“Like watching a chick hatch from the egg. Its introduction to the world is so dramatic, from a perfect little shell-dweller into a staggering, goopy, feathery little beak-breaker.” This line may sound like David Attenborough placidly narrating the springtime birth of a rare Canadian hawk. But the words actually come from Kathryn Olson, the wine director of Seattle’s L’Oursin, who is describing a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Pétillant Naturel from EST. Wines in the Willamette Valley.
Her wine list may not tell you exactly how the stuff tastes and doesn’t feature typical tasting notes or the usual things a sommelier would say to describe a wine’s flavor. Instead, she tells little stories about them. After spending an evening getting familiar with her selections—a list with graded keys demarcating more traditional wines versus the more adventurous or idiosyncratic—your curiosity will be piqued. Her approach to natural wine is refreshingly deliberate but disarming, just like the EST. pét-nat we’re drinking.
“The winery made eight cases and we have seven of them,” co-owner Zac Overman says. He describes the life of this unusual bottling as it goes through the evening after being uncorked: First, it’s translucent; give it an hour and it turns to a cloudy chartreuse. By the time the night is through, it’s brown and opaque, “just like chocolate milk.” Olson’s translations from this wine’s mini-phenomenon into tasting notes reads: “Lemon verbena, limonada, and pulque, depending on the hour.”
“While I was selling wine for four years at Bar Ferdinand, I was sensitive to the fact that most people responded more to these narratives that happen with the wine,” says Olson. While she collaborates with Overman and their third partner and chef, JJ Proville, the tales she tells through tweet-sized tasting notes are completely her own uncanny imagination run bubbly-wild. Her approach is a combination of practical consideration of her customers, while getting to play with them, rather than pander.
“One of my favorite things about the wine is that the narrative is inherent in it,” Olson says. “It’s our natural response to build these stories, and focus on those appealing little, sometimes random aspects.” Another wine we enjoy before dinner is a deep, rosy glass of orange Omero Cellars Pinot Gris from 2015, also from the Willamette Valley. Her notes read: “Soft wool and springtime kisses, peach pits and hippie tits.”
From the wine list to the interior design, L’Oursin is packed tight with charm, though it faces a few conflicting challenges. It’s located on the ground floor of a brand-new, mixed-use complex next door to Eric Banh’s Sevenbeef, on a quiet block that has been transformed by new development. The split-use building it’s in still feels a little too new—from the street, it looks sterile and fresh out of a “concepting” meeting. But inside, thankfully, the space is all warmed up with gold bistro chairs, orb lighting, and calligraphy cocktail specials written on the mirror behind the bar.
Overman and Proville had wished for a waterfront location to highlight their fruits de mer theme, and L’Oursin (which means sea urchin in French) does seem to be moored by a spiritual home somewhere closer to water. The midsummer menu offers an uplifting purslane, cucumber, and raw scallop dish that was like delicious AC for taste buds. Other dishes highlight a number of the usual summer stars, such as heirloom tomatoes, king salmon, summer lettuces, and plums. French classics are also sufficiently represented with dishes such as mussels, haricots verts, pâté de porc, and confit duck leg.
Pairing natural wines with these lovely plates was a wild ride. Rather, the ride itself was mild and next-level chill, but the flavors were untamed and free and exhilarating. Having Olson guide you through her wine infatuations is worth your time, as she is excited to share her finds. She was generous but entirely unstuffy with introductions to favorites on her list. Since natural wine is a pursuit that requires a degree of adventurous spirit and open-mindedness, spending time with Olson feels like having a zip-line tour guide through a remote jungle of magical drink. There are sensory highs and buoyant tastes to be had with a good bit of trust.
Seattle still doesn’t have many venues for natural wine: Bar Ferdinand and Vif in Fremont serve it along with L’Oursin. Olson finds this puzzling since the city is very good at catering to people with plenty of disposable income. “The nerd factor is there, the demographic is there—the fastest-growing demographic of wine drinkers is between 25 and 35,” she says. “There are many people who care about things that are crafted, unique, and I’m trying not to say authentic…” Although the word is overused and grating, it’s part of the spirit of what’s happening at L’Oursin, in a way that is rewarding to any inquisitive eater and drinker willing to surrender to delicious surprises. It’s an experience not just for the devoted natty wineheads, though they would have a blast popping these bottles, too.
Olson’s descriptions set the tone for the party, which is decidedly social, unstodgy, and ebullient about how fun exploring weird wine can be. L’Oursin is a great place to take uninitiated friends for a bit of enlightenment told in the form of a funny vignette and uncovered first-hand by a brand-new taste. It’s plain fun, and the team’s dedication to affordable by-the-glass pours coupled with a list that just wants to play makes for a winsome combination. L'Oursin is delicious, it's chill, and the hang is indeed good; it's also a huge step forward for Seattle's burgeoning relationship with natural wine.
Dylan Tupper Rupert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Rookie, the Guardian, MTV News, Billboard, and the Pitchfork Review. This is Dylan Tupper Rupert's first feature for Sprudge Wine.