12 September 2011

what's in a name: la compagnie des vins surnaturels, 75006

This past Thursday I attended the opening of a sharp nightclubby wine bar in the 6ème off the Marché Saint Germain, the new project of the enterprising folks responsible for a trio of Paris' best cocktail bars (Experimental Cocktail Club, Curio Parlour, and Prescription). Befitting the location, and what I perceive to be the increasingly profit-minded priorities of the owners, the new wine bar offers a substantial list of conventional expense-account wines: established greats, obvious classics, show-off bottles. The list contains perhaps ten recognizeably "natural" wines,* but is fully 50% Bordeaux, reflecting a partnership (I'm told) with someone involved with an esteemed Bordeaux portfolio.** 

Ordinarily I would decline to post anything on this. It is not a natural wine bar, for one thing, and additionally the Native Companion presently works for the company, creating the potential for a conflict of interest.*** But, in what I can only presume is not an error, but rather an outrageously hubristic thumb-in-the-eye to anyone who cares about or works with or understands natural wine, the owners have christened the bold new not-especially-natural wine venture "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels." 

It would be remiss to let this pass without comment. They seem to be asking for it. 

Anyone not working directly in or with the wine industry might be perplexed as to why I find this so malign. After all, no one owns the word or the concept of "natural" wine, and the concept itself is not legally defined by the EU or any governing body. One could be forgiven for thinking that the usage in the name of the ECC group's new bar is harmless. 

At the risk of overstating things slightly, I'd submit instead that with the opening of "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels,"**** what we are witnessing is in fact a really crass co-opting of the excitement of the French natural wine scene at the hands of established (read: much wealthier) wine interests. It won't be the last - look what happened to the word "organic" - but I believe it's among the first.

Having said this, it is incumbent upon me to offer reasons why established wine interests would seek to lay claim to the term "natural." The principle one is: they feel threatened, specifically by what they feel to be the divisive nature of natural wine marketing. 

For instance: on a recent trip to the Barolo region (essentially the Burgundy of Italy, which is to say it is a wee bit conservative) I ran into the owner of a British private import company, who when I mentioned natural wines just began spewing invective, insisting it was all a marketing hoax. I was in the middle of lunch on a sunny terrace in Serralunga at the time, so I didn't argue. In any event the spiel was totally familiar to me, since it was the same one I hear when mentioning natural wine to anyone with significant assets in well-established wine regions. To market one's wine as "natural," they claim, is to implicitly ask consumers to consider other wines "unnatural." Furthermore, they say, there are many great wines made with production ethics nearly indistinguishable from those of the most fervent biodynamicist, and these wines sell without recourse to the "natural" distinction. (DRC, Domaine Leroy, etc.)

The first of these claims seems to presuppose that all winemakers should feel obliged to, like, band together across ideological differences in some industry-wide effort to increase wines sales relative to vodka sales. It's baloney. The wine industry is vast and self-sustaining and certainly allows room for differences of opinion. 

The second claim is true, but totally irrelevant. Estates like DRC and Leroy have access to a historical brand, not to mention terroir, that sells itself. It's no mistake that natural winemaking has not taken hold in Burgundy or Bordeaux like it has in the Loire or Beaujolais; the same marketing incentive is not there in regions that can sell to undiscerning buyers on the strength of appellation alone. But it seems callow and mean-spirited to begrudge vignerons in less famous regions their efforts to raise their profile through communicating their commitment to natural winemaking.

Defensiveness is why Bordeaux interests might want to muddy the waters of consumer perception by calling a not-especially-natural wine list "surnaturel," which of course differs in literal meaning ("supernatural" is the Eng. translation) while still containing the word "natural." But there is another, more obvious reason: it is a jealous cash-in. Anyone paying attention to the Paris restaurant scene over the past few years will have noticed that natural wine, as I know it not as La Compagnie would have it, has seen such success that a focus on it has become de rigeur in most new restaurant openings of a certain sophistication. (Septime, Frenchie Bar à Vin, Vivant; heck, even Nanashi II.) 

At bottom, "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels" is regrettably not of that level of sophistication. I have spoken only of the bar's infuriatingly misguided name. I could also mention that my friends and I waited almost an hour in high visibility at the bar for anyone to bring our bottle, that the snack menu is market-tested club-kid nosh (seared tuna!), and the glass list contains a number of baller oenomatic stunt-pours à la Olivier Magny's Etienne Marcel moron temple Ô Château - but hey, it was the opening night. The hospitality will improve, given the owners' excellent track record in this regard. (It is hard to decide which is more impressive, at their cocktails bars: the cocktails themselves, or the service.) I will say that for the moment, many great mid-range bottles on "La Compagnie..."'s really not-bad list are very agreeably priced, though that too could conceivably change.

For now it remains perfectly possible to enjoy at "La Compagnie..." excellent bottles of wine at reasonable prices in a classically luxe environment - like a hotel bar with no hotel attached. (Or, as I touched on before, like Ô Château, only not quite so transparently mercenary, and not an abject failure.)

I take no major schadenfreude in writing any of this, since Experimental Cocktail Club, in particular among the owners' previous ventures, remains evidence that Pierre-Charles Cros, Olivier Bon, and Romée de Gorainoff are capable of creating establishments that, in addition to making money, actually contribute to the scenes they inhabit. There was, in fact, no cocktail scene in Paris when Experimental opened its doors in 2007, and that bar continues to draw crowds with excellent, inventive drinks of an international standard. But it can be news to no one that before 2011 and the opening of "Le Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," Paris was already home to a thriving natural wine scene, full of people who love and believe in and work hard to promote natural wine, none of whom were in attendance on Thursday night, because - let it be widely known - "Le Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels" has nothing to do with natural wine. 

Hell, given their collective wine industry experience amounts to zero, it's possible the Experimental guys are just patsies in this whole scenario. Perhaps they know not what they do. For their sake, I hope so.***** 

* Ostertag, Lapierre, Dagueneau, etc. Not exactly the underdogs. 

** The name I keep hearing is Pétrus. (Moueix.) 

*** I will have to trust the NC's bosses to have the decency and class not to take my own skepticism about what they're up to out on the NC. 

**** I hereby refuse to print this name without scare quotes.

***** So this is not just a relentless stream of negativity, I might suggest two ways the ECC group might salvage this potential PR bungle. Either shorten the name to "La Compagnie," or - even better - start focusing on actual natural wines.

7, rue Lobineau
75006 PARIS
Metro: Odéon
Tel: ?


  1. greetings from Oklahoma City, Perhaps the idiot British wine merchant would enjoy our idiot senator jim inhofe, who thinks global warming is a big hoax. Did you enjoy vinoteca centro storico? enjoy your blog, Bill

  2. hi bill! the british wine merchant was actually a pretty nice sharp fellow, despite our ideological differences. but we were indeed at vinoteca centro storico! a great place. (and an amusing name, when you consider that there really isn't much of serralunga that would not qualify as some kind of historical town center.) many thanks for reading!

  3. Do you know the meaning of 'surnaturel' in French? It has nothing to do with 'natural' but rather means 'out of this world'. I'm not sure I understand your link to natural/organic/biodynamic wines...

  4. anonymous: yes, i acknowledge that distinction in the article above. the fact remains that anyone with even a passing familiarity with contemporary french winemaking will be aware of "natural" wines and would think twice about using the word in a name - even with the modifying prefix - because it carries a specific meaning to a specific (and very relevant) audience. this is how i get to my conclusion: that either the owners of "la compagnie" are utterly clueless about wine, or they are somehow in malign cahoots with their bordelais partner against natural wine. these are both reasons to avoid the place.

    i might further mention that the distinction in french between 'naturel' and 'surnaturel' is even less apparent to ECC group's clientele, which i'd wager is at least 50% anglophone.

  5. Thanks for this informative post! Very much appreciate it.

  6. Hah, "surnaturel" means supernatural...Not natural. Sorry but this article carries no weight...

  7. you'll find i address that very pedantic distinction in the article itself, paragraph 10. what kind of person leaves commentary without reading to the end of a piece?