farming. “You can tell when a wine is made with care,“ says Gilarde. ”We’re trying not to over manipulate the wine with our own personality, and certainly organics and small production are a function of helping that shine through.”

While Gilarde says she does not consciously seek out organic wines, the majority of her wine list is organic. "More often than not, we’re trying a wine then say, ‘Oh, of course, it’s organic.’ Wow. Organic is more than just a label or category. It’s part of a bigger, richer story that inspires our appreciation for the quality.”

Gilarde, however, avoids marking the organic wines on the menu. "I seek quality first, and I believe when you start putting labels on a wine list, you’re automatically casting a shadow on others. We stand by all of the wines on our list for representing themselves well, whether they’re organic or biodynamic or not.”

Ultimately the hope is that the wine list at No. 9 Park contributes to the conversation about wine. Says Gilarde, “I think it’s such a wonderful way to learn, and that way we get to talk about wine together, we drink wine together. It’s a way to enjoy connecting with each other.”

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When Scott Holliday visited Chateau Tour Grise in the Loire Valley just before harvest time two years ago, it had been raining for weeks, leaving the grapes to soak up water. Everyone feared a catastrophe — “You could see it on everyone’s face – just weary from the battle.” But instead of a wasted season of diluted wine, the final result was stunning. Resembling a Rosé, Holliday remembers, “It was simple little sandwich wine but I enjoyed that more than any other wine I’d tasted all year long.”

It’s personal experiences like these that Holliday likes to incorporate into the wine list at Rendezvous in Cambridge, where he serves as co-wine director with Nicole Bernier. They have many Italian and Spanish wines to match the mediterranean cuisine, but France makes up the majority of selections, reflecting Holliday’s belief that this is the best country to start a wine education with. “The French are very comfortable with hierarchy and structure,“ he says. A Burgundy or Bordeaux often represent their regions consistently, so it is easier ”to explore wine within these categories.”

Since joining Rendezvous in 2008, Holliday has shifted the wine list towards organic and biodynamic wines. While offering organic selections from several larger producers, he strives to support smaller winemakers as well. “I’ve worked in small independent restaurants, and there’s a certain kinship between what we do and what they do. I relate to them on a very visceral level.”

While supporting the practices, Holliday does not indicate which bottles are organic or biodynamic on the menu. Instead, he prefers to discuss the wines in person with his customers, so they can make their own informed decision. "I feel like there are more people drinking, but I think the baseline knowledge has gone down. There are all these people who we have the opportunity to educate and to encourage.”

One of his favorite customer interactions came last year, when Holliday explained the biodynamic process to a young graduate student. She was very taken by it, and came back repeatedly over the next year saying, “I want the wine that was made with the moon.” Holliday reflects, “She got it. Maybe not in all its technical aspects, but certainly in the poetry behind it.”

502 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
(617) 576-1900

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“We talk so much about sustainable agriculture and the foods that we’re putting into our bodies,“ says Lauren Friel, wine director at the Cambridge restaurant Oleana and its sister restaurant Sharma. ”To not extend that to wine is a really big gap in the conversation."

The decision to create an exclusively organic wine list emerged naturally from the restaurant’s organic menu. Chef Ana Sortun’s locally sourced ingredients,
which primarily come from her husband’s farm, have contributed to Oleana’s success over the past decade, and represent the restaurant’s dedication to sustainable practices.

What started out as an environmental decision for Friel, however, soon grew into a personal preference. To her, the presence of the terroir is much more striking in organic and biodynamic wines. "The wines are more expressive, period.”

Oleana’s Mediterranean cuisine requires wines that do not overpower the subtle tastes of their menu. To find this balance, Friel seeks out wines that have high acid and low alcohol, preferring wines from cooler climates with thinner-skinned grapes, “more kind of nuanced wines.” She says organic wines perfectly fit the bill because “they do tend to be lower in alcohol and higher in natural acidity, and nobody’s using really aggressive oak treatments.”

The wine list at Oleana features a wide variety of grapes and regions, taking risks that Friel does not believe would be possible if Boston were a larger city. "If Boston had that larger reputation, it would feel the pressure to have big ticket wines all the time.” Flying just under the radar, Friel is able to provide bottles from smaller natural producers, many of which she finds through the importer, Selector Naturale, owned by Matteo Mollo.

Mollo, who according to Friel “hunts down wines on his own, in little restaurants and villages throughout Italy,” provides wines from grapes that no one is using, from obscure regions like Friel’s current favorite, Boca. ”They are feminine, elegant, pure and unique – they’re just gorgeous.” Their growing place on the market has facilitated Friel’s ability to add more wines from Boca to the wine menu. “They just sing with our food."

The Cambridge community seems to agree. Guests at Oleana are enthusiastic about Oleana’s all-organic wine list, which Friel attributes to the way Oleana educates its staff, and to their higher-learning location. “We have the advantage of being in an intellectual city. We have Harvard and MIT right down the street, so we have adventurous people looking to try these things.”

When these graduate students and professors frequently ask Friel ‘What’s your favorite wine?’ she struggles to find a response. “You have wines being made by one person, and you know about their families and about their dogs and children and about their lineage… it’s like picking your favorite child.” Friel concludes that the beauty in representing so many organic wines from smaller producers is that “it’s not just a beverage, it’s a story.”

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Outside of central Boston, beyond the new cocktailians and craft beer bars in Cambridge, the Red Line ends at Davis Square, home of Tufts University. In the past year, several cocktail saloons and organic wine bars have popped up here, including Spoke Wine Bar. As the name suggests, Spoke offers bespoke small plates, from Chef John DaSilva, in a casual speakeasy setting with an extensive organic wine list, handpicked from small wineries by the owner, Felisha Foster. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Foster about her impressive career, love of Boston, and of course, organic wine.

Falling into wine (her own words) fifteen years ago Foster has worked on the retail side, as a distributor and an importer, and most recently spent five years working as a buyer at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, a local favorite. At Dave’s she earned a reputation for building the Davis Square wine palate by choosing wines from small European wineries, but recently discovered that the retail side was no longer for her. After an epiphany on a motorcycle trip out west, Foster decided she was ready for something else.

“The space popped up right next to Dave’s, so it just kind of made sense because I knew the community already had a built-in clientele,” said Foster. “I really wanted to take the plunge.” In fall of 2012, Spoke opened its doors, with Foster stationed at her spot at the front door, warmly greeting patrons into the dimly lit cozy space. The wine list, which rotates frequently, features wines listed in order from “Light to Full-Bodied,” with knowledgeable sommeliers at the ready. During my visit, I tried a Filipa Pato 2012 Chenin Blanc from Portugal. While not certified organic, the Pato is like many of the wines Foster chooses, practicing organic production, but feel they are too small to make the leap to get certified.

“I’m interested in portfolios and the problem with the whole organic thing is that a lot of the people that I deal with are not going to get certified,” Foster said, “They’re like, ‘My family’s been doing this for eight generations, why would we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a stamp on the back of our label for something that we’ve been doing forever?’”

She is drawn to these smaller importers and portfolios less by the fact that they are organic, but for the quality their smaller production yields. “I’m drawn to the way those wines taste because they have more of a sense of place – they don’t taste commercial,” she said.

Foster, who works with distributors like Dressner and Kermit Lynch, handle many wines including some that are biodynamic and sulfite-free. Her regular clientele have learned to trust her opinion and relationship with the wines over the little green label. Like the producers Foster works with, she maintains a close relationship in the Davis community – evident by her proximity to the bar – she lives four minutes away. And the feeling is mutual, “I just love the area and the community – we’ve been very well-received.”

Spoke is located in Somerville, MA at 89 Holland St.


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