She’s natural wine’s evangelist, and now Isabelle Legeron is taking her show on the road. The London-based French-born Master of Wine who, as we put it several years back, wrote the book on natural wine (an updated edition was just published), has turned her Raw Wine Fair into a traveling showcase for the world’s most radical winemakers. Of course, Legeron and her ilk don’t see these folks as rebels, but rather as traditionalists who make wine the way it was made for centuries, by fermenting organically grown and harvested grapes without any trickery. No sulfites. No filtering. As little intervention as possible. These are the standards for the 100-plus wine brands participating in Raw Wine in New York November 5-6, and in Los Angeles November 12-13 (more information and tickets are available here). Here, Legeron tells us why natural wine is better for us and for the environment, and touches on the fair, her book and her philosophies.
Why is advocating for Raw Wine so important for you?
Fundamentally, wine is a big deal, right? I feel that people don’t really know what they’re drinking. They don’t really have a choice in terms of what goes into the bottle. We are very far behind the food movement in that sense. In food, you go into a store, and you grab milk or even simple stuff and you know how it’s made and what’s gone into it. We don’t have the same choice with wine. Working in the wine industry, I have a duty to inform, raise awareness and put people in a position of choice in terms of asking the right questions.
If we do a poll on the street right now and ask how is wine made, people will say “it’s fermented grape juice and it’s all natural.” But that’s not the case. I would say 99.9 percent of all wine produced is not made naturally, so there is this mass perception that wine is actually natural when it isn’t. For me, it’s very important to be able to communicate and give people the choice. I’m not an activist but I really love nature, and I feel that we need to protect our environment — the land that we grow the grapes on — and I feel like we’re not really doing that. One way of supporting the environment is supporting producers who work properly and care for the environment.
A lot of the people you cover in the book are farmers, but there are also a lot of people who make wine that isn’t considered natural for one reason or another. How many of those winemakers are pretty close to being natural winemakers?
In my book, my day-to-day life and my vocabulary, when I use the word “natural” I mean wines that are made from organically grown or biodynamic grapes and made completely naturally. Nothing added and nothing taken away. It’s true that if somebody farms organically, ferments naturally and adds a little bit of sulfites during production or at bottling, they’re not strictly speaking a natural wine producer. They are what I would call a “low-intervention wine producer.” Still, they are very natural. That’s the whole purpose of the fair: to be inclusive. At the fair, I have natural wine producers and I have producers who are in the low-intervention camp. All they do is add a bit of sulfites.
When did the Raw Wine Fair start?
It started in London in 2012. Now we run the event out of London, Berlin, New York, and now LA.
What surprised you about the reaction?
We were blown away by how popular it was. We initially had tons of support from the growers; I think we had more than 200 for the first edition in London. We had about two or three thousand attend. And I think it’s really amazing that a lot of the consumers — people who buy and drink these wines — tend to be urban. They’re discerning urban drinkers. But when we organized the event in Berlin, we had a lot of central eastern European buyers coming, a lot of Russians, a lot of Nordic countries. In New York we had a lot of Canadians, so it really does attract an international crowd.
Let me throw a curveball question into the mix, for people who want to know more about the broader appeal of natural wine. Do you believe that it does or doesn’t give you a hangover?
Well I know it doesn’t, from practical experience and from actually drinking natural wine versus non-natural wine. As a disclaimer I only ever drink natural wine now because I cannot drink anything with too much sulfites. I get a headache, I get palpitations, I actually get a reaction to it now. But some people have done studies that shows very clearly that when you ingest a wine with elevated or normal levels of sulfites, your body doesn’t process the alcohol so well. So the sulfites almost block your body’s ability to process the alcohol, which then is in your body longer and has all sorts of repercussions. That’s when you feel the effect. If you have a wine without any sulfites, your body digests the alcohol a lot better and you don’t have side effects. I want to be careful in the U.S. particularly, with making these claims. There is research that shows it, but from simple experience, I find that natural wine is a lot easier to digest.
What’s the reaction to natural wine in the US versus what you see in Europe?
One of the most exciting areas to drink natural wine is Paris, where everywhere you have a wine shop or restaurant or wine bar, so it’s very easily accessible. We’re catching up, particularly in East London, where you’re seeing exciting stuff. I get the feeling that the scene in New York is not as developed as it is in London in terms of sheer places, but it’s picking up. You’re seeing new openings, and what’s happening in Brooklyn is really exciting — you can now very easily go and drink natural wine. Los Angeles is probably a little but behind but it’s catching up and very quickly. People who are into it are really into it. In Europe, maybe things are more moderate.
In LA or New York, you’re seeing natural wine getting onto more wine lists. What’s your explanation for how natural wine pair with food as opposed to traditional wines?
Natural wine and low-intervention wines pair fabulously with food. They tend to be more expressive, less alcoholic and less dominated by oak. As a result, I find them purer. I think that works really well with food — they become very versatile, digestible, easy drinking. They tend to be fresher. People focus a lot on crisp acidity, inevitably that’s a great match to food. The wine bar/casual eating small plates has really embraced natural wine. I think it’d be great to start to find these wines in Michelin-starred restaurants, which is what we’re seeing in London and Paris.
One of the reasons it doesn’t get into fine dining restaurants is complaints about consistency. How do you react to that?
I think it’s a typical lack of knowledge, expertise and tasting. It’s not even consistency. When you work with nature, without any protection, one of your greatest allies is time. When people make natural wine without any additives, they need to wait for the wine to settle down and go through a maturation process, and unfortunately a lot of those people don’t have the cash to keep hold of wines for two years or more.
There might be a wine released to the market that is not quite ready to be drunk right now. Maybe that wine might not be super-stable. And that’s the tiny minority. But it’s true that when you accept that you’re working with nature without the safety net, it’s not inconsistency, it’s an evolution. If you expect to go to somebody who makes fantastic cheese, and expect that very same unpasteurized milk cheese farmhouse made in tiny quantities to taste exactly the same from one month to another, it’s impossible. In people’s heads, they’ve got to get rid of this idea that wine has to be the same every year. It’s only the same every year because you zap excess water out of it, or you add color to make it look exactly the same. We’ve constructed the image of what a wine should taste like, and we’ve done that for the past 40 years. We’ve been making wine for thousands of years. Do you think 5,000 years ago people had access to aromatic yeasts and all of this equipment? They didn’t. We need to start thinking, “the wine I’m drinking is only the product of a very recent winemaking history.” So we need to shift the way we look at wine. We need a different vocabulary. It’s like calling Baby Bell or Laughing Cow the same as an époisses. It’s not the same.