Natty and Nasty: Jenny Lefcourt and the Natural Wine Movement

On January 1, 2000, the world breathed a heavy sigh of relief knowing that the feared Y2K bug hadn’t wreaked havoc with everything from nuclear reactors to our personal computers. What few realized on this day was that by the end of the decade, the wine world would be significantly rocked by a burgeoning movement that was percolating in France.

Throughout the 1990’s, scattered French vignerons had broken with convention and worked without the use of chemicals in the vineyards. They didn’t inoculate with commercial yeast either, causing the wines to have flavors that were very different from what most wine drinkers were accustomed to. Isolated winemakers not only in France but in California, Italy and in other wine areas had been making wine this way, which is to say the “old-fashion way” for decades, but starting in the 80’s and certainly by the 90’s their numbers began to grow. A handful of Americans caught wind of this and an even smaller number made it their business to ship them across the pond. Among this group of early renegades was Jenny Lefcourt, one of the founders and now the sole owner of Jenny & François Selections.

A native New Yorker, Jenny was a Harvard doctorate candidate living in France when she discovered natural wine. Along with her partner, François Ecot, she traversed the country in search of winemakers who were interested in selling to the United States and officially launched Jenny & François in 2000.

Since forming her company 17 years ago natural wine has taken off in the US and Jenny’s efforts are a big reason for this. She has introduced countless natural wine producers from California to the Czech Republic to wine drinkers in more than 30 states. We met up a few weeks ago in New York to discuss her journey, the birth of the natural wine movement, how it has changed and where it’s going. 

Jenny Lefcourt, photo courtesy of James Robinson

PSB: How did you get into the wine industry?

JL: It was mostly from living in Paris and happening upon these wines that I loved and figuring out the relationship between them all. I was studying French film and literature. One of the earliest conversion or “aha’ moments was when I was coming from the National Library and I was standing on the street in front of a restaurant and it was Robinot’s café (l’Ange Vin) at the time and I was looking at a poster for some tasting. He was like, “It’s a tasting for some wines in the suburbs of Paris. If you’re interested you should go. Do you want to come in? ” And he starts serving me natural wines. [I]

Here I must interject. Anyone who can say that Jean-Pierre Robinot gave them a personal introduction to natural wine is blessed. That’s like saying Leo Castelli turned you on to modern art. Anyway…

JL: This was in the 90’s and nobody used that word (natural). He didn’t use that word. He was just like, “You’ve got to taste this.” And I thought this was incredible, these were like the wines I had at this friend’s house and these are like the wines I had at that other bistro. That night I went back to François and we went back to the café and sat and talked and tasted a million things. And then we went to this wine tasting called Groslay (Salon des Vignerons de Groslay) in the suburbs of Paris, which was a natural wine tasting, but they didn’t call it that and we met Hervé Souhaut (Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet). One day we were driving towards the south of France on vacation and François was like, “Here’s where Souhaut’s vineyard is,” and he basically had us tasting his own wines in the cellar and then everybody else’s wines from his friends in the natural wine world.

Hervé was talking about what he does, what his friends did and linking all of these wines we had begun to taste and drink. He was saying all these guys work the same way; they are working organically in their vines and not using any herbicides or pesticides, and they’re also working similar ways in the cellar, and kind of piecing it all together.

I think at the time there were a lot of winemakers who felt very alone in what they were doing, in their appellations like Marc Pesnot in Muscadet, not realizing there were so many other people doing what he was doing in different appellations and different regions. A lot of people felt isolated. There wasn’t quite a movement yet. People started joining together in tasting, certain things like that, the Dive Bouteille started around that time and brought people together who had similar philosophies of life and winemaking. It was the beginnings and the stirrings of a movement. I felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is incredibly exciting. We’re just happening upon this thing that’s just starting and people are talking about.” 

Souhaut’s “La Souteronne,” Gamay from the Northern Rhône. Photo courtesy of James Robinson.

At the time there was somebody who was the head of the AOC system in France (René Renou) who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture who passed away since and he thought we can maybe name this. Maybe there is a way to make sure these people are not being rejected from the AOC’s? What can we do to let everyone know these are wines of excellence? There was discussion about it and excitement about it and I thought this is what I want to do. Everyone should know these wines. Not only are they so different from anything I ever had before, but these people are leading amazing lives and need help getting them out there. [II]

PSB: How do you feel natural wine has changed?

JL: I think the wine world, in general, has changed. When we first started there was the few old troughs like Garnet and Gotham and here we are 17 years later and there are so many boutique shops and there are so many women in the wine industry in terms of buyers and sommeliers, and that’s been a revolution. There were not a lot of women importers though now there are more. It’s still male dominated.

PSB: Have you ever felt discriminated against?

JL: When Francois and I were running the company together, winemakers tended to look at him and talk to him. Is that French language? Is that because I’m a woman? Is that because I’m American? I’m sure it’s multi-layered.

I’d stand there and hear all these things about Americans. “Americans are like this and Americans are like that,” and we’d stand there like, “Hello, we’re natural wine importers. We’re here because we want to sell your wine to Americans. Why do you think they won’t like your wine?” Certainly, it’s been years. But, so often I was the only woman at wine tastings.

PSB: Do you think that’s changing (in France)?

JL: It’s changing, but I’d go to tastings and there were all men, even the customers. And then when the winemakers would come to New York, they were like, “Oh my god, there are so many young people, there are so many women, there are so many different kinds of people,” and they found that fascinating. So, I do think things have changed in France and things all over the world.

Now I’m running the company by myself and I get a certain respect and people addressing me as someone to be taken seriously, and I’m 17 years in. It’s very different. I have a serious company with a lot of employees and we’re in 30 states. It’s a different position.

PSB: Do you find that there is less sexism within the natural wine world? I’ve heard that from some women in France.

JL: That’s great to know. I don’t think that everyone who makes natural wine is left wing but I do think that (with) people who are working organically or biodynamically, that means something about what they think of the world and their environment, hopefully. So that does tend to attract people who are respectful of our planet. That does not always translate to people who are respectful of women. There are also regional differences. The Loire Valley is different from Burgundy.

PSB: How is that?

JL: There are walls in Burgundy. All the winemakers we work with are wonderful and I don’t think they are sexist and I certainly think they respect what we’re doing. That’s probably true because it’s a particular stance to want to work naturally and it takes a certain questioning of the way things are done.

PSB: Getting back to your previous statement, people can’t just assume that if someone is a natural winemaker their politics are left. I think it is a misnomer.

JL: No, you can’t. There are all sorts of politics in France, but so far I have not met a natural winemaker who supports Le Pen. There’s certainly a lot of anti-Semitism in France. That’s more of what I’ve encountered.

PSB: Do you mind talking about that?

JL: There’s a lot of horrible stereotypes that still circulate and are repeated in everyday conversation. I’ve been in many rooms where I’ve heard this stuff. I’ve decided not to work with people when it’s just too much. If It seems like a naïve thing, it’s one thing. It’s scary. There is a lack of education in terms of talking about issues of anti-Semitism.

PSB: How else has natural wine has changed over the last 17 years?

JL: There seems to be a revolution going on. When we started out buyers weren’t particularly interested in hearing the technical aspects of how wine was made. Yeast, natural yeast, these weren’t big topics of conversation. So mostly we had to not talk about any of that; it was mostly about the wine.

I sat down with Peter Morrell in the very beginning and he was like, “I’ll taste two wines,” and I take out two wines.[iii] And he calls in his sister and says, “You gotta taste this, how can we sell it? Can we sell this for Beaujolais?” Gamay from the Auvergne in 2000. It was a natural wine but that wasn’t in the conversation. It was about the wine. And that was how we would always start it. It was all about the wine. We broke through that way, with the quality of our selection.

PSB: Do you think you are doing a disservice by branding it as natural wine?

JL: We brand our company as natural wine. Perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice, I don’t know. I think it depends on who you’re showing the wines to and level of interest. It’s something I believe in and put forward. Really, it’s mostly about taste. I don’t know if it really helped things for a long time. It was really about establishing ourselves and being taken seriously by wine buyers.

Slowly this movement grew into something with a name. And there’s many other importers and winemakers making natural wines and calling it natural wines. I feel like it’s another very exciting moment because there’s tension, there’s press. I’m growing and growing and growing. There’s been steady growth since we started, but the amount of people who say they’re interested and love natural wine has grown exponentially. It’s a world phenomenon. So that’s really exciting.

Courtois Quartz, a stunning Sauvignon Blanc Jenny imports

PSB: Are people now interested in the technical details?

JL: Absolutely. Americans drink more and more wine. I think there’s been many, many more young people who have been drinking wine for years and have been interested and taking classes and remember what they like to drink or write it down. The new generation thinks about how their food is made and where it comes from and what the story behind it is. That’s enormous progress across the US, thinking about not eating processed foods and supporting local farms and organic farming. That awareness has translated more into an understanding of wine. It’s a little more complicated. It is not easy to understand which wines are natural and which aren’t and that’s still a problem.

PSB: Is natural wine being more accepted in the heartland?

JL: Absolutely. We have a distributor in Missouri that’s doing fantastically. We have a distributor in Texas that’s doing great. In many states, there’s a lot of interest. Our national sales rep was just in Colorado for a natural wine fair. I think it tends to be more cities, though.

PSB: Compared to five years ago, how much growth have you had?

JL: I’d have to look. I’d say 100%. It’s enormous.

PSB: Where do you see things going in five years?

JL: I see it going in that direction. This year so far we’re 50% up.

PSB: Wow. What’s your biggest market?

JL: New York.

PSB: After NY?

JL: California, Texas.

PSB: How has it changed for you when you go to France to see producers from when you started out?

JL: There’s so many more importers. There’s also so many more winemakers. Things go a lot faster with Instagram and social media from country to country. I can see what’s going on in Copenhagen. It all moves really quickly, which is good and bad. We have Gut Oggau who we just started working with and their wines got in and everyone was already waiting for them across the US. How does that happen? Because people look at Instagram. Things move quickly.

In France there’s many producers who maybe we’ve brought in a vintage and maybe because it was their beginning of natural winemaking they had a problem and the next year it was impossible to sell and then they figured it out a few years down the line and now their wine is now again in the market with a different importer. It’s interesting to see. There’s a lot of wineries we took a chance on and it was too early on. It’s very different to say this wine has a little thickness and if we wait six months it will pass, but the tolerance for that kind of thing was zero in 2003.

I think now here more people get it. Is that good, is that bad? I so strongly believe there are wines with faults that shouldn’t be here in the US. There are skilled natural winemakers and unskilled natural winemakers, just like with more conventional wines. There are more conventional wines that are well made that maybe I wouldn’t drink, but I’m sure they sell a ton of palettes. No judgments, tastes are different, and then there are wines so poorly made that nobody wants to drink them. So, I think that does a disservice to natural wine in general. It’s not really fair to the natural wine movement.

PSB: You have the bell curve of natural wine. There’s going to be stuff that’s really funky and reductive, but there are always going to be some people who like it.

JL: I do think that its ok if a wine is reductive. That wine should be decanted. But if the reduction doesn’t go away, maybe there was something wrong with the winemaking. I think we work with producers who maybe started out having a lot of problems with reduction and questioned themselves and moved on from it. But if someone says, “That’s just natural wine,” I don’t think that’s fair. What I do think a lot of natural winemakers have in common is that they question themselves. They’re always trying to do better because it’s difficult to do; you only get one shot a year.

PSB: But then sometimes things happen for whatever reason and at what point do you say I’m going to stick with the producer, or not?

JL: I’m a loyal person. But I’m not scared of having a discussion where I say, “This vintage, you know it’s problematic and I know it’s problematic. How do we manage this so it doesn’t overcome your great reputation? I want to support you. How do we deal with this? Maybe we’ll take less and only give it to certain customers who understand what it means to have a hard vintage.”

PSB: How do you feel about zero-zero wines?[iv]

Binners’s “Les Vins Pirouettes Riesling de Julien,” a zero-zero wine J&F imports.

JL: To me, it’s up to the winemaker. There’s plenty of winemakers who in certain years are zero-zero and the next vintage will be difficult and they need to use some sulfites. I don’t really believe to lay down the law and say even in a difficult vintage this is how it has to be. Financially, you can lose the vintage, and I don’t know anyone who can do that. If you’re going to do that and have really terrible wine on the market that’s not going to help anyone.

PSB: There are people who say this is the way they make wine and they do it the same way every year and that’s it.

JL: That’s a much more formulaic, non-natural way of making wine. It’s not to consider grapes that are alive and different every year. You’re going to react to what’s in front of you, which is your harvest. I think a reasonably experienced winemaker will say, “I can’t do carbonic maceration if there’s tons of rot on my grapes, I just can’t do that.”

PSB: How do you see natural wine changing in other countries?

JL: I see it changing a lot. We have an exciting Austrian portfolio. We’ve shifted and changed as a company to be open to what’s going on elsewhere and I think that’s been really important to us, and I think that’s important to the natural wine movement in general. It’s expanded to the US, it’s expanded to Austria, which is very conservative in terms of their winemaking so to find someone like Strohmeier… who has some vines he doesn’t even prune? He’s very extreme in terms of his viticultural, biodynamic practices and encouraging biodiversity. He’s an incredible grape grower.

Franz Strohmeier, photo courtesy of Lauren Kennedy

PSB: How do you feel your educational background prepared and influenced you and became a part of what you do professionally?

JL: I think understanding French culture. I’ve read every century of French literature from medieval times to the present. I’ve passed an exam with six professors at Harvard about it. I really, really understand France. I’m as French as an American can get. It’s pretentious to say that because there’s always things to learn. I’m a perpetual student and for wine, you need to be a perpetual student and be humbled by it.

France has so many different cultures and so many different ways of thinking, and different wine regions and winemakers. A winemaker is someone in a cultural spot. Wine is about culture. It’s also about sitting down and drinking it with other people and having conversations. I really learned a lot about enjoying myself living in France.

PSB: What advice would give to someone who wants to get into natural wine importing?

JL: Somebody asked me the other day how do I get into wine importing in general. I think you have to have a point of view, a very strong point of view.

PSB: What would you say is your point of view?

JL: For me, it’s what’s in the glass; is that pleasurable, is that not pleasurable? And then to learn about somebody’s story and what they do and why the wines speak. As I said, I don’t think every natural wine is delicious and you have to have a point of view about that.

PSB: Have you ever wanted to make wine?

JL: No, I don’t like doing dishes. There’s too much cleaning. Winemaking is really about cleaning stuff with water or working in the vines. I’m not the best at either, although I have planted vines and I did it well. I’m very precise, but that’s not my side of things.

I come from reading books and writing and education. And I like to hear people’s stories and tell people’s stories. I like to share pleasurable moments with friends and family. That’s more where I come from and also just importing as a political act. I consider what I do to be political and as we said, not every winemaker shares that view. But in this world somebody like Strohmeier who’s in his prime and is really making sure to feed and tend to biodiversity to the spot where he lives and create something from that and share it with other people, that’s incredible. If I can work to make sure he can continue to do what he does that’s my main concern.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Kennedy.

 

[i] Jean-Pierre Robinot’s wine bar, l’Ange Vin, was one of the earliest natural wine bars in Paris. In 2001, he packed it in to start making wine in Chahaignes, his home town in the Loire Valley. Both of his ventures have been hugely influential. I think his wines are extraordinary. “Camille,” one of his red wines made from Pineau d’Aunis, made it into my Most Memorable Bottles list from 2016.

[ii] I followed up with Jenny about Rene Renou’s beliefs that natural wines should be respected by the AOC system and the subsequent rejection and exclusion that has catapulted Vin de France to a something way beyond supermarket wines. This is her response. “I think he wanted reform for sure, to make room for an AOC of Excellence and not just Origine. He thought it was a problem that the best wines and best examples of each appellation were being rejected instead of held up as representative. So he wanted to change things.”

[iii] Peter Morell ran Morell & Company, one of Manhattan’s premier wine stores, for many decades. After 65 years working in the family business, he retired in 2012 and is widely considered a legendary figure in New York’s wine market, known in particular for his importation of a wide selection of older Bordeaux. His sister, Roberta, is now the President and CEO of the Morell Wine Group.

[iv] Zero zero wines are made without any additions, including SO2 at any stage.