Natural wine is not difficult to find in Brooklyn, but that hasn’t always been the case. When June Wine Bar opened in January 2015, it was among Brooklyn’s first wave of dedicated natural wine bars. The white-tiled, brick, and stark black exterior sits on a busy Cobble Hill street, and begins to fill right when they open for happy hour at 5:00 pm. And behind it all is Lena Mattson, June’s general manager and wine director, who in just four short years has built a spot that’s become synonymous with natural wine in south Brooklyn.
June’s owners—Tom Kearney and Henry Rich—set out conceptually to create a Brooklyn version of a Parisian natural wine bar with local and seasonal fare. Designed with the help of Home Studios, a long marble bar runs the length of the cozy space, where June staff talking intimately with guests while they pour or mix drinks. Against the opposite mirrored and mostly-brick wall are a dark and candle-lit mixture of two tops and a few larger booths separated by blue and grey stained glass. With one large booth cave and fairy-lit back garden, the energy is decidedly romantic throughout. It’s one of the most photogenic spots in Brooklyn, as often evidenced by a monochrome Mattson on June’s Instagram feed.
Mattson is responsible for both the wine list and the concept for the food and beverage program. “I’m a very lucky wine director,” she says, in that June is able to sell whatever she puts on the list. This is due in large part to the eager, adventurous clientele: a mix of locals, further-flung regulars, and industry folks. It’s also because Mattson works hard to design a list that “hits all points,” she tells me. Sprinkled throughout are what she calls dad wines: big, heavy reds that taste largely how a consumer expects them to. It runs the gamut from less to extremely experimental, but all—according to Mattson—delicious.
Mattson is also constantly beefing up the skin contact section, which she declines to call “orange wine” in an attempt to spur conversation about winemaking styles with customers. Customers often seek out June to request these wines and for those who don’t, it’s a great prompt for a customer to ask. Mattson, she says, is all about as much education as a customer wants.
The “shill-ah-blay red” section of the expansive list is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a woman who approached Joe Swick at a wine event. According to the story he told Mattson, the woman asked him for a “shill-ah-blay” wine. After a few minutes of confusion, he came to discover that she was exoticizing the word “chillable.” “Obviously we’re not encouraging putting an ice cube in your wine,” Mattson says, but it’s her belief that dedicated natural wine bars in particular can and should break some of the rules of what’s done, especially in pursuit of a better drinking experience.
And what counts as natural wine at June? What are the parameters a wine must meet to land on the list? Mattson is not a purist, but she consistently looks for a few things: farming on small hectares, no fining and filtering, no inoculated yeasts, nothing with sulfur above 40 parts per million. There are exceptions to each of these rules, but it’s rare. She also wants to know about the farmer and their practices. “Whether the conversation of natural wine comes up or not, it doesn’t really matter,” she tells me. “At the end of the day, I’d love it just to be called ‘wine’, and ‘wine’ is called ‘industrial’ or ‘chemical wine.’”
Like the wine list, the food menu is local, seasonal, and uses products by smaller farmers. This is an ethical choice, as well as a thematic one. Lead by head chef Evan Drury, the menu is designed and ingredients are sourced by asking similar questions to what Mattson asks of wine makers. It undergoes an overhaul with the changing seasons, but it’s rarely identical even week to week. The charcuterie board includes a broadbent ham, finocchiona, and wagyu bresaeola. Blink and you’ll likely miss the pickled ramps atop stracciatella and dukkah, as their season is blissful but short-lived.
All spirits are sourced by assistant manager and bar director Ashley Williams, who has been with June from the onset. June has a spritz of the day, and on this particular rainy spring day it was Negroni-inspired. She also has a robust mocktail program and a rotating list of cocktails, including “A Date with Elvis,” a concoction of bourbon, juniper, Byrrh, and Peychaud’s.
The by-the-glass wine list is impressive; a mixture of well-known bottles—Denavolo’s Dinavolino is often found there—and lesser-known producers, with diversity and stability as the only requirements. Some bottles just beg to be open and drunk, Mattson says, while others can stand a little time. These considerations, including the fact that sometimes skin contact wines shine a few days later, make for a robust and thoughtfully curated by-the-glass list.
A recent standout is the 2016 Costador “1954” Xarel-lo from Catalonia. After a pregnant pause to consider, Mattson says this is her favorite by the glass right now. Xarel-lo, known best as one of the grapes in cava, is not one that typically excites on its own. “This wine is stunning. It’s complex, it has tropical notes, it’s affordable,” Mattson says. After maceration for two days, it ferments in amphora then is transferred to barrels for seven months after spontaneous malolactic fermentation.
We left Mattson to plan for their next event: an Easter Sunday winemaker dinner featuring Hervé Souhaut of Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet in the Rhone Valley. To exit in the evening and spill onto the streets of Brooklyn is a shock after the sensory delight that is June, but such is the friendly local wine bar that’s also helping drive the drinking tastes of modern Brooklyn—and from here, the world beyond.
Photos by Fanny Delsol.
Phylisa Wisdom (@phylisajoy) is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.