“It smells like HAM!” My friend shrieked from across the table. We were well into the wine tasting that my partner and I host every year, and this mystery bottle was… alarming.

“Ugh. Something’s wrong.” Another friend winced. I took a sip. “Tastes like socks,” I grimaced and pushed the glass away.

My friend who may or may not have brought the wine tried to sway the crowd: “It’s just natural wine, guys — a little barnyard funk.”

I attempted another sip. Was it “just natural wine?” Or was this ham wine… bad?

“Yeah, it’s not for everyone. I don’t like barnyard funk, either, not in my wines,” admits David Everitt, co-owner and winemaker at Toronto’s Paradise Grapevine. “Some people love it, and sometimes it really complements the wine, but for the most part, we try to avoid it.”

Natural wine Toronto | Wine from Paradise Grapevine's bottle shop

But what is ‘it’ exactly? That funk that sometimes overpowers my glass of natural wine? “It’s caused by brett [brettanomyces]. It’s a wild yeast that lives everywhere … it’s a tricky little bastard because it can survive a lot,” explains Everitt, who tries to create conditions in their natural winery that deter brett from thriving.

“People often say, ‘it tastes like brett,’ but brett doesn’t really taste like anything,” he points out. “The reason it causes funk is because of the flavour compounds that a particular strain of brett will produce. This could include straw, the smell of a wet horse or goat.” I'm sorry, but I can't be the only one who doesn't want notes of "wet goat" in my wine? B-a-a-a-d.

Before the natural wine community comes for me, let the record show that I do enjoy it (most of the time). I love how the wine making process can unlock the full expression of the grape — a natural chardonnay doesn't taste anything like the buttery stuff my nana would knock back — and, more importantly, I respect it.

Natural wine Toronto | Vira skin contact wine

Making natural wine is a lot of work full of unpredictability, long hours hand-picking grapes in pesticide-free vineyards, and absolutely no help from additives (though, occasionally, very small quantities of sulfites help to stabilize the wine). The result of all that strenuous labour is — more often than not — lively, delicious unfiltered beauties that are sometimes funky.

There isn’t anything wrong with funk and upon further research, brett isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Markham Heid’s Food and Wine piece, “Why Is Everyone So Obsessed with Funky Wine?” he interviews Linda Bisson, a professor emeritus of enology and viticulture at the University of California, who says that brett can be delightful when done right. “You can get a smokiness … you can get some savory, umami notes like vegetable or beef broth," she says. "Whether it's nice or not is all about intensity and combination."

Alright, fine, I’ll chill on my vendetta against brett, but when there’s too much, I have a hard time believing that it’s led to the desired flavour instead of a fault in the wine. There have been multiple times when I’ve ordered a glass of natural wine, taken a few sips and have been too embarrassed to say, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but this is way too funky for me,” because I’ve been told, “It’s just natural wine.”

“It’s not fair to say that all natural wines have barnyard funk,” says Everitt, which is something I knew from tasting plenty that are crisp and fruity, but it’s nice to feel vindicated. I wonder if the outcome would have been different if I had the knowledge to respond, “Excuse me, the flavour compounds in this particular wine taste like there is too much brettanomyces.”

Natural wine Toronto | Assortment of orange/skin contact wine

Everitt continues: “Each to their own when it comes to flavour profiles. But I want my wine to taste like the fruit that it’s made from. The problem with brett is that it creates its own flavours which take over the fruit flavours. We’re not interested in microbial soup.” Me neither, Everitt. Me neither.

So, the next time I’m about to order or taste a glass of wine — natural or not — I’m going to be clearer on what I’m looking for. Life is too short to push through something you’re not enjoying or to over-accommodate because you feel embarrassed. Life is also too short to write off a whole style of wine just because of one iffy experience. Stay curious. Embrace the funk — or don’t.

Where to sip and shop for natural wine in Toronto

Paradise Grapevine

841 Bloor St. W. and 218 Geary Ave.

Natural wine Toronto | Patio at Paradise Grapevine

Two locations of Paradise Grapvine mean double the fizzy pét-nats and fruit-forward vinos for us. Their new location on Geary Avenue is a full-on winery, so you can sip straight from the source. 


The Little Jerry

418 College St.

View on Instagram

This unpretentious wine bar on College Street is the perfect place to take shelter after a long week with a glass of natural wine in hand. Inspired by Japanese jazz kissaten, The Little Jerry has an unreal high-fidelity sound system and vinyl collection. 


Lake Inez

1471 Gerrard St. E.

Natural wine Toronto | Bottles from Lake Inez

Tucked away on a quiet stretch of Little India, you might just miss Lake Inez (and what a shame that would be). Stop when you see the piano decorated with wine bottles in the window and slip inside the cozy and quirky spot, where natural wines meet creative snack plates.


Grape Witches

1247 Dundas St. W.

The Grape Witches were sipping and sharing their love for natural wine before orange wine was even a thing in Toronto. They've continued to share their passion with their unstuffy Dundas West natural wine store with over 200 rotating wines  — and the cutest back patio. 


The Daughter

1560A Bayview Ave.

View on Instagram

Bayview is blessed to have this stunning wine bar and bottle shop in the neighbourhood. One of my favourite parts, aside from their delicious small-plates and challah, is The Daughter's approachable by-the-glass program. Guests can try samples and chat with the staff openly about what they're liking or not.