A Few Words – Zev Rovine, Zev Rovine Selections
Over the last couple of years, Zev Rovine’s company, Zev Rovine Selections, has become one of the most recognized natural wine importers, working with coveted wines from Domaine de la Grande Colline, Frank Cornelissen, and many others. Two of my all-time favorites, L’Ange Vin (Jean-Pierre Robinot) and Domaine Sébastien Riffault, are also in his portfolio.
We met up earlier this month at Roberta’s in Bushwick to chat about his work and natural wine in general. Jetlagged, having just returned from Iceland the day before and having tasted with Alvaro de la Viña all morning, I was feeling a little spacey to begin with, and two pitchers of beer (my friend Ryan McReynolds of Bent Frenchman was with us so it was not a full on drunk fest) didn’t help so our conversation had a slightly dream-like quality. Luckily, I got it all on tape and picked up a lot more after listening to it a few days later when my circadian rhythm was back to its abnormal, normal state.
Here is a slightly edited version of the conversation.
PSB: How did you get into wine?
ZR: Wine or natural wine?
PSB: Both, let’s hear it all.
ZR: My first influence was my stepdad, he drank a lot of wine and I always had a glass of wine at dinner with him. When I moved to New York to play music, I worked in restaurants and I worked at a restaurant called Butter. At the time the (North) American Sommelier Association was doing a class in the basement of Butter and part of the payment for the space is they gave a number of free tickets to the waiters if you would sell the most of some wine or whatever. And I won that one time so I got a free course and I got really into it.
I continued to work at restaurants for a number of years and with wine programs. I worked for the Jean-Georges group, The Mercer Kitchen, and Jo-Jo for a while. In San Francisco I worked at the opening of Frisson. When I left San Francisco I moved to Utah and that’s where I really was trying to get my life together, and I started with a little coffee shop that was in a bookstore. That was in 2004, 2005 and that’s right when Barnes & Noble and Amazon were already destroying the small bookstore industry, so this bookstore was always giving me a little more space if I’d pay a little more rent on my little coffee business that I had in the corner.
We eventually got a wine permit and then we started selling wine and it became a wine bar in Park City, Utah, which was kind of a unique thing. And part of how we got people into the wine bar was with a once-a-week wine class I would give. It was a three-hour talk on a specific subject. We did that every week for three and a half years and preparing for those classes, to give them, is I think how I learned more about wine than anything else up to that point. And so I think that gave me a good base of classical wine.
And then I decided to move back to New York because I love New York and missed New York. I kind of had my first taste of entrepreneurship and didn’t want to work for anybody. The only thing I could think to do without much money – to do my own business – was to wholesale, to sell wine. I had met in Utah the Bon Vivant people and I came out here to be the distributor of their portfolio. That’s how I started the company. I always wanted to import but at that time I didn’t speak French and I didn’t know anything about anything about how to do wholesaling or importing. So I started and I was like a one-man band.
I’ll take a step back. Justin[i] bought the first case of wine I ever sold at Uva. If I look at my QuickBooks he was my first sale. He had a lot of natural wine in the store and I didn’t have many appointments because I was first starting and didn’t know anybody. I would hang out at the store a lot just to shoot the shit. I discovered natural wine at Uva, smoking cigarettes, hanging around the store doing nothing. So, the first wines we imported were natural wines.
PSB: When you say “we” you mean your company?
ZR: My company, and it was still just me but on my first trip to France I brought Justin with me because I wanted his opinion and guidance, and his presence. We picked up three wineries on our trip and then it was off. Then I realized how much I needed to learn French so I learned French and then we slowly phased out the Bon Vivant portfolio from what we sold and became an import company. Over the years we’ve picked up a couple of other little portfolios, but mostly we were doing our own imports.
My real moment in natural wine was tasting Cornelissen for the first time.[ii]For me, that was the first wine I tasted where I was like, “That doesn’t taste like anything else I’ve had.” I was in a tasting group with someone from Daniel and all these people and we were tasting a lot of amazing wine at the time, and a lot of wine in general, and I would go to all the tastings I could. I would go to the Bordeaux tasting. I would go to the Zachy’s auction at Daniel[iii] and I was tasting everything I could. And the Cornelissen was the first thing I tasted where I was like, “I have no idea what this is, it doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had in my life.” And I was really compelled to know more.
PSB: That was in the States?
ZR: That was in the States. Justin had brought a bottle back from Paris. I was amazed and then Frank was, he used to have another importer that was a Russian company. The only other thing they imported was a vodka called, “Jewel of Russia” vodka, which was just a weird thing He took a bunch of clients to a ballet to sell it, not Frank but the Russian company.
PSB: Wow, I know that vodka…long story for another time.
ZR: They didn’t really know how it all worked. So while Frank was in town everybody who brought back bottles from Paris came over to my apartment and we invited Frank over to meet him. We cooked a big meal and we opened all the bottles we’d been bringing back from Europe with Frank and then Frank and I became friends. And then we started talking about his import situation and at that time he was a much, much smaller winery than he is now, and I was, of course, a nothing, small importer so clicking together with Frank was a springboard for ZRS. It’s still our most known producer, still the reason why we sell wine in 30 states. People are looking for Cornelissen wine and then they end up buying a lot of other stuff.
PSB: When was this?
ZR: That was 2010.
PSB: How long would you say it’s taken you to hit your stride? Let me backtrack, 2010 is when natural wine started to be seen as something other than this little fringe thing. Also, there was a lot of really messed up natural wine available. Since then, the quality has really shifted.
ZR: I agree with that completely.
PSB: There’s been a dramatic change. How has your company witnessed that?
ZR: There’s no school for how to make natural wine. Really what it is, is everything different from what they would tell you in a school about how to make wine, UC Davis or whatever, it’s a very different process. And, because it’s wine and you only get one harvest a year, one try a year, that’s a really hard way to learn. You really learn by making mistakes.
The community at that time was not as connected as it is now. With all the natural wine salons everyone knows each other, they visit each other’s wineries, they talk to each other about stuff they’re doing, they share experience and information and that’s been to the great benefit of the movement. I think everybody’s gotten better through each other’s mistakes, and through their own mistakes and just being perceptive and humble and astute learners of their craft. So yeah, I think the quality of natural wine today vs. 2010 is enormously different.
And I stepped in at a really lucky time. I stepped into it right before that when Jenny & François, Savio Soares, and Louis Dressner had struggled with a lot of more difficult natural wines and a market that was much less exposed. And I think when I got into it that was still the case, but since then, now the market is extremely exposed, people understand the flaws, people are accepting of certain ones, people can see a trajectory in a winery, people can see evolution because they’ve seen other wineries evolve into something better over time and there’s context for it right now. So, yeah, it’s in the best place it’s ever been.
PSB: How do you feel you and your company have had an influence?
ZR: I don’t know if I’d call it a passive influence but I think just making these wines available. We’ve had an influence with our purchasing decisions. We’ve taken a risk on people like Cornelissen when other people passed on him before us. We took the risk on a lot of natural wines and I think just making them available to people. People evolved themselves just through making the wine available.
I also think maybe, I don’t know if this is true cause I’m sure it’s just a forever history of this, but we may have had a little bit of an influence of being a one-person startup without a lot of money to get somewhere that’s a mid-sized company and I think a lot of people saw that and maybe that inspired more people to start import companies. Maybe not. Obviously not exclusively but maybe it’s what made them think, “I can do this too.” I think the fact that a lot of small importers are doing it now is to the benefit of the movement, too. I can’t import everything. Between me, Dressner, Jenny, and Savio we couldn’t import everything. The movement needed more little importers and now there’s an army of them and there’s incredible availability all over the country.
ZR: I think people like to be more natural than somebody else or judge somebody for not being natural enough. I think there’s a lot of that that goes around and I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing but maybe the actual net from that is possibly positive. The standard is that natural wine needs to be made from organic grapes. I know that seems like a given but there are a lot of people who have become members of the natural wine community as winemakers that maybe don’t have natural or organic grapes available to them and they’re using natural yeast and are more hands-off about their winemaking and picking earlier in the case of California, and stylistically making more natural wines without organic grapes. I think the community kind of calling bullshit on that has maybe changed people’s dedication to organic viticulture. So maybe the negative had a negative tinge to it but maybe the net result has been positive.
The fact that no one can agree on natural wine is not a problem; everybody gets to define it for themselves a little bit. There’s millions of degrees of it and millions of versions of it and part of the natural wine movement to me is one’s ability to be creative and be an artisan with some restrictions: organic grapes, natural yeast, low sulfur additions, no chaptalization, no acidification.
I think one of the things that is missed in the natural wine thing is that people kind of think that a lot of the motivation behind making natural wine is to take some risks or do something extreme but I think the real goal is to make wines that are more terroir representative. Chaptalizing in Burgundy is really a non-terroir process. I think if you’re changing the alcohol percentage in a wine you’re not representing the vintage or the climate of the region, and I think the fact that that’s frowned upon in natural winemaking is something that drives terroir more than it drives natural wine dogma. I think that’s to the betterment of the expressiveness of Burgundy.
The same thing can be said about (putting) water back and acidifying, which is pervasive. That’s not what the grapes gave you, that’s not the way you farmed it. That’s the way you altered it and if you’re going to sell wine based on the premise of terroir being special and limited and rare in a certain place, then those types of processes are not unhealthy for you – chaptalizing is not putting more chemicals into your body, it’s just more alcohol – but for me that’s not a terroir-representative process. I think that’s a benefit natural wine has done to wine in general through its dogma. All these things have two sides to them.
PSB: Since you were drinking conventional wine before you got into natural wine you had a certain basis and understanding of wine to serve as a framework. It seems like a lot of people who get into natural wine – especially younger people – just jump into it without having any context with conventional wine. I don’t think that’s good or bad, it just is what it is. Would you say having had this context was helpful to you as far as what you’re doing now?
ZR: It was definitely helpful for me in the beginning. I think it gives me context now. But I don’t drink conventional wine pretty much ever. I really put myself into my community where people are sympathetic to the wines that we sell and I like the wines in the community we don’t sell. I prefer to drink them. I just like them better.
PSB: But having worked at places and working with the Zachy’s auction through Daniel, you’ve been exposed to that.
ZR: I really appreciate knowing those wines. I’ve kind of marked those boxes for myself. I’ve tasted a lot of DRC[iv]. I don’t really care about it. It doesn’t really do anything for me anymore and I’ve tasted cru classé Bordeaux and first growths from great vintages – you know, ’82 and ’85 and ’47. And I’m lucky enough to not have had to buy any of those bottles, but tasted them and I feel like I don’t need that anymore. I definitely feel a lot of young people in our world are curious about those wines, which they totally should be and they should totally try to taste them if they get the opportunity. But if I was starting wine myself now, I would only focus on natural wine. And I would try to taste some conventional wines when I had the opportunity to do it.
PSB: Do you think at some point there’s going to be a convergence where a lot of the conventional wine will be natural to some degree, even if it’s just in farming.
ZR: I hope. I also think that one of the things we should try to avoid in natural wine is trying to do that indie rock thing where as soon as it becomes too big it’s not cool anymore. That’s a bad sentiment. If the natural wine world puts market pressure on big wineries to farm organically, we’ve improved the environmental situation and consumption quality of people all around the world. And that would be amazing. I hope that’s the case. You see Chapoutier’s whatever, 200 hectares of biodynamic viticulture and Chateau Margaux is going biodynamic and all this stuff. So if our little movement made people think their wines would be more marketable if they were farmed organically, and the intentions weren’t pure but the result was the betterment of our environment, then we’ve totally done the right thing.
PSB: How do you feel about selling wine to chains and bigger companies like Whole Foods? It’s a pretty contentious issue. There are people who feel it’s more democratic to sell to whoever wants it and there are those who feel you’re doing a disservice when you sell it to places where the people who work there don’t know what it is. What do you think?
ZR: I think there are a lot of different wines in the natural wine world. There are some that are very appropriate for Whole Foods and for large retailers, and if a small natural winery wants to get himself up to 40 hectares and make a bigger estate and do larger scale, like natural wines with sulfur but maybe not a lot and just do good quality winemaking, I think that’s totally a good thing and those are the types of wines you should place at Whole Foods. And then the five-hectare artistic producer, you save those for the small retailers that really cherish them.
PSB: Even with saving small production wines for smaller venues, there are the people who have been supporting the wines for a while and then those who are just discovering it. If you only have X bottles of let’s say Magma[v] – and this is true of any type of wine where there’s a limited amount – how do you parcel it out? You have the person who has been supporting it and then says, “Why am I not getting as much as last year?” On the other hand, you do want to expose it as many as you can. So how do you deal with that?
ZR: It’s super challenging. We’ve definitely run into that. Magma and Cornelissen are a great example. It’s not that I’m selling it all to Whole Foods and our little guys can’t have it. It’s that there’s more little guys and everybody wants it. I definitely try to give deference of allocation volumes to people who have been supporting the wines since the beginning, we just do that, and we give them better allocations than other people even if their allocations are smaller than they used to be. They’re bigger than a first timer. I don’t mind giving a first timer just one case of something because someone who’s been buying it for seven years wants five cases of it. I think you try to be balanced and you try to be fair and get it to as many people as you can get it to and make everybody happy. That’s super hard because people are often not happy about it.
PSB: I can see where as your company is growing that is going to be harder and harder to do.
ZR: In the case of somebody like Frank, he’s been incredibly ambitious and has increased his volume every single year since I’ve worked with him to pace demands. He’s still way behind. He can make three times the wine and we can sell three times what we get right now easily. But, we have producers that are really popular and we get 15 cases a year of three different cuvées. How do you split that up? Once they get popular it’s like, fuck. Everybody’s going to be mad about it. If you’re giving six bottles to everybody nobody’s happy with six bottles. Everyone wants a couple of cases and the wine just isn’t there. And now that we’re running into a string of vintages in France that have been really, really shortened by frost and hail, in particular, those problems have been exacerbated. We do the best we can to be fair to everybody and not make people mad.
The reality is the inventory that’s available. We certainly don’t promote wines that are already allocated. You’ll never see me posting or talking about Hirotake Ooka (Domaine de la Grande Colline) because those wines are so fucking allocated that if more people were asking for them there would just be more angry people. We call up the people that bought it last year and we offer them some and if they take it, they take it and then other people, unfortunately, don’t seem to get it. But if you’re a consumer you’re cool cause you can just go to where it is. Everybody has access to those places.
PSB: Well yes and no because some of those places are going to say to their customers who have been supporting the wines for years, “Hey, this came in.”
ZR: Yes, you’re right, the allocation thing goes all the way down the supply chain.
PSB: And if they don’t, maybe they should.
ZR: They totally should.
PSB: So you hear about these great wines and people hear about them but they don’t have the same access to them.
ZR: But the beautiful thing about natural wine is that it’s an ever-evolving, ever beautiful thing. And if you’re a passionate natural wine lover and you can’t get Hirotake and you’re never able to find a bottle but you keep following natural wine, you will find the winery you fell in love with when they were young and seven years later when everyone else wants it you’ll be the one with the allocation. There’s always new wonderful wineries out there, and just keep being engaged with the community and the wines and you’ll have your own little special wine you’ll get every year.
PSB: That’s true and you hear about the wines that are so hyped and whether they’re great or not is up to each person to taste and decide, but they’re hyped now and then something else becomes the next big thing.
ZR: But that’s fun. That’s the fun of it. It’s a little like collecting records. You want the rare records, the rare bottles, that’s part of the attraction. It’s nerdy, it’s collectory. Look at the people who are around this business – it’s generally not a bunch of jocks. It’s a bunch of bookworms and Star Trek fans and record collectors and music people. It’s a nerdy pursuit.
PSB: That’s part of it but there is also a trendy hipster factor that has drawn other people to it, as is true with anything.
ZR: Yeah, niche becomes pop and hopefully it encourages more wine producers when they take over their family’s estate or whatever to change the way they work. And create wines for the demand. And if there’s more natural wine in the world and more people are drinking natural wine than not, we won.
PSB: Whenever you’re looking at something, especially a movement that at least in this country is in its early stages, it’s very important to be self-critical. Is there anything you see that the community can do to make it more open and accessible?
ZR: That’s an interesting question. What do I think we can do to make it more inclusive? I don’t know. This might not even make any sense as an answer to this question, but I’d like to see more accessibly priced natural wines. I want to see wines get to the consumer cheaper. I think that in the natural wine world, and let’s say wine in general, it’s too expensive. I know the cost of the production is what it is. I don’t think the big prices are coming from the producers, I think it’s coming from the supply chain. I think we can try to change the way we sell wine.
PSB: As your book has gotten bigger, what can you do so that you are still paying adequate attention to all of your producers at the same time? Do you say Cornelissen is on autopilot so I don’t need to pay as much attention to them, I’ll pay attention to this new person and then Cornelissen might say, “You’re not showing me enough love.” How do you balance that?
ZR: More staff. There’s no way I can pay all of the attention to everybody personally and put the effort into selling all the wines personally, but between the two coasts we have a 14-person staff and everyone works on it. So somebody will take the lead on a certain winery and really make that theirs and put a lot of effort into it. Someone will take a lead on another one. Cornelissen is something I’m really involved in because of how integral it is to the company. I do buy all the wine. I am involved with the producers on every single wine. I make the individual wine decisions (ZRS Wines, not others),[vi] the volume decisions and I have communication with all the wineries. But from the sales side, the way we reconcile is with manpower. We have a wonderful, wonderful staff of salespeople and office people who love natural wine and the producers and wines we work with and put an enormous amount of work into promoting and supporting the wineries. It’s a team effort, that’s the only way we can do what we do.
PSB: How many wineries do you have now?
ZR: A lot – 130 including ZRS, Selection de la Viña, Maximilien Selections and Selectio Naturel.
PSB: Where do you see your company going? What’s most interesting to you right now?
ZR: My motto has always been if there’s good natural wine at a good price, I’ll buy it, wherever it’s from. We have a lot of Italian wine, we have a lot of French wine (which everyone does). , We now have Austrian which now everyone does – we did not lead that, we followed that trend. There’s wines from the Czech Republic and Georgia, we haven’t done anything with that. There’s the movement in Australia, a couple of people in South Africa. We just picked up somebody from Quebec (Pinard et Filles). We picked up a cool winery in Vermont (Fable Farms) they do really cool ciders but also wines from hybrid grapes that are really great.
I do really like the idea of re-approaching vitis labrusca and hybrid grape varieties. Something I always thought was funny in traditional wine literature was calling those grapes “foxy.” I don’t know what that taste like or what it means. I kind of have an idea. But when you taste natural wine being made from these grapes, they’re super good, they’re really tasty. So I think those areas are really cool. I don’t know that there is a region I see as the new big thing but instead, I see it popping up everywhere and I think being open to looking everywhere is the next big thing, for me. Just having no boundaries at all. As far as where I see in ten years, I know you didn’t ask that specifically, but where I see our company going I see us doing the exact same thing we’re doing now and continuing to do more of it. I don’t want to get into restaurants and retail. I just want to keep buying and wholesaling beautiful natural wines, forever.
PSB: Thank you for what you do.
ZR: It’s my pleasure. We couldn’t do it without you guys writing about stuff and people drinking it, obviously. It’s this beautiful simpatico rise.
[i] Justin Chearno who is now the Wine Director and a partner at the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn.
[ii] Frank Cornelissen is a Belgian born winemaker who makes highly regarded wines from Mount Etna in Sicily without sulfur additions.
[iii] Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant in New York.
[iv] Domaine de la Romanée Conti.
[v] Magma is a rare bottling Cornelissen makes that sells for over $200 a bottle.
[vi] Selection de la Viña, Maximilien Selections and Selectio Naturel are individual companies under the ZRS umbrella.