Halfway through my dinner at Gwen, a new and already highly acclaimed restaurant in Hollywood by chef Curtis Stone, the sommelier poured us a wine that was neither red nor white, but an attractive hue of dark orange. On the table, we had a pile of various charcuterie, made just next to where we were sitting—we could see the hanging carcasses from our booth, which were now before us in the form of rabbit pâté, salumi, and other heavenly slabs and slices.
“It’s a meat-centric place, so everyone thinks we should serve big, huge reds, but our meats do better with rosés and skin contact whites,” said Fahara Zamorano, the bright-eyed, smiling sommelier, as she filled our. As a wine lover—I peruse a restaurant’s wine list before I decide to dine there—I was already familiar with this style of wine, and I agreed wholeheartedly with this somm. Orange wine is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world, because it combines the structure of a light red with the acidity of a white. At Gwen, the list is stacked with these unique wines: they have an entire section on their menu of “skin-fermented whites.”
To clarify: orange wine (also called “skin contact” or “skin-fermented” wine, or “amber” wine) is not made from any citrus fruit, although it does bear some zesty notes. It’s essentially a pre-modern way of making white wine, where the colored skins of grapes are allowed to remain in contact with the juice itself. In fact, the only reason white wine is actually white is because of modern presses. A few centuries earlier, just about all white wine was, in fact, tinted orange or pink from the grape skins.
Dishes of single ravioli arrived, stuffed with locally foraged chanterelles and a chili foam, and topped with purslane. I clinked glasses with my dining companion, an LA wine industry mover-and-shaker named Courtney Walsh, and inhaled the citrus aromas and hints of black tea coming from this pinot grigio. Biting into the ravioli, I saw how the wine brought out its umami flavors. “Quinto Quarto” is the name of this pinot grigio from orange wine master Franco Terpin, in the northern Italian region of Friuli. Pinot grigio is a grape that has white juice on the inside, but pink skins; it begs for its color to shine through with a bit of maceration, and in this part of Italy, which butts up against Slovenia and Austria, producers like Terpin, along with Josko Gravner and the late Stanko Radikon, have resurrected the traditional style of winemaking there, which includes skin contact. These three are also considered natural wine producers—i.e., they use a minimum amount of chemicals in their vineyards and cellars.
As Courtney, who works for two natural wine importers as well as the shop Domaine LA, put it: “I see this resurgence of orange wine alongside natural wine—neither of them are new things, but both of these movements are a return to a winemaking style of the past.” When these winemakers began using clay amphorae to ferment their wine, rather than removing the skins, using a modern press, and vinifying in stainless steel, they were looking for a less modern way of winemaking, something that expressed the uniqueness of their region. Little did they imagine that their wines would someday pair so perfectly with New California cuisine.
As I spent more time in LA—I was visiting from New York, where I live—I found myself on the orange wine trail. Perhaps it was the weather; orange wine is for me the perfect drink in early fall, because it is served chilled, so it has refreshing elements, but it has just a hint of tannin that makes it like a red wine. But I also saw that orange wine was part of an overall revolution in LA’s wine culture. Orange wine is fun to drink; it pairs well with meat as well as vegetable-forward dishes and particularly with Asian food; and in LA it is part of a growing focus on natural wine.
Thanks to instigators like Maxwell Leer and Adam Vourvoulis founding the “wine rave,” stores like domaineLA supporting small producers from California and around the planet, and wine bloggers like Marissa A. Ross raising the profile of natural wines in general, LA is undergoing a wine renaissance that is growing with each restaurant opening. Gwen is certainly the latest example of that, as well as a nondescript but ambitious new Japanese restaurant in Downtown LA called Shibumi, where Leer has recently joined the team to support chef David Schlosser and beverage director Jesse Brawner, who have crafted a tidy but outstanding wine list. There, my friends and I enjoyed a skin-contact, amber-hued chardonnay from the iconic label Radikon; it tasted like salty peaches and caramels, and was amazing alongside creamy, locally sourced uni atop a seasoned tofu bed.
For younger restaurateurs and sommeliers, orange wine and natural wine are central to letting wine be more relaxed, more fun and interesting, as opposed to very formal and serious. When 30-something Max Marder took over the space where his father had previously run a small eatery, he had no intention of molding it in the shape of his father’s flagship restaurant, Capo, the recipient of a prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence—the kind of award that goes to places well-stocked with what I call the “3 Bs”: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Barolo. Marder was more interested in highlighting the small producers, often making fresh, easy drinking wines that stood in contrast to the 3 Bs, which require aging and come at a high price point. “I wanted to serve cheaper, fun wines, things I want to drink,” Marder explained to me when I stopped by Marvin, the wine bar that Marder opened in his father’s space about two years ago.
We were sharing a bottle of skin-fermented, fizzy glera—the grape that goes into Prosecco—under the label Costadilà, alongside Marder’s head sommelier Emilie Campbell. The juice was lightly orange and just a touch bubbly; even though it was made with the same grape as Prosecco, it bore absolutely zero resemblance. “People like the cidery quality of this wine,” explained Emilie. Marvin also carries the skin-fermented wines of Elisabetta Foradori, who is considered one of Italy’s top biodynamic winemakers; Radikon is on the list, as well. There may not be any imminent award from a fancy, glossy wine magazine headed Marvin’s way, but it’s full just about every night of the week with people who know they’ll get a stellar bottle, likely made from some unusual, hard-to-pronounce grape. Wine is no longer an accompaniment to food at places like Marvin—it’s the main attraction.
Maybe orange wine, with its limited production—these winemakers are by no means churning out tons of bottles—and due to its rather esoteric nature, will never hit our culture the way the rosé wave did. But in the more cutting edge restaurants of Los Angeles, as well as in cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, people are falling in love with this refreshing, but robust wine, with its notes of Asian spice and ripe peaches. The best part is, nobody cares if you can give eloquent tasting notes, or speak to the theory behind orange wine—although it could make for some good cocktail party talk. The main idea here is to experience how wine can be funky, weird, unpredictable, and delicious. So, the next time your server asks you, “white or red?” try responding, “orange, please.”