A wine importer story (Jenny and Francois Selections).
When young New-Yorker Jenny Lefcourt first visited Paris in 1991 for a 6-month exchange from Cornell U, she met both Francois and the wine world. She had not the smallest idea then that the course of events would one day make her open a wine-import business from France to the U.S.. Her academic interest was primarily culture, litterature and cinema and not wine, but what was to be her future career all came by itself: just by enjoying great moments in local bistrots like le Passavent (a bistrot/restaurant with a great wine list), drinking wine "à la ficelle", a new and magical way to serve wine for her (a bottle of your choice is brought to your table and you just pay for what you drink).
One day as she was waiting for the bus in front of L'Ange Vin (the Paris wine bistrot owned then by Jean-Pierre Robinot), she noticed a poster about the coming Groslay wine fair (a small professional wine fair near Paris). She didn't know Robinot or the Groslay fair and just walked in the bar to ask. Unexpected encounters like this one were the beginning of new friendships with passionate people. Henri Milan, the winemaker of St Remy de Provence, for example : she recalls how, as they were discovering his wines, he said to both of them "if you work in wine someday, we'll work together" (they had actually no plans for set up a wine import business at the time)... With Hervé Souhaut too, it was a story of an encounter and immediate friendship: they had stopped at his place in Ardèche to taste his Rhone wines. They did taste his wines, and talk...for 10 hours.
As Jenny recounts the stories with her inimitable laugh I can't but note that inspiring artisan wines have the virtue to forge new friendships and open new horizons : In her case (and also Francois') it pushed her to make the transition from the culture/litterature/cinema and other academic fields to a new entrepreneurship adventure where she had to learn all the business basics. Francois himself enrolled at the Beaune wine school in 1998-99 to deepen his knowledge in enology. They set up the business officially in january 2000, after a trip to New York where they brought just two bottles from two different vignerons. There, they met a sommelier who had just opened his first wine store (he now owns a chain) and who loved the two wines and asked to sell them. Jenny & Francois Selections was created soon after...
She says that she never considered this venture as a business-only thing. She just loved these wines, the people who made them, and wanted to make a living of that all while staying in France. From the onset it was a "fair trade" type of business, centered on "natural" wine, that is, wine made without industrial yeasts or other manipulations, little- or not-sulphited, and unfiltered. She says she did not turn to natural wines because of a fashionable trend, but because tasting and drinking them made her realize that they were good and offered a lively alternative to standardized wines.
In 2000 they started with two estates and gradually expanded the list to about 40 today. They recently began a new operation in Massachusetts and in California, working with distributors there.
How do they find new wines ? Word of mouth is one of the ways, with encounters made in professional wine fairs, especially in the many artisan-wine fairs that take place across France and where they can taste the wines of the sprouting new generation of winemakers. When they have a lead, they travel to the estate to taste again and see how the vigneron works before deciding to buy the wines. They will also taste and screen every new millesime, and occasionally discontinue the purchases. Francois is very often on the road to visit the vignerons and she takes care of the mails and transmits the orders on the internet or over the phone. She also helps in a natural-wine bar in Paris, the Cave Café, located 134 rue Marcadet in the 18th arrondissement near Montmartre, where she meets visiting vignerons.
Jenny says that the wine amateurs here and abroad are slowly learning and discovering the low-intervention wines. It may take some effort to go beyond the first surprise with wines that are sometimes a bit cloudy or perly, but the wines are so different, offering often more complexity and pleasure, that they ask for more. New York, like Paris, has an increasing number of cavistes setting shop on this niche market. If most of the wines come
from small estates, they also work with innovative big structures, like the Cave des Vignerons d'Estezargues, a coopétative in the southern Rhone which vinifies its wines with lots of attention and without additives. The other coops which are overwhelmed with low-quality wines that they can't sell should take notice and follow suit (my say)...
Jerome, the owner of the Cave Café has set up a unique system to keep the unsulfured wines safe from spoilage while they fill glasses along consecutive days )or bottles) : The wine containers in the cellar hold 6 reds, 5 whites and one pink. These are converted beer barrels and they are connected with nitrogen piping, so that no oxydation harms the wines. It is exciting and strange to see some famous names with a tax stamp on the containers (here a blue one for a table wine). You can read on the picture on the right the name of Marc Pesnot from the Muscadet region. At the opposite end, in the bar, at the tap level, the wine is temperature-controlled (14° for reds and 12° for whites). Quite a smart system.