As the city all around her explodes with new growth, Suzi An is doing exactly what she wants. A 28-year-old Seattleite who’s tried, unsuccessfully, to leave multiple times, An owns Vita Uva, a months-old natural wine bottle shop comprising 65 square feet in the back of the International District’s Pho Bac Súp Shop.
Súp Shop is the most recent iteration of the same Pho Bac restaurant group responsible for bringing the essential Vietnamese noodle soup to Seattle in 1982; its ceilings are high and white and awash in light even when the weather outside isn’t. Vita Uva—Italian for “life grapes”—is the first thing you see when you walk in the door. It’s not exactly an expected pairing, natural wine and heady, brothy soup, but, as An looks at things, it’s one that makes total sense.
“We’re moving past all these new and shiny things in the restaurant scene here,” An says. “And sort of coming back home. Especially what’s being written about in the city, it’s back to your basics and highlighting people of color who have seen Seattle change throughout the years, but who built the city.”
An built her own career in the restaurant industry here as the creative backbone behind Eduardo Jordan, getting her start as a server at the now-closed Bar Sajor during his tenure there as Chef de Cuisine. She’d go on to win one of Eater’s Young Gun awards in 2017 for her role as the Creative Director at Salare and Junebaby, two spots in the Ravenna neighborhood critically acclaimed for their unique cuisines inspired by Jordan’s roots.
Now, An is out on her own, doing for herself and natural wine what she didn’t see happening anywhere else in Seattle.
“People say I’m on the forefront of natural wine in Seattle,” An says. “But I honestly just did it because I wanted to work for myself, and I fucking love natural wine and wanted a place where I could buy all these wines from these producers that you don’t really see in retail.”
An’s interest and passion for natural wines were sparked during her time at Bar Sajor, when a colleague gave an introduction to the fundamentals of wine buying that would serve her while transitioning into her role at Salare, where she bought for the restaurant in earnest. For An, the draw of natural wine has always been in production.
“I love that producers are basically creating a liquid version of the environment,” she says. “There’s something so poetic about it. And plus these people are saying, ‘I’m going to do what I want, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks.’”
She, like producers, lets wine speak for itself. Vita Uva’s setup is simple—a high, white desk behind which An sits. There are two rows of shelves displaying wines, with the upper dedicated to reds and the lower, An’s preference, whites. “It’s a living thing,” she says. “And maybe it’s because I’ve been in the Northwest, but sustainable agriculture has always been hugely important. Seattle, compared to other cities, though, is really behind in terms of natural wine options. It’s not really celebrated here.”
She hypothesizes that this is due in part to Washington’s wine production industry—it’s bred expectations in Seattle that all wine prescribe to, “a certain style,” and, by extension, misconceptions about inherent flaws of natural wine and its inability to age. She says the sweeping criticism is unfounded, and only serves to obfuscate the only thing that should actually matter to consumers: whether they enjoy a wine or not.
“I’m not really sure I like the term natural wine,” An says. “It separates natural wine from just wine. But natural wine is wine. There should be no difference. You’re going to drink this because it’s fucking great. Not because it’s natural or conventional, but because it’s a well-made wine.”
The idea to open Vita Uva inside Súp Shop borrows from similar thing-inside-a-thing business models more common to cities like New York and San Francisco, An says, where high rents and low square-footage breed concepts like Mission Chinese Food and Parlor Coffee. An had met a member of the Pho Bac family years earlier, cultivating a close relationship that made trying out a similar concept in their newest restaurant fairly intuitive.
“I’ve always talked about wanting to be closer to my roots,” An says. “I’m Korean, not Vietnamese or Chinese. And being around other Asian immigrants fuels something inside of me. Before, I was working with someone who wanted to get in touch with his own roots, which was really inspiring, and I wanted that for myself too. Which is one of the reasons I decided to leave JuneBaby and Salare.”
At Vita Uva, An’s found success selling red and orange wines, and it’s not uncommon for customers to buy a bottle and uncork it alongside bowls of soup at Pho Bac, whose broth is clean and aromatic and goes straight to your temples when you drink it down in exaggerated gulps. As for wines that excite An, she’s drawn to Gamays, but has a hard time picking favorites amongst her small, already curated wall.
“I love white wines, so was really stoked about all the whites I curated, but I’m mostly excited by producers,” An says. “Kelley Fox is one of my favorites in the states. People are drawn to her label and color, but her story is what gets them super invested. But how could one be my favorite?”
An’s plan for Vita Uva includes moving into e-commerce, although for now she’s content with running what she has. Her hope for natural wine, however, is more grand. And it’s a fitting grandiosity, after all—her generation will decide what the future’s wine industry will look like. It’s An, in effect, who’s going to define what wine means, and replace what exists today.
“These producers are not going to stop,” she says. “I hope natural wine becomes more integrated with the wine world, because wine should be approachable and affordable for anyone, everyday. I want people to be able to explore it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about wine. You should drink it because you like it.”
Michael Light (@MichaelPLight) is a features editor at Sprudge Media Network. This is Michael Light’s first feature for Sprudge Wine.
All photos by Nelson Yong. Top photo and Instagram courtesy of Vita Uva.