Natty & Nasty: Nadia Dmytriw, Floraison Selections
I have to warn you that this is a LONG interview. It has been slightly edited for continuity and believe it or not, brevity, but over the course of two lengthy conversations and many glasses of wine, Nadia Dmytriw had a lot to say. The path leading to the formation of her new company, Floraison Selections, took her all the way to Moscow, something I did not know until we got together for this interview. She represents some of the most revered natural wine growers in France with an exuberance that comes across when she speaks. I’ve always found Nadia to have an egalitarian spirit that greatly benefits the wine industry and its consumers, and can serve as an inspiration to those who are interested in working in the trade.
PSB: How did you get into wine?
ND: I did my B.A. in language studies, French and Russian, at UC Santa Cruz, and I did my junior year abroad in Bordeaux. I came back to Santa Cruz to finish my B.A. and I decided to go back to Bordeaux to teach English as a part-time schoolteacher. In between the two school years, I was desperately looking for a summer job and I didn’t want to go back to the States. On the suggestion of friends, I started applying to châteaux or wineries in the Bordeaux area. I knew nothing about wine. I couldn’t even tell you what grapes were grown in Bordeaux at that time and I happened to land an interview and then a job at a grand cru classé in Pauillac. That was in 2001. I moved there for one year to teach English and I wound up staying four years. What started out as an emergency summer job turned into a career change.
PSB: What did you think your career was going to be?
ND: I always knew I wanted to live abroad and teach English and I always thought it would be a means to an end, but I didn’t know what the end would be. I thought it would be an interesting way for me to get into other countries and find a job but I knew I didn’t want to teach for the rest of my life because my mom is an English teacher at a public middle school in East LA and I grew up with that, and seeing how stressed she was, so I honestly didn’t know.
My first contact with wine came through poetry in high school. That was the first inspiration but I never drank wine until several months before I applied to work at the winery when I was teaching in Bordeaux and it was on a teachers’ table in the school cafeteria at lunch.
It was huge for me because here I was, I was an outsider, I was a foreigner, I was much younger than the other teachers and I got a chance to break bread with them. I was nervous and it was a way to ease nerves and make everyone feel at ease, and realized we were all in this together to enjoy this hour and a half lunch break, take a break from all the screaming kids next door and it really unified us. And I was really into food so the fact that wine was there in a carafe on the teachers’ table, it reinforced this whole aspect of French culture, and wine was very much a part of that. I didn’t understand what I was drinking but the cultural element really spoke to me.
PSB: To go from not knowing anything about wine to working for a top chateau is a pretty big leap.
ND: What was amazing about working for such a well-healed grand cru classé was they put a lot of time and energy into training their guides. The new team of guides for that season spent a few days getting a personal tour from the assistant winemaker and it was incredible. There’s a lot of information, information I started to question down the line years later, but it was a really wonderful place to start. I did that for the summer and fell in love with it. I went back to teaching during the school year and because it was part time I had some free time on my hands and I decided to take some classes at the University of Bordeaux, to see if it was something I wanted to pursue a little deeper. I fell in love with it and gradually left the teaching behind and moved full force into wine.
PSB: This was around the time when there was a lot of reverse osmosis and all sorts of other manipulating going on and even encouraged in Bordeaux. Did you see any of this happening where you worked?
ND: Most likely, yes. What I saw were a lot of pumps. It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening with the pumps. We would give visits to the public in the winery when all of these practices were taking place. Nobody ever closed the doors and said, “We’re doing reverse osmosis now, you can’t come in.” There were just loud pumps. People would ask and I would explain the idea of pumping over. Invariably there would be visitors asking about reverse osmosis and other things. Where I first started to question things was because of the questions visitors gave me. Up to this point, I had no formal training other than what the winery wanted me to sell. And being young and drawn to storytelling I jumped in. It was really over the course of those four and half years where I started to refine my understanding and be exposed initially through the questions being asked by a whole variety of different visitors that made me dig in a little deeper and research on my own. That’s where the beginnings of waking up started happening.
There’s this alignment that’s integral to how are they farming and the choices they are making. There has to be a synergy between all of these elements.
I had a crisis moment toward the end of my stay and it was one of the reasons why I left. I’d become basically the head educator for another grand cru classé and I was responsible for training the new season’s guides. The chateau had just bought an estate in the south of France in the Languedoc. The tour guides and I would have something other than Bordeaux to pour and another story to tell. They had invited some of the winemaking team from the Languedoc to give this briefing and I was sitting there with the guides who were under my wing, taking notes and I believe it was the assistant winemaker who was given the floor and speaking very openly and honestly about the techniques and what he did and why, and the owner kept interrupting him and interjecting, “Oh, but that’s not actually what we’re going to say,” or talking over him in the most obnoxious way and silencing him. It was about not telling the truth and being true to what we were actually doing, and communicating false information.
She (the owner) was my immediate boss and I was sitting there taking notes, trying to get the story straight, fascinated to hear another winemaking perspective from another region and learn more and then having this other person, who was clearly not involved at all, speak over them and kind of whitewashing things, and I’m the one directly responsible for turning around to my fledgling tour guides and training them all on this and finding the right words and I had this crisis moment. I was thinking, “What am I doing.” There was this complete disconnect between the reality and what I’m saying, and what I’m starting to realize my personal beliefs are.
I spent seven months working for a well-regarded Bordeaux negociant and their Moscow based importer came for a weeklong visit with some of their top clients. I was charged with taking them around for a week to a lot of châteaux. This owner of this importer was from Georgia. Because I spoke Russian and he spoke English and French fluently they thought we’d get along so we had a day before his clients arrived where it was just him and me and I got a chance to visit St. Émilion with him. There was a wine shop there that had wines from the Loire Valley. I hadn’t seen bottles from the Loire before, I swear to god. I wasn’t making money to go out to restaurants. When I did I ordered the carafe wine. There was one shop in downtown Bordeaux at the time, it’s changed dramatically since then, but back then it was not the case. And Sandro took me around and pointed things out and started telling me stories. He’s the one who first mentioned the word “biodynamic” and farming organically. I hadn’t heard this before. This outsider was the first to shed light on how beautifully complex and varied and rich this industry and field was, and to give me this spark and desire to delve a lot deeper.
And then I went to Russia.
The reason why Russians took me seriously is that all my wine experience had been in France. They saw me as an ally aligning with the E.U. and the E.U.’s alignments against GMO food and because I was continuing to move in that way.
PSB: What were you doing in Russia?
ND: I initially went to teach English and wound up working in wine. As you know, I studied both French and Russian. It has always been a goal of mine to spend meaningful time in both countries. French for cultural reasons, Russian because of my family background, which is Ukrainian actually but it’s hard to study Ukrainian so Russian had to do. I taught English initially in a different city and then I moved to Moscow and ended up becoming the U.S. embassy’s first official wine consultant. That was my official title.
PSB: Are you serious?
ND: I’m serious.
PSB: What was that like?
ND: It was a crazy experience. I was hired as an independent contractor so I was not part of the Foreign Service. I was in this very grey area weird no man’s land. This job was created essentially for me. It’s the kind of job that normally would only be available for a Russian national.
The foreign language school where I taught English happened to have a contract with the U.S. embassy and consulate and sent their newly arrived diplomats for foreign language training there. I got to know a lot of diplomats and became friends with them. One of them was the director of the agricultural trade office. And I was telling him about my experience and having just moved from France to Russia, having worked in wine and being a native Californian and he was like, “I need you! I’m being besieged by the California Wine Association and I know nothing about wine, there’s no one on my team that knows anything about wine. They have money, they’re interested and as far as I can see, I’m pushing all this GMO corn and Bush leg chicken that I’m not totally on board with. I would love to have some kind of passion project. Look me up when you come to Moscow and let’s talk.”
The job entailed doing a lot of market research and analysis for U.S. wine producers and exporters who were interested in doing business with Russia. At that point, it was only California and it was the California Wine Council or California Wine Association – I need to get the name straight – who was basically the big mover and shaker behind all of this. My direct boss was the director of the agriculture trade office, which was a branch of the foreign agricultural service. It involved trying to understand any and all aspects of the Russian wine market a potential U.S. producer or exporter would be interested in knowing: who were the players, who were the importers, who were the consumers, what did the market look like, what was currently available, who were the big competitors? What were other competitors, meaning other wine producing countries, doing that the U.S. wasn’t? Why was the U.S. falling so short? Why did it have such a bad reputation?
The reason why Russians took me seriously is that all my wine experience had been in France. They saw me as an ally aligning with the E.U. and the E.U.’s alignments against GMO food and because I was continuing to move in that way.
PSB: How does Russia side on that?
ND: At the time, it felt like a really exciting turning point because Russia has this amazing connection to the earth; a historic, deep connection to the earth, Russia, and its conquested states. Some of the best produce I’ve ever had has been from the farmers’ markets in Russia. There’s a very strong food and winemaking culture throughout Russia and Central Asia, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine. All of what the E.U. was arguing for very loudly and was recently hard fought in the 90’s and 2000’s, really spoke to the Russians I got to know. It really spoke to a lot of the wine industry people I knew in Russia, too.
All major European wine producing countries are desperate to export and so they are willing to bend over backward. There was a very strong bond between Russian and European wine growers and not so much with a country like the U.S. where we’re not export dependent. We only look to export in years of glut. We’re not looking to build long-term relationships, we’re looking for a dumping ground and we don’t care where the wines wind up, really. Big production companies, these national companies, they don’t really care by enlarge and Russians knew that and they were sensitive to it and resented it. U.S. wine was kind of on the shit list and my job was to kind of be a diplomat. I didn’t know this was what I was signing up for but this is what I learned. The majority of my job was representing people like Kendall Jackson and Gallo and really big companies like that but actually, with KJ, I have a lot of positive things to say about the way they approached the market at that time.
The feather in my cap is that I got Ridge. I met with Paul Draper, he spent an entire day with me when I came back to California on a business trip and I hooked him up with who was then his Moscow importer. In the case of Ridge, they don’t need to export. Paul Draper told me very clearly he cares about where his wine ends up and he wanted his wine to be accessible to wine lovers everywhere in the world. He took a lot of pride and care about that when it came to Russia. It was a mixed bag but by enlarge I was speaking and working on behalf of the very wines I stand against now. But it was an educational experience.
Gradually along the way, I would meet people who would give me further information and food for thought. At this point, it was a lot of processing and sifting through information. I had never really spent time drinking wine as a consumer in my own country so I didn’t have a lot of connection here. All of my formative years were in France and then in Russia. I had no inkling about what was happening in California or the U.S. in general.
PSB: And then you came back to California.
ND: At first it was really hard to get a job because I had no U.S. work experience and all my references were in foreign countries but it wasn’t a problem with K&L because of the Bordeaux connection and that was huge for me. My education while I was at K&L wound up taking me to a totally different aspect of wine; the one I started to wake up to during a moment of crisis years before and there were a lot of people at K&L who were instrumental in that. The two most instrumental were Jeff Vierra and Mulan Chan.[i] That’s how I got to know who was who in the Bay Area, it’s how I got to know the importers, it’s where I first saw the Joli Vin back label and had my first Joli Vin wine and came to differentiate the big importers from the small guys. Mulan is the one who turned me on to some of the key growers in the Joli Vin portfolio like Gonon and Rimbert. Jeff was huge in turning me on to the Loire Valley, an area where this Georgian importer had first turned me on to but I only knew that intellectually. I hadn’t had access to the wine so it was at K&L where I first started to taste those wines. My first gateway natural wine was Domaine L’Ecu. This was well before Joli Vin was importing it. Jeff turned me on to that. I’d never heard of Melon de Bourgogne. It was really pivotal for me.
PSB: How did you get into the importing and distribution side of it?
ND: From K&L I went to work at Martine’s Wines. I was the sales and marketing assistant. I wound up spending a lot of time with a lot of amazing wine growers and developing amazing connections. From there I did what I thought I would never do, I became a salesperson and a broker. I started at the worst possible time ever, November 2008, representing an all-Austrian portfolio, Winemonger. I picked up Joli Vin in January or February of 2009.
PSB: And then?
ND: I was the broker for two years at Joli Vin and then transitioned into co-ownership with one of the original founders, Gary Roshke, and we were in a partnership up until earlier this year. Joli Vin is dissolving. We signed our partnership dissolution a few months ago.
PSB: Tell me about Floraison Selections, your new company.
ND: Joli Vin had been this paradox for a number of years. In a lot of ways, we’d been this very successful company that had five consecutive years with nothing but steady growth. When I first started, the portfolio was half the size of what it is today, largely with unknown names. Some of the names would become our most sought-after growers but nobody heard about them at the time.
PSB: Like whom?
ND: Gonon. I had to pour Gonon everywhere I went and tell people why it was so great. Rimbert. [ii]
PSB: How was it for you to have worked with wineries that were not known then and now become part of their success?
ND: First and foremost, so much credit goes to the growers for making beautiful wines. These are formidable growers. Neither works in very well known appellations. They had a belief in where they come from. In the case of Gonon, the estate has been in his family for generations.
Rimbert is from Provence but he had the courage to follow a dream and seek a place where he felt it was possible. And he’s from an orchard growing family. He had the courage and determination very early on when the Languedoc was known for just mass-produced funk – oceans of it – he had the courage to seek out a meaningful place to him where he could realize his dream, a place where he could afford. That’s what drove him there. He kind of discovered by himself what made his appellation so great (Berlou).[iii] He became the first grower ever to bottle under his own name in the appellation. Everyone just bottled under the co-op.
There was a lot of commitment and tenacity in the case of the Gonon brothers to stick to it and do one thing and do it well and not sell out. They do a Saint-Joseph. They are not trying to outsmart the appellations. They actually make two Saint-Josephs but they decide to declassify one of them every year as Vin de France. They do a white as well, which is tiny.
PSB: What’s your vision for Floraison?
ND: To take the strengths of Joli Vin and bring it to the next level. The strengths of Joli Vin were first and foremost, the growers. There was a person behind sourcing these growers, my business partner. He had a real instinct for finding growers early on before they became well known and I feel very fortunate and lucky to have worked alongside him. He also had a very good palate.
PSB: What do you mean by that?
ND: I didn’t know him when he started the company but by the time I came on board the portfolio had a very clear mark on it. The wines had vibrant acidity, they had a real clarity and spoke of place. By enlarge, they also happened to be farmed organically or biodynamically and made with native yeast.
The other strength was that I was the first salesperson Joli Vin ever hired. I took that very seriously. I took it upon myself to venture to Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel and then even Santa Barbara. Joli Vin felt like this sleeper of a company. Not trying to be everywhere but just targeting the right places.
PSB: What do you mean by “the right places?”
ND: Places like Passion Fish in Pacific Grove that I’ve been selling to since 2009 and Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn Big Sur.
PSB: What makes you decide what is a “right place?”
ND: It’s a mix of things. Sometimes it’s trial and error. In the case of Sierra Mar it was the wine director actually cold calling me looking for some of the Wachau smaragds I was representing from Winemonger at the time. He invited me to come pour him some wine. I threw a couple of Joli Vin wines in the bag and we just started talking and I realized the person behind that list and the way the conversation just took flight how open he was. It’s not so much about the restaurant, it’s about the person. And some of the best accounts I have now in that area worked as floor somms there and have since gone on to open their own places. It’s been a collection of people more than the names of the restaurants. It’s not perfect, I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of people
PSB: Where would you like to see Floraison in two years?
ND: Right now we’re an unheard of name but they know me, they know our growers. What I would love to see is being recognized first and foremost as a portfolio of growers who work with integrity and with representatives who represent them with integrity. Be a cohesive portfolio in terms of quality, in terms of working with minimal interventionist growers who are respectful of their environment and the people who are working in every aspect of the industry.
PSB: Do you want to stay France focused?
ND: I always felt like there’s been a lot of strength in doing one thing and doing it well and staying focused but I feel a need that my new company is going to have to expand beyond France. I have 100% less wine available from key growers in one year and that’s a problem. And it’s no longer just Burgundy. We’re talking about the farthest southern corner of France to the farthest northern corner of France being equally and dramatically hit by climate changes. I am worried about demand exceeding supply.
PSB: How strongly do you feel about being an exclusively natural wine importer?
ND: Joli Vin, in spite of the reputation, was never 100% natural, and my new company, Floraison, is not exclusively natural either. It has a very strong emphasis on natural, minimal interventionist and organic, biodynamic – whether they are fully certified or not – growers. And we’re lucky to have very deep, committed relationships with some of the pre-eminent natural growers in the regions who have become benchmark growers in the natural wine scene but that doesn’t mean every grower has to fit that criteria. I’m not a dogmatic person in general. It’s a much more complicated and nuanced thing for me, selecting a grower.
It was really over the course of those four and half years where I started to refine my understanding and be exposed initially through the questions being asked by a whole variety of different visitors that made me dig in a little deeper and research on my own. That’s where the beginnings of waking up started happening.
PSB: How do you select your growers?
ND: It has to hit on a number of different things. First and foremost, the wine has to absolutely speak to me. It has to speak to me personally and really call out or it really needs to be really representative of site and place. And, ideally, it’s going to hit both of those things. It depends on how you first find out about the grower. It depends on your first point of contact. If it’s in your glass how does it smell, how does it taste? If you read about it first, the story could be great, the site can be amazing but if the wine falls flat, it’s not going to work. Same if somebody connects you. There’s this alignment that’s integral to how are they farming and the choices they are making. There has to be a synergy between all of these elements. It doesn’t have to be a long laundry list of all those different things but there has to be a synergy. I don’t have a formula.
PSB: That’s why I like to blind taste and as much as possible, alone. Once you meet someone, if you like them or don’t like them, it is going to subconsciously cloud your judgment and at the end of the day, the consumer doesn’t meet them and have that same experience.
ND: To a degree, as an importer, you have to directly interact with them so that accounts for something and it’s a very important thing but yeah, at the end of the day if you have a great relationship with the grower but cannot sell their wines you have to find a way where you’re preserving a relationship, independent of what happens, whether we continue to work together or they move on to someone else. It’s not easy, it’s very tough.
The other thing we said earlier, why not have an exclusive natural portfolio? I could have decided that moving forward Floraison Selections was only going to be an exclusively natural portfolio and I’ve made the decision not to. There is one grower who I’m continuing to work with who is not natural. It’s because he’s a young grower who is just starting out, he doesn’t have a lot of money, he doesn’t want to take all the risks all at once, all up front, he doesn’t feel he can afford to do that. He’s working towards that goal but he’s got to be able to make wine and sell wine to make that happen. I’ve had a relationship with him for a few years now and he’s moving more and more in that direction. I feel he deserves to be supported and he deserves to be helped to move in the direction he wants to and enabled. And that’s a direction I want to move in with him also but I’m not breathing down his neck and putting down principles on him. It’s not that he spraying them with chemicals right and left, it’s not that he’s manipulating them but he doesn’t fall under the natural wine criteria. His wines are super low in sulfur. They don’t have anything added. He does native yeast on his reds, he doesn’t do native yeast on all of his whites yet because he doesn’t feel he has that experience.
PSB: What about his growing practices?
ND: It’s only if he has to treat rot in a dire situation. He’s not doing anything preventative. We have growers we’ve been working with for many, many years like the Serols that were not natural. All of their ferments were not native yeast when we started working with them. They’re now close to having all of their 50 hectares certified organic. They’re doing biodynamic preparations. For several vintages, everything has been native yeast ferments and they’re becoming a real reference point to all the young growers in their little unknown region (Côte Roannaise) who are looking up to them now and asking for advice. If importers didn’t support them from the get-go they may not have been able to get there. Maybe if Joli Vin wouldn’t have done it somebody else would have stepped up and done it and I wouldn’t be in the position now of having “Turbulent,” which is our best selling wine. And I wouldn’t have this amazing natural grower in this up and coming region in the Loire Valley. For me, it’s about the long term.
PSB: You’re starting anew but you’re not brand new because you have this wealth of experience, you have a wealth of information and you already have a wealth of connections to growers, many who are going with you, but you have a chance to take all of that and start with a clean slate. How does that make you feel?
ND: It’s liberating and inspiring. It’s a chance to take all of the good things that we have accomplished with Joli Vin and shed all of the negative and start afresh with them. The growers feel this way, the sales team feels this way, and I certainly feel this way. There are still challenges, the core challenges of being a small independent importer and distributor in a field you’re not going to make a lot of money in and not having a lot of outside investment or family money to put in. So, it’s the challenges of being a startup but it’s not because the suppliers are all there, the customers are all there, much of my infrastructure is already there, my relationships with the warehouses, with my overseas logistics, so many of the core things.
PSB: That’s really exciting. I wish you the best of luck.
[i] Jeff Vierra is now one of the partners of Farm Wine Imports. Mulan Chan, has logged years as both a tremendously talented wine buyer and more recently worked in sales for Sacred Thirst Selections.
[iii] Berlou is one of the recognized top two crus in Saint-Chinian and is known for its schist soil and more complex wines.