Every seat at Grapes & Soda is fitted with a cellphone drawer under the table. More than just a trendsetting décor element to cut down on clutter, the drawers are a telling indication that this is not your usual wine bar.
Quite the contrary: Grapes & Soda is Vancouver's first exclusively natural wine bar. The wines offered here are not lean, crowd-pleasing patio sippers; they're intellectual oddities with astringent tannins and unsulphited notes of puppy's breath (a good thing in some circles).
Hmm, this Puzelat-Bonhomme Petillant Naturel Rosé has such a tart centre. It makes my mouth pucker. And did you taste the Brettanomyces? That's what it gives it a yeasty, barnyard finish.
On the surface, the kitchen's small dishes are artfully composed from local, seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients.
Ooh, lovely. It's a study in pink. Look at how well the smoked salmon sockeye, strawberry and rhubarb complement each other. And so beautifully offset by the dark-green mizuna.
But if you dig a little deeper, you'll notice that the food has actually been carefully manipulated to suit the chosen wines, rather than the other way around.
I didn't even see the salmon roe underneath. The saltiness tames the yeast. And the sweetness of the strawberry rounds out the tartness. Taste it now. It's not as sharp. It's a fresh, lemony citrus.
No, this isn't a casual, neighbourhood joint where you sit back and relax while getting pleasantly pie-eyed. It's an "educational dining experience" that will make you think, debate and want to post radiant food-porn happy snaps to Instagram.
We're such geeks.
So what are natural wines anyway? That's a loaded question. While no one can agree on an exact definition (and the bun fights are fierce), they can be broadly described as wine made with minimal intervention in the vineyard (organic, biodynamic, no pesticides) and the cellar (naturally occurring ferments with wild yeasts, no fining, filtration and minimal sulphites).
In many ways, the rise of natural wines is an organic extension of the farm-to-table movement. So it makes perfect sense that David Gunawan and Dara Young would expand their hyper-locavore, award-winning Farmer's Apprentice into this cozy, 25-seater next door.
Grapes & Soda has the same farm-to-table philosophy and soulful aesthetic with its glossy log-slab bar, rustic wood tables, shelves of jarred preserves and smooth R&B playlists. But here, the food plays a supporting role to the wine.
General manager and sommelier Hao-Yang Wang was a store manager for Liberty Wine Merchants before moving into restaurants (West, PiDGiN). Executive chef Ron Shaw, who also trained as a sommelier, has illustrious international credentials (Maze, Zuma, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London). Most recently, he helmed the kitchen at Bishop's for John Bishop, the local godfather of farm-to-table cuisine.
At Grapes & Soda, they collaborate closely in what Mr. Shaw has described as a "free-association" tasting process in which they sip the wines together and imagine what foods would enhance their subtle nuances.
Take the Roagna Lange Bianco, for instance. It's a Piemonte chardonnay made with 20 per cent Nebbiolo. No, it's not off. Like many natural wines that don't use sulphur dioxide as a stabilizer, it has a lightly oxidized dry fino sherry flavour. Mr. Wang keeps it slightly warmer than most white wines to bring out those nutty characteristics.
The wine needed a nutty food, they decided. So they paired it with rolled chicken balantine and creamy, aerated grits (interesting in itself), then rounded out the plate with a generous sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts and earthy morels. The combination tastes like an explosion of nutshells and husks in the mouth. You probably have to really enjoy dry sherry to appreciate this pairing.
Most of the dishes can stand by themselves. The summer peas with sour goat yogurt and sprouted wheat berries or marinated anchovy with fennel and celery are lovely, light summer plates.
Others need their wines. Catherine and Pierre Breton's Dilettante Vouvray is a chenin blanc with a honeyed nougat viscosity that's very easy to drink. But mushroom ceviche, a thinly sliced yuzu salad with tons of garlic, red onion and stinging acidity, is difficult to swallow squinting. Yet when you mix them together, the acid melts into softly rounded citrus harmony and the wine tastes even richer.
Likewise, there are some wines that are hard to understand without food. I don't think I could have finished even a half glass of the tinny, Puzelat-Bonhomme Cheverny with puppy's breath finish by itself.
Puppy's breath, an unsulphited flavour, is actually a term of endearment in natural wine fan circles. But it's definitely not for everyone. Nor is this wine bar, which can get awfully pricey for small plates and 3 oz. tastings. Food and wine geeks will adore it. Others? Well, not everyone wants to be educated over dinner.