Denyse Louis might feel like an ordinary person but as one-third of the Louis Dressner trio[i] that was so instrumental in introducing natural wine to the United States, her work has been absolutely extraordinary.
Having formed Louis Dressner with her husband, Joe Dressner, more than 30 years ago, Denyse has played a major though unassuming role in the transformation and growth of the company, efforts that spearheaded the birth of a movement in the United States. Compared to Joe, a larger-than-life, outspoken and opinionated character, a jackhammer might seem demure. Even by normal standards, Denyse comes across as shy and soft-spoken yet she has opinions of her own and, with her hand-rolled cigarettes and self-professed (though not completely believable laziness), is as much of an individual as her revered late husband.
Prior to beginning her wine life, Denyse studied English linguistics and French literature, and worked as a teacher in France but realized it was not what she wanted to do. She came to the United States and after trying out a few schools, applied to NYU’s graduate program in journalism. There she met a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying New Yorker, Joe Dressner.
While she may come across as quiet, this was actually one of the most candid interviews I’ve ever done and there is very little editing in the words that follow. Unfortunately, my phone didn’t record a couple of times when I thought it was so I had to piece a few things together but her words are mostly verbatim.
PSB: What made you decide to become wine importers?
DL: We thought, “What could we do where we spend a lot of time in France,” and thought we were going to do something in wine because there were vineyards where my family had a house (the Mâconnais, Burgundy). And given that we had no contacts in France or in the US and we didn’t even know any kind of law in this country it was sort of a stab in the dark. We really started looking and meeting people and they sent us here and there.
PSB: How did you discover natural wine?
DL: In the very beginning, there was no one we met who was working organically. Biodynamics was already around because it’s kind of an old movement. What I knew about it was the Steiner school but I didn’t know anything about the agricultural part of it.
The first thing we were made aware of was natural yeast. All these winemakers we met in the Loire, the yeast was on the grapes and of course in the cellars. So there was no need to inoculate. Very early on we didn’t care about sulfur because we didn’t know about anything other than I would get a terrible headache anytime I drank a white wine. I thought I couldn’t stand white wine in general.
The more we met, the more we felt that it was really the work in the vines that was the most important thing. We would hear, “If we have perfect grapes there is nothing to do in the cellar.” Or, “If it’s not such a great year, there is a little bit of rot, you sort in the vines.”
The person who was really, really an enormous influence on us was Henri Goyard from Domaine de Roally. He was the closest from our house. We met him in ‘87 and we tasted his ‘86. I never had a white wine like that, especially not a Chardonnay from Burgundy. It was super with a little residual sugar and very, very rich. Goyard was not “organic” but his vineyard was like a garden. It was small. He would do everything the old-fashioned way. He would plow. He would mainly use copper and sulfur. He never used any systemic chemicals. He would never have said, “I’m working organically,” because especially at the time it would have meant nothing. He was a close friend of Jean Thévenet of Domaine de la Bongran, so they both worked the same way, which was the way their grandfathers had worked. So there was very little change in that area.
Normally, their wines always had residual sugar so it was not at all the standard in the Mâconnais. Everyone wanted super dry wines. So Henri Goyard was a big inspiration because that guy in a low-class area, after we’d been to the Cote d’Or, was doing something that is totally different and we had to figure out what and how and why.
He didn’t want to work with us for years. He had an importer in America, he didn’t have such a big production, etc…we had to work very hard on him. People in the Mâconnais are super stubborn and hard-headed. We came to realize more and more when we went to the Beaujolais there is this invisible frontier between the Mâconnais and Beaujolais and people are so much easier going in the Beaujolais than in Burgundy. They’re just bon vivants and and consider themselves real peasants.
PSB: Do you think that’s still the case? Beaujolais has changed a lot in the last ten years. It’s become a much more prestigious area.
DL: Yeah, but I think the people we work with are as humble as they were when we started or the new ones we added. The first one we added was Jean Paul Brun (Domaine des Terres Dorées). He was not working organically. But he did not have a family history so he was figuring things by himself. He was a self-made man and now he’s the head of an empire. Jean Paul is a like a big goof, very soft-spoken, very shy. He’s a formidable character but there is no way we could have guessed that when we first met him.
I still have trouble when Jules says, “This is my mother, she’s the Louis in Louis/Dressner,” and people ooh and aah and they’re so honored, I always feel like “what’s wrong with them?” I feel like I’m such a regular person, I’m so ordinary.
PSB: How did you ultimately make the transition from conventional wines to working with natural wines?
DL: It was totally unconscious. It was really meeting all the winemakers, tasting their wines and realizing how different they tasted, how they took care of their land, what they wanted to achieve, really show what their soil and vines could give and that’s all that happened. Just tasting and seeing what direction all these people were going. We followed and went with them. We met people who were gravitating around it: Olivier Lemasson, Hervé Villemade. The Loir et Cher, which is the least prestigious area of the Loire, is where we concentrated because there was really interesting stuff going on and there was a huge variety of wines.
We were lucky that we didn’t have too many very young people who were experimenting and making totally flawed wines. It happens. We did have flawed wine even from people who are so well known now. We had a vintage of Jean Foillard that was absolutely undrinkable. He told us that’s the way he wanted it because it was going through a stage that Pierre Overnoy [ii] and Jules Chauvet had written about and it was excellent for the wines. It was disgusting. He was a young winemaker then, he was going in the steps of Marcel Lapierre. But I think he had not mastered everything. We met a few examples like that. We had a wonderful producer in Cahors; he was such a sweet young man. Same thing, the first vintage we got was amazing, the second was awful. So, we let go of these people because they were so convinced they were doing it right and we were like, “no.” First, we were too young in the profession to really try and sell something that we tasted and said it’s flawed. I couldn’t have even described what it was. We had no idea.
PSB: Knowing what you know now, if you were to encounter a producer like that would you stick it out with them and give them a chance?
DL: Yeah. We would say, “Look, I’ve tasted other wines like this and maybe there is a step in the vinification where maybe you didn’t protect your wine or there was oxidation or the opposite and you didn’t let it breathe enough and you bottled it and it was all reduction. Or something happened, was it a bacterial infection? We had a few ropey wines[iii] and at first I was like, “What is that?” “Oh you know it’s a protein and this and that.” I don’t know anything about chemistry and neither did Joe. So it’s like, “Is it going to go back to a normal stage,” and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Ok, so we have to be patient so what do we do in the meantime? On the whole, I must say that we had winemakers who pretty much knew what they were doing. The ones, who in the beginning I was not convinced were so great really, with a little experience, corrected any kind of flaw.
PSB: Do you think it’s easier to sell flawed wines now?
DL: Absolutely. The kind of flaws you get in natural wines, lots of people think are wonderful because that’s how natural wines are supposed to taste. Funky.
PSB: What do you think about that?
DL: No, I think it’s wrong. I’m not saying people are wrong. If they like that maybe their palate has been developed like that but it’s not good wine. If you want good wine that really has clarity, it’s wrong to take flaws as a real characteristic of natural wine. It’s like a beginners mistake.
PSB: One of the things I loved about Clos Roche Blanche was the clarity of their wines. And how well priced they were.
DL: Yes, yes. To us, they were what we wished we would find everywhere. They had such a hard time for years and years and years. They were really humble people. They never felt that because now we have a little renown we should hike the prices. They felt we are in a very simple, humble area. We are doing well enough. We don’t need to extort people.
Catherine inherited the vines from her parents and they came from her grandfather. They didn’t have to buy anything. They did expand the estate because there was a neighbor, and another neighbor, who said, “We want you to take over our vines.” But they ended up having way too large of an estate and they had to get rid of some of the additional vines they bought over the years. They were very ambitious in what they wanted to make but not at all greedy. That’s a story.
Catherine’s father died very young and he was the winemaker so Catherine and her mother, with a worker who had been there for years, took over the estate just to keep it and make it survive. They bought a harvesting machine because they couldn’t deal with harvesters and all that. Then Didier showed up. I think that was in ’91. For a while, I think two years, they continued working the same way and then they both said no, that is not what we want the wine to taste like. Then, they thought they had to plow deep. They nearly killed the vines because they didn’t know otherwise with the crazy plowing and now Didier says you shouldn’t plow at all. You should just scrape the top if you want to get rid of the grass but otherwise do not move the soil around because of all the levels of the little creatures that live with oxygen, without oxygen.
I wish Didier had written up and published all the research he made over the years about soil, planting, flowers…He went to the south of France to get wild leeks because leeks have these very particular properties with their roots and they connect with the fungi under the earth and they feed the vine roots. There were no wild leeks left in the north of France so he went…I don’t remember where I think in the Ardèche or something. Wild garlic also.
Champagne is probably the last region we went into. On our first trip to Champagne, we were so horrified by the vines. For years, all the vines in Champagne used the garbage from Paris as fertilizers and it’s so filled with crap. Blue plastic from the garbage bags. I had never seen anything so bad. In Burgundy, even if the soil is depleted by erosion and herbicides, it looks clean. Now we have several Champagnes. One is not 100% organic because he feels he is still new and shaky. He plows, he doesn’t use herbicides. But if it’s a so-so summer he uses chemicals to protect from mildew or oidium. Francis Boulard, who is all the way north, had to split from his brother and sister because they didn’t want to work organically and then he converted everything to biodynamics. The Tarlant family, now that’s an old family estate. At one point they had four generations under the same roof, not living together but there was the great-grandfather, grandfather, father and grandson. Isn’t that amazing? So there was another knowledge that was never lost. They never went full blast into herbicides and this and that.
DL: I want to speak about female winemakers.[iv] There are more in Italy than in France that we work with. In France, we have Sylvie Esmonin who is the real thing. She does the vineyard work and she makes the wine.
Evelyne de Jessey (Domaine du Closel) is a character. She is in a different class. She is absolutely wonderful. She is over 50 and all of the sudden this fell upon her, and also her mother was the owner and then it was her mother’s aunt so there is a tradition of female owners if not winemakers. Again, one person who has changed so much. She went from totally conventional, high sulfur, underripe, very austere Savennières to organic then biodynamics, really sort of looking to what they could do. They have amazing terroir. So Evelyne really changed everything in that estate.
PSB: Do you think that women winemakers have the same level of influence as male winemakers?
DL: Sylvie Esmonin is a star. Evelyne is a star in her own right. It’s hard to come by, more in Italy. Arianna (Occhipinti), she is really the best example because she was so determined. Ever since she turned 15 she wanted to do it and she planted and she got started at 22 as soon as she finished her studies. She built her own estate. Then there are women owners like Elena Panteleoni (La Stoppa) who is really the force behind that estate. Alessandra Bera, her brother is the winemaker but she is also the heart of the estate. Elisabetta Foradori is an icon. She started way earlier than anyone else as a winemaker as the head of an estate and as organic, going from organic to lots of biodynamic uses, really making the simplest expression of what a soil and vines could give her. So she is a big example.
Then there are lots of couples where the wife is very important. DeMoor. Alice is the cellar master. They both work in the vineyards, they both work in the cellar but Alice is the cellar person. It used to be a family business where the man is doing a lot of the cellar work and the wife works at the books.
PSB: Do you think that is changing in France?
DL: Yeah, because there are lots of winemakers whose wives have no involvement in the estate. There is also this kind of independence and if the wife is there working I feel they are very involved. Georges Descombes wife is there at every level, in the vines, in the office, everywhere.
The most extraordinary female winemaker is Dora Forsoni (Podere Sanguineto). She is amazing. She’s among the oldest of all of our winemakers and she still does all of the vineyard work herself. She’s the only gay winemaker we ever met. She doesn’t like anybody to do it because that’s the way her father showed her. She doesn’t want anybody to interfere. She wouldn’t even say she makes wine naturally, that’s how she makes wine. You can go visit and she’s on her tractor. She broke her leg a while ago jumping from a cask. She’s a hunter. We always get boar sausages that she prepared herself from a boar she killed.
PSB: Does it seem as if there are more women who are not just winemakers but having a bigger presence in the natural wine movement?
DL: Not really. I don’t know what to say. Lee (Campbell)[v] was the first woman who got it. She wanted to work with us and we were delighted to have her. There are more and more women buyers it’s true in restaurants and they are interested in natural wines.
PSB: Can you tell me some more about the early days, before you really went full force into the natural world? First, where did you grow up?
DL: I grew up in Alsace. I am from Lyon and the Mâconnais but I moved to Alsace when I was three years old but not the pretty fairytale land; in the southern part where there are salt mines or there were salt mines and heavy industry textile and all that stuff.
PSB: How long have you been in New York?
DL: Thirty-five years.
PSB: Do you think of it as your home?
DL: Yes, although I couldn’t stand it if I couldn’t go back to France for long stretches. I don’t think I would have survived if I didn’t have that.
PSB: I understand that. At this point, I feel San Francisco is my home but I need to come to New York a few times a year and since I have family and friends here often stay a couple of weeks at a time.
DL: Same story, everybody is in France; if I want to see them that’s where I have to go.
I’m always incredibly sad when I have to close my house and say, “That’s it, I have to go back to NY.” But once I’m here that’s where I live. And also I see Jules[vi] every day and that’s pretty wonderful. I miss my daughter, she’s in Montreal and I feel it’s too far.
PSB: How did you go from studying journalism to starting a wine company?
DL: It was a whim. It was going to the village (Saint-Gengoux-de-Scissé) with Joe the summer after we got married and Joe, the real New Yorker, totally fell in love with the countryside. He felt it was the most perfect spot in the world. And I would say, “You know there are more spectacular and way more beautiful areas in France.” I didn’t even think about talking about the other countries around because I love Italy, I think it is the most beautiful country in the world. But no, he liked the mix of vines and fields and cows and goats and woods and the hills. Everything was perfect to him. So we said, “What could we do that would take us back here?” At first, we thought that we could live in France and do the business from a distance but it became clear it would not work like that especially since we really did not know anybody here. We had to struggle and talk to this one, talk to that one. Fortunately, Kevin was one of our very first customers.[vii]
PSB: I remember stocking your wines. I hear about people starting import companies and it sounds exciting but nerve-wracking.
DL: We had no money whatsoever. We were not even so young and we already had one child and then a second one when we got started for real because it’s in ‘88 that we started looking around and signing up winemakers. We were not too concerned with making money. We wanted to pay our winemakers right from the start but I never felt it was really nerve-wracking. We didn’t have big goals or ambitions. We felt we wanted to try it out and we will see where it leads us.
PSB: Did you ever think Louis Dressner would be where it is today?
DL: No. No no no. As Joe would put it, it’s just with resilience that we lasted this long and that’s how it developed.
PSB: You’re pioneers.
DL: I know. I know.
PSB: Was it scary to take that leap?
DL: No, it just happened, for me personally. The thing is that I was always behind Joe. That was perfect for me. Joe was such a workaholic. He worked all the time; I’m not like that at all. I can always step back. Of course, I always did all the correspondence and talking to winemakers. Joe didn’t speak French at first. But he loved to talk so much that he learned. He would speak horrendous French but non-stop, totally fluent. Same sense of humor, puns, anything. He could totally be himself. But his French was so horrendous. The grammar, the way he would pronounce. The kids would mock him and try to make him pronounce stuff and he absolutely could not.
But once people got used to him, no problem. He could have a discussion with anybody, about anything, not just wine. So there was this thing that Joe was the front, I was behind. Then Kevin came. And Kevin is an organized person. Joe was totally chaotic. He would have three ideas floating around and then he would come out and interrupt any kind of flow we had with “whoa whoa whoa.”
I still have trouble when Jules says, “This is my mother, she’s the Louis in Louis/Dressner,” and people ooh and aah and they’re so honored, I always feel like, “What’s wrong with them?” I feel like I’m such a regular person, I’m so ordinary.
PSB: Why do you feel that way?
DL: Why would they react like that?
PSB: What you’ve done has been extraordinary.
DL: I know, I know. But I always felt like Joe was the big presence. I was there but I never wanted to be the big presence. But I know that we never would have done what we did had I not been French and interested in that business. At first, when we would meet winemakers they would say, “Do you have a diploma?” Cause it’s a French obsession. “Do you have a diploma?” ‘No.” “In viticulture, enology? Business?” And I was the only one who was speaking at the time. “What about him?” And people would say, “Oh.” But the fact that I was French and I would say, “Oh, yeah, I come from a family of vine owners in the Mâconnais,” and then, “Ah, ok.” So there was for them something local and authentic.
PSB: It makes a huge difference if you can speak the language.
DL: Kevin did that for us with Italy. We were a little freaked out at first. Joe and I felt we were going back to the beginning and we were totally ignorant and we had to start learning and Italy is way more complicated than France. It’s much more rich and varied. So Kevin did that. In Italy, the natural wine movement started later than in France and we were already totally into it in France when we went into it in Italy. We knew what we were looking for so in a sense it made it easier because we could really focus and we started working with the ‘A list’ right from the start. I mean, Arianna Occhipinti. We met her when she was 24. She had one vintage.
PSB: What is the most exciting thing for you going forward?
DL: Trips to Italy. We go in May and November. I love Italy. I love France but it’s my country. Italy is full of beauty, a different type of beauty. The wines are super interesting. There is always a discovery. We go 20 kilometers away and oh my god they have another variety. There is still a lot of learning to do there and that’s very good.
Everyone is asking me when I’m retiring in France because I’m reaching that age and I have friends that have retired or are retiring and I say I have no idea. I don’t think I want to retire and I don’t have to. So I think I want to be a part of it for a good while longer.
PSB: I think you should. I want you to be a part of it for a while longer. Thanks so much for your time. Always a pleasure to see you.
[i] In addition to Denyse Louis and her husband, Joe Dressner, Kevin McKenna has been a partner in the company since 1995.
[ii] Pierre Overnoy is a very famous and highly respected vigneron in the Jura. He retired in 2001 and his partner, Emmanuel Houillon, is now making the wines. Jules Chauvet, Overnoy’s mentor, was a negotiant and a chemist. He is often considered the godfather of natural wine.
[iii] Pediococcus, a lactic bacteria, can cause a ropey appearance in wines and add unpleasant aromas.
[iv] After our interview Denyse sent me the complete list of LDS’ female winemakers.
France: Sylvie Esmonin in Gevrey-Chambertin
Noëlla Morantin in Touraine
Alice de Moor in Chablis (with her husband Olivier, she’s the main cellar person)
Elodie Balme in Rasteau
Nathalie Gaubicher in Jasnières
Jule Balagny in Beaujolais
Claude-Emanuelle Desvignes in Morgon (works with her brother Louis-Benoît, she makes the wine)
Valérie Forgues in Touraine
Gwénaëlle Croix in Muscadet (part of La Pépière team)
Virginie Maignien in Gaillac (with companion Patrice Lescarret)
Owners, heads of estates, but not winemakers:
Yvonne Hegoburu in Jurançon (our dowager, 88 years old)
Evelyne de Jessey in Savennières
Marie-Pierre Iché in Minervois
Catherine Roussel in Touraine — retired!
Italy: Elisabetta Foradori, Trentino
Arianna Occhipinti, Sicily
Chiara Vigo, Sicily
Francesca and Margherita Padovani, twins of Tuscany
Dora Forsoni, Tuscany
Maria Berucci, Lazio
Nadia Verrua, Piedmont
Francesca Sfondrini, Tuscany
Danila Pisano, Liguria (all vineyard work, doesn’t vinify)
Elena Pantaleoni, Emilia-Romagna (heads the estate, doesn’t vinify)
Alessandra Bera, Piedmont (most visible part of the Bera family, brother Gian Luigi is the winemaker)
Of course, wives and partners are of utmost importance at a majority of estates. Jean-Paul Brun and Laurent Barth are exceptions, they are single.
[v] Lee Campbell is a well-known and highly respected wine personality in New York City. In addition to working with LDS, she was the wine director for Andrew Tarlow’s restaurant group in Brooklyn and was also one of the co-creators of The Big Glou, a natural wine fair held in New York in February 2016.
[vi] Jules Dressner is Denyse and Joe’s oldest child and has been working with LDS since 2011.
[vii] Here, Denyse is referring to her partner, Kevin McKenna, who was also the wine buyer at Astor from 1989 – 93. After leaving Astor, he went to Rome and got his MBA from Boston University Metropolitan College and then joined Denyse and Joe at LDS in 1995.