A slightly shorter, amended version of this article appeared last year in Meininger’s Wine Business International, issue 2.
It’s neither a hotel, nor is there a golden pheasant on the premises. But those are the least baffling facets of Amsterdam’s Hotel de Goudfazant.
Located on a scruffy industrial estate in trendy “Noord” (across the river from the city centre), the huge warehouse space is one of the city’s most successful restaurants ever, packed since opening in 2006, and serving around 300 covers every Saturday night. Most surprising is what gets poured into all those thirsty mouths. Goudfazant sits at the heart of Amsterdam’s fast developing natural wine scene, having switched its entire list in late 2014.
The other surprise is that Goudfazant achieved its ascendancy in flagrant disregard of almost everything in the unspoken HoReCa rulebook, as co-owner Niels Wouters explains. “We decided right from the start that we wouldn’t make agreements with any standard suppliers”, he states. “We didn’t want to do deals with drinks companies who forced us to buy clothing or cleaning products”. It was part of a move to bring drinks into parity with food. “Chefs won’t compromise their ingredients because of a tie-in or a sponsorship deal”, he contends “but drinks had always been a bit behind in that respect”. So the Goudfazant has no big brand Dutch lagers, no Coca-Cola and no branded spirits. Everything from coffee beans to amaro is hand-picked and independently sourced.
The wine-list started out eclectic but relatively conventional. Wouters has little time for the fine wine establishment and its foibles. “I’m not a specialist”, he insists, “but I always thought the wine world was pretty snobby. You’d see these guys in their fifties asking for the list and trying to pretend they were knowledgeable. There was always a lot of posturing”.
A visit to Paris in 2014, and specifically to Le Châteaubriand (one of Paris’s seminal natural wine venues) was pivotal: “I didn’t recognise anything on the list, but I saw a bottle of Tempier Bandol on the shelf so I ordered it. The waitress decanted it into an empty litre bottle, shook it violently up and down and then sloshed it into my glass. A fair bit of it went down the side of the glass too.”
After Wouters got over his shock at the entirely “not done” service, he started to enjoy the no-frills atmosphere, the youngish audience and the lack of snobbery. “The labels were more fun too!”, he remarks. He came back to Amsterdam inspired, even if his business partner Frederick wasn’t immediately convinced, retorting that there were a lot of bad natural wines.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a table for two, served on 6th September 2014. As Wouters recalls “The guy ordered a Sancerre 2012, but we were sold out and onto the 2013. It wasn’t an expensive wine, to be honest it was everyday stuff. The customers tasted and refused the 2013 – ‘We really wanted the 2012’, they said, resisting the offer of an alternative”. Wouters felt sure they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but had a point to prove. Taking the bottle behind the counter, he crossed out the vintage and hand-wrote ‘2012’. The waitress returned to the table and told the guests a bottle of the 2012 had been located. They pronounced it delicious and “much better than the 2013”.
It wasn’t long before the gag was discovered: “She left the bottle on the table, concealed in a wine cooler. Later they wanted a second glass, took the bottle and realised we’d tricked them. Of course they were angry, I apologised and said it was a joke. They didn’t pay for the wine.”
It didn’t end there. The couple went to Amsterdam’s most important newspaper “Het Parool” and reported they’d been scammed. The paper ran an article entitled “Creative with the wine label”, and there was a mild social media storm. Wouters was unrepentant. “I was sick of the bullshit”, he admits, “so after a brief discussion with Frederick, we got rid of all our remaining stock and changed the entire list to natural wines a few days later. It was a statement”. He gesticulates to illustrate what kind of statement.
Wouter’s actions might not sit with the “customer is always right” truism, but clearly there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The restaurant remained full, and even gained a new audience after the wine switch. “We said precisely nothing about it”, he shrugs. There was no PR announcement, no ethical statement on the restaurant’s website and barely a mention on the wine list of its radical intent.
The casual, informal exterior that Wouters and his team present is a well known Dutch characteristic. The ethics underpinning the establishment’s purchasing choices are strong, but not worn on sleeves or drummed up into marketing hype. Wouters does not take credit for innovating though, citing inspiration from two Amsterdam restaurants that had lead the way.
Alessandro da Fies is Dutch, with Italian heritage. He’d originally planned to become a professional poker player, but in 2011 acted as sommelier with two friends who launched one of Amsterdam’s first pop-up restaurants. BAK moved away from the Netherlands’ dated fine dining concept and offered lighter more inventive cuisine at an affordable price. By the time it found a permanent home in 2013, da Fies had evolved the wine list to being almost totally natural. “The wines are more outspoken, they’re easier to understand, easier for people to distinguish”, he posits – “All the serious small producers are making wine like this anyway”.
Da Fies is an extremely astute sommelier, neither hidebound nor overbearing. “There are certain wines on the list that the staff know they have to raise an alert for”, he notes – “If the customer orders Sebastien Riffault, we explain that it isn’t your typical Sancerre. The same with Dario Prinčič’s Pinot Grigio. But there’s plenty that can be enjoyed without any explanation.”
If BAK was the first of Amsterdam’s hip new “bistronomie” restaurants to offer natural wines, Choux was not far behind. The brainchild of sommelier Figo van Onna and chef Merijn van Berlo, Choux also gestated from pop-ups, specifically Repéré (late 2013-2014) and Foyer (2014-2015), before establishing itself permanently in April 2015.
Van Onna started out as a dishwasher at a beach club, aged 15. “They had a pretty good wine list for a beach club” he remembers, “so I learnt about Pouilly Fumé, Sancerre, all the big appellations”. Later, during university he started travelling and visiting wineries, but missed something: “I brought back bottles from everywhere”, he explains “but I didn’t really get it – there was no spark”. Repéré’s host venue sourced its wines from a large, mainstream distributor. Shortly after opening the pop-up, Figo served a customer that he would never forget. In 2014, Michiel ter Heide was the only Dutch wine importer specialising in natural wines. His shop Vleck in central Amsterdam was unique. “He tasted all the wines, because we had them all by the glass”, Figo continues, “and he didn’t like any of them!”. Ter Heide suggested that natural wines would pair better with the pop-up’s Nordic-influenced cuisine, and invited Van Onna to come and taste.
Heide poured the young sommelier “Gran Cerdo”, a youthful, juicy Tempranillo which has become a natural classic. It was love at first sip: “There was so much fruit, it was so different to what I was used to”, Figo recalls. He left the tasting already dreaming up a new wine list, but wondering how to get rid of the existing bottles. His impatience rapidly got the better of him. “I rang up the distributor and asked them to come pick up all the remaining stock”, he explains, “and they did, a few days later”.
BAK and Choux were front-runners that quickly generated fresh interest in wine, as a sport that was not only for middle-aged snobs with expense accounts. Some of that enthusiasm rubbed off on Paul Witte, a writer and translator who had discovered natural wines. In April 2015 he changed career and opened GlouGlou, Amsterdam’s first natural wine bar and a clear homage to Paris’s “caves au vins naturel”.
With a street corner location, generous terrace and bohemian atmosphere, GlouGlou quickly became popular with a young crowd of locals and savvy tourists. It dispenses with airs and graces: Vintages, expensive glassware and precocious service are absent without leave. Although natural wines are the stock-in-trade, on a typical Saturday afternoon many of the guests will be drinking beer. They’re there to soak up the atmosphere – the gezelligheid as the Dutch would say.
Glouglou opened a sister operation named Bar Centraal two years later, in the city’s Oud West district. Just months after Bar Centraal was established, two young DJs who had drifted into the HoReCa business decided they wanted to open a café before they turned 30. Bob Nagel and partner Maarten Bloem had encountered natural wines while working at FC Hyena (a cinema/pizzeria/natural wine bar spin-off from Goudfazant). As Nagel explains, it changed everything: “Wine wasn’t something that young people were into – you drank it with your dad or uncle. But natural wine is different. We were inspired by GlouGlou, and by the scene in Berlin and Paris. But we also wanted a real cafe – a place where young and old come to drink beer, wine or coffee”.
Binnenvisser opened its doors in 2017, and like all of its Amsterdam colleagues is resolutely informal and without ceremony. “Young people have a blank canvas when it comes to wine”, Nagel explains, “so they love natural wine. Sometimes we get older customers who have a more preconceived idea about it, but I know what to pour that they’ll enjoy”.
There’s a clear Amsterdam style shared by all of these venues. It is neither as geeky as London’s natural wine bars, as militant as Paris’s or as studied as New York or Berlin. That younger Amsterdammers are taking to natural wine so enthusiastically shouldn’t be a surprise. The lack of formality or unnecessary pomp could have been tailor made for the Dutch psyche.
The trend shows no signs of abating. An infrastructure of specialist natural wine importers has blossomed to keep the constant flow of new openings supplied. Inevitably in a compact city there’s considerable cross-pollination throughout the sector. Two ex-employees of Goudfazant opened The Skatecafe in 2016, a warehouse with a skate ramp and vin natur served at the bar. The neighbouring Mexican street-food restaurant Coba followed suit. A friend of Bob Nagel’s who opened Europe’s first air hockey club is considering adding natural wines to his list.
It’s a far cry from 2011, when Amsterdam’s choices were mainly ethnic cheap-eats or fusty Michelin star establishments, offering respectively nothing worth drinking and nothing affordable by mortals. Does Niels Wouters have any fears that this natural boom could bust? “No, because once people get into natural wines, they don’t usually go back to drinking anything else”. There are no major changes in the offing at the Goudfazant: “Maybe we’ll become even more challenging, more difficult, I don’t know!”, he remarks cryptically. His parting word on how most of his customers relate to wine? “They never had a clue – and they still don’t!”