It's 11 AM when I arrive at Industry Standard, the gutsy restaurant in deep Neukölln that's won over Berliners with its genre-busting whole-beast cookery, but the staff are already drinking. A half-dozen bottles—one or two nearly empty—are spread across a table in the faintly smoky dining room. There's a good reason for this impromptu tasting session; in less than a month, the same team is preparing to open Wild Things, a natural wine bar on nearby nightlife hub Weßerstraße.
Natural wines are the old-school, additive-free, often misunderstood cousins of your typical table vino. They have a reputation for funky, earthy undertones and potent flavor profiles, which some sommeliers love and others love to hate. While I'll admit to having drunk a glass or two with notes of old socks and ripe blue cheese, when made correctly, natural wines can be clean, balanced, and utterly delicious. France—with more than 400 producers—Italy, and the UK have already caught onto their appeal, but until recently natural wines were scarce in Berlin.
All that started to change within the last year or so, as bars such as Cordobar, Les Valseuses, and Maxim began to stock their cellars with impressive selections. Last November, the city hosted RAW, London's popular natural wine showcase, for the first time ever, giving skeptics and aficionados alike the chance to taste and connect with vintners. Industry Standard has been something of a champion of these avant-garde vintages since it opened, doing its best to strip them of their elitist status and make them accessible. I caught up with the restaurant's owner, Ramses Manneck, and general manager, Tom Medalen, for a conversation about why people should shut up, chill out and drink better booze.
MUNCHIES: Let's start with the basics. Where are you all from? Ramses Manneck: I'm from Mexico City. Oscar, who's my business partner in the wine bar opening, is also from Mexico City. Tom's Norwegian. It's a very international crew. Here in Industry Standard, our head chef is from Manchester and we've got a Danish sous-chef, Italian commis chef, and a Northern Irish dishwasher. They've all worked for me at some point or another, so I just put them here on one team.
What got you into natural wines? Ramses: Before Berlin, I was in Norway working at some natural wine restaurants. We just like to get good wines that go well with our food. There's this whole freak side of people who think they're stinky and kinda weird-tasting, but they're just wines if you know how to choose them. We're lucky that we work with good suppliers. We know the winemakers, and it's good.
What exactly defines a "natural wine"? Ramses: There's no added sulfites. There's no pesticides, there's no fungicides. There's very little intervention in the agricultural process. You really need good grapes in order to produce good natural wines. They work with wild yeasts and don't add foreign yeasts to accelerate the fermentation process. So, yeah, it's basically a bunch of pressed grapes and that's it.
Tom Medalen: We're trying not to add anything to the wine-making process and not to take anything away. Let the grapes do the job.
Ramses: And then there are secondary things, like they allow for skin contact, maybe a little bit longer than usual, to add different characteristics to it, and that's when you get orange wine. There's also this movement toward using very old grape varieties.
They already feature pretty prominently on Industry Standard's menu, but they're going to play an even bigger role in your next project. What's the deal with your upcoming wine bar?
Ramses: Most wine bars are kind of boring, so we wanted make a fun bar that happens to have natural wines as a driving force. We'll also have charcuterie, cheeses, rillettes, pâtés, but it's mainly oriented toward drinking. The people who go to Industry Standard can go there afterwards. It's literally around the corner. It's gonna be called Wild Things.
How far along is it? Ramses: We're in the painting stage. It's decoration, then all the machines come, and then it's just buying glasses and booze and putting in some cool tunes.
People are already starting to talk about it, but you haven't really publicized it at all. Ramses: If it's been like that, it definitely hasn't been planned. In fairness, we never thought Industry Standard would get to where it is so fast. We still think we're just doing normal shit. We just kind of lower our expectations—no disappointment, no sad faces. Then, a year later, we're like, "Fuck yeah, we did it, boys!" People are either gonna like it, or they'll tell us that we're crazy.
Tom: In the beginning [with Industry Standard], people were questioning everything. Like, "Why can't I sit next to the windows? Why did you put the kitchen there?"
Ramses: "Why do I have to pay for bread?" Fuck you, it's good bread.
Tom: Now I feel like people trust us more. They'll say, "We know you've got nice wine. Can you just choose some for us?"
Ramses: We're not always that loose. For the wine bar, we do have sommeliers. We can only get away with so much. At the end, though, we're on Sonnenallee with fucking casinos and Spätis [late-night convenience stores] and chicken shops and shisha bars. It's kind of like, "Dude, you're over here. Just enjoy it." And some people do and some people don't, but so far it's been more people who like it.
Tom: We're lucky in that a lot of really talented people have wanted to work with us.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but your approach to natural wines seems to be pretty relaxed compared to some. Ramses: I don't feel like it should be snobby.
Tom: The whole wine scene attracts a lot of snobby people.
Ramses: There's a lot of wankers in the business and I don't wanna be one of them. I have a taste for natural wines. That's why I do it, because I tend to sell stuff that I like.
Tom: A lot of people say it's a trend right now and that it'll fade away.
Ramses: I just think people are getting more conscious about what they put in their bodies. It's a natural step.
Tom: You'll always have people who come in and say natural wines are bullshit, but if you ask that person to show their favorite wines, I can almost guarantee that one will be a natural wine.
Ramses: It's almost unfair. They're just good wines and they can be really clean. I don't like super-funky natural wines. Every once in awhile, we'll take something like a classic Riesling. It's just a matter of identity. There's other places where you can go and have a Riesling and as gastronomers we need to be pretty clear about what we're doing. I think Germans are pretty aware of the processes behind what they're eating and consuming. Otherwise there wouldn't be all these bio shops. It's just categories of bullshit. I mean, I still have a hard time describing what the fuck Industry Standard is, except for the fact that it's good food. Is it Mediterranean? Is it modern bistro?
You seem to get put in the nose-to-tail category. Tom: I mean, nose-to-tail doesn't have to be a cow. People are often surprised that we have a lot of vegetarian options.
Ramses: Why're we doing nose-to-tail? It's a matter of respect. We don't do it as a way to brand ourselves. If a thing is dying for you, you do nose-to-tail, or you should, also because it's more interesting. Why do we do natural wines? Because the flavor profile is more interesting. They have balls.
Tom: We might do things that are a little weird.
Ramses: People are like, "Is it raw wines or naked wines or…" Fuck. And the characters behind them are really cool. Now, the normal winemaking processes, they have chemists and shit. They're kind of lame. Usually natural winemakers are more like farmers than winemakers, and they're super-interesting people.
Tom: We've got winemakers coming down here to Berlin who are impressed that we have a toilet. Where they're from… it's a different world. They just have cool stories and it's all about the stories behind things.
How do you find the winemakers? Ramses: We have a really good supplier who also worries about flying them over from remote regions. They introduce them to us at the same time. Why do we connect with these people? Because immediately they see that we're in it for the real thing.
Tom: We're like, "We love your stuff, dude!"
Ramses: "Come over and have some dinner." Of course there's a connection.
Tom: In a lot of cases these are family operations.
Ramses: In the RAW fair, we had this one guy who was just amazing. He's come all the way over, and he's not able to explain anything because he only speaks Spanish. His English is terrible, so he's frustrated. And then we go there and start talking to him in Spanish and he just goes fucking wild. And the first thing he says is, "Wine's meant to be drunk. You don't talk about wine, you drink the wine."
Tom: It was hilarious, man. He was standing there at the wine fair speaking with an outdoor voice indoors saying how much he hates people that talk about wine. "They talk talk talk, yap yap yap! Shut up, drink it! It's grapes. It's alcohol. It's delicious." And you had all these posh people just staring.
Ramses: If the wine's good, don't need to do anything. You just open it. People don't want to hear your fucking speech. The job is done for you by a winemaker. I go to tastings a lot and there's these guys there who're like, "Ah, smells like shattered obsidian." And you're like, what the fuck is that about? You don't want to listen to these guys go on about how there's more to wine than getting fucked up. No, there isn't. But people are like, "it defines societies and religion and fucking territories" and all this shit. Fuck off. I connect with the winemakers on the level that I find them interesting. I can tell if I like a wine or if I don't like it, if it's good or not good. We drink the wines we serve. We get drunk on the wines we serve. And the hangovers are not that bad, because there's nothing added to it. There's a massive difference, a huge difference. Because what kills you from the other wines is all of the kinds of shit in them. Sugar, sulfites…
Tom: The list of additives that are allowed in the winemaking process is insane. People, especially here in Berlin, are so conscious of what they eat and where the food's coming from, but when they drink wines, they don't even think about it for a second.
Ramses: There are winemakers that, instead of aging wine in wood, just throw wood chips in the wine to infuse it. Shit like that. It's like, if you have a really terrible whiskey that has colorants and stuff, you're gonna wake up with a banging headache. If you have a really nice whiskey, it's not going to hurt you that much. If you're gonna get fucked up, you might as well do it with the best stuff you can get.
If you're gonna do it, do it right. Ramses: Yeah, and that applies to everything, right? Drugs, food, you know? So yeah, that's kind of our philosophy. We're definitely not wine people. We want to show people a good time, because we always think we have an awesome time [Laughs]. We're the worst at marketing. Somehow it's happened, and that's great.
You're saying you have no PR whatsoever? Ramses: Zero. Sometimes we put some shit on Instagram.
Tom: I think we're also lucky. In the beginning, a lot of the people that came were gastronomy people and they spread the word.
Ramses: You either know how to cook or you don't know how to cook. No marketing in the world can fucking change that. You can buy the coolest chairs and the best plates and the finest crystal glasses and all this bullshit. If you're some banker who's fed up with life and wants to live the "simple" life of running a restaurant, they're gonna fuck you. You're in trouble, man. We do what we do because we've been working in a shitload of places over the years and we've decided that the accumulated knowledge is worth something. That's why the kitchen's in front, because we're the ones who are here 16 hours a day. Same goes to the wine bar. We could try to please everyone, but then we're not pleased ourselves. A bar is a bar. I just think more people should get drunk with good wine.
Thanks for speaking with me.