Joe Dressner is the most well-known co-owner of Louis Dressner Selections, a now well-entranched wine import company dealing with artisan wines from France and Italy. The first time I met him was at the Loire Wine Fair in Angers a few years ago (scroll down a bit the linked page to see the picture of him with two great wine women). Contrary to what many people think, Louis is not his second name or his father's first name, but it is the family name of his business-partner-and-wife Denyse Louis, the last and more recently merged partner being Kevin McKenna, each of them owning 33 % of the company. That's why btw the acronym of the company is LDM (Louis Dressner McKenna). Joe's personnality, with the unmistakable self-depreciating humor that you can sample on his blog joedressner.com may explain why he is often mistakenly considered as the only pilot in his wine import company. As joe says on his blog, " Most of this site is true, but some of it is fictional. I often forget which part is which. Everyone in the wine trade takes themselves so seriously that I am trying to bring a little perspective and humor into what should be a joyous trade. By the way, my lawyer suggested I include this paragraph. ". Don't even trust the author picture there, it changes often as Joe picks them on Google Images and the unsuspecting first-time visitor may be surpised to see that this importer dealing with natural wines from France and Italy alternatively looks like a baptist minister, a used car dealer or even (like I remember spotting once) former DDR premier Erich Honecker [pic on left]. Is it the glasses or something but there is some kind or resemblance here. Once, a picture he had chosen at random happened to be the portrait of a high-ranking minister in the Canadian government and he was contacted by a secretary to have the pic removed...these people have no humor...
Joe Dressner was not at all into wine when he met his future wife during their student years at the Department of Journalism at NYU in 1982. During their trips in France, Denyse's family historic ties with Burgundy and wine making bounced back as an accidental opportunity to discover (and re-discover for Denyse) the great wines of the region. This premilinary immersion took a few years and opened the way to the start of Louis Dressner Selections in 1989.
Today, the Dressners spend several months in France every year, visiting vignerons in the different French wine regions from their base in the Maconnais. Joe Dressner spends lots of time on the phone with the US and checks his blackberry quite often.
Joe brings a few bottles while we chat. The day is beautiful even though the last weeks have been quite bad in terms of weather in the region. The old family house is their residence during the 3 months-and-a-half time that they spend in France every year. This maybe-16th-century farm has been in Denise Louis' family for very long and they connect here with an ancient life style, a change from their New York life.
A treat is on its way for the four of us around the garden table, with the old tree above for the shade. I risk a drop under the table where Buster, the Dressners’ dog takes a nap. Funny dog, it makes me dare a comparison to a certain farting dog but my joke faces protests : this other dog was a bouledogue when this one is… well, I’ll ask again, I like dogs but I’m not keen on breeds.
__Joe pours a coop white first to see the difference, a fresh, pleasing wine by the way, if standardized.
__Joe pours then a Domaine de Roally 1996 Macon Viré (it would be labelled Viré Cléssé today), a white Maconnais from the very estate that impressed them so much for its artisanal ways and the standing of its wines in the 80s’. 1996 was an acidic vintage, Joe says. Henri Goyard tended his vineyards like a gardener, it was plowed and meticulously cared. The guy, who never had any publicity and retired after the 2000 vintage, sold his smallestate to Jean Thevenet. The wine has a very nice nose, complex and intense at the same time. Very beautiful. Joe and Denyse have another 5 or 6 bottles of this vintage. Great gift to open this bottle for us, Joe ! He says that the coop wines wouldn’t be able to compete here. That’s the side effect of machine harvesting, the wine declines rather quickly. Coop wines are better young than older. In the area, the grapes tend to ripen 1 to 2 weeks later than they do in Pouilly-Fuissé or in Saint-Véran, the other white Appellations nearby. The 1ère Côtes have been now made a separate AOC, the Viré Cléssé. Joe says that when they first visited Henri Goyard in 1985, he used to work together with his neighbour Jean Thevenet and they had just bought a small bottling machine together. Each would help the other for bottling when needed and Joe & Denyse took part in these mutual exchanges, learning in the process. So, over the las 20 years, before the word “natural wine” was ever noticed in the wine world, both of them began to grasp the fact that there were real wines around like Goyard and Thevenet’s, waiting to be discovered. By word of mouth they got their hands on samples from vignerons working the same artisanal way and expanded their portfolio. Because their best finds were worked this way, they decided to go to the estates who do hand harvesting and used wild yeasts, later adding massal-selection vines as a pre-condition. There’s so much wine to check that it was a good way to make a first sorting out. Joe adds that of course, there’s no absolute law, some people can make wonders with harvesting machines, plus these machines have improved over the years. He cites the example of Robert Ampeau in Meursault who worked with his son : for years, he didn’t want to hire pickers and developed an intricate machine with special equipment with which the harvested grapes remained in perfect condition. Local growers used to say that Ampeau's machines were more time-consuming to fine-tune than actual pickers…
Asked if every one of the three associates tastes the eventual new wine that is considered being added to the Louis Dressner portfolio, Denyse says that yes, they share their opinion about the new wines. She adds that for the Italian wines list that they expanded in the recent years, Kevin McKenna, the third associate who was previously a wine buyer for Astor Wines, has been very instrumental, as he speaks Italian, lived in Rome and he was the impetus in the Italian part of the import business. They import now about 26 Italian estates, working on the same style than for the French wines.
__that’s when Joe opens a bottle from his very large collection of Muscadets : a Muscadet La Pépière 1997, the sole noble-rot Muscadet from this estate, a very special wine. But sadly, this particular bottle happens to be tired, as judged by Joe and Denyse who taste-check it first, and we pass it for another bottle. Joe jokes about this part of his cellar which contains probably the largest collection of Muscadets (including old Muscadets) of Burgundy. Because good Muscadet ages very well, but Denyse points out that their cellar is a Maconnais cellar, not underground like in Northern Burgundy, it is cool, but not humid enough.
__The next bottle is a Muscadet La Pépière 2000, a medium millesime which is now an evolved wine. 80-year old vines, “Clos des Briords”, only massal-selection vines here. Very interesting nose for a Muscadet, concentrated, intense, developing after minutes a lovely oxydation nose. Joe makes a digression back at the time they discovered la Pépière : this was the beginning of their wine import experience and they were learning all the while, adding new estates in the same time to their list. they had a small Burgundy wine list, many of them they're not working with any more since, and it became obvious to them, Joe says, that there was a lot of things happening in the Loire Valley. this was around 1992. He travelled with David Lillie there, he was already in contact with this producer, la Pépière, in the Muscadet, and also Pierre Breton in Restigné (Chinon, Bourgueil). They began to meet other growers/vintners who didn't have a market yet, the Loire was under the radar for much of the World. they also discovered that there was a pointed move to good farming and good winemaking practices in this region. Denyse says that still it was an uphill battle for evey single producer that they selected to find buyers for their wines : there was tons of cheap Muscadet for example already being imported in the US, and convincing that this wine which was so much better than the conventional ones desserved to be added to a distributor's list was tough. They would contact a buyer and he'd answer "why should I want another Muscadet ?" Actually it wasn't even a question of price, but their current Muscadet was selling briskly already.
__Joe opens a last bottle : a Pierre & Catherine Breton Bourgueil les Perrières 1999... great bottle... aromas of coffee, spices and other things. Pierre is sometimes a difficult person, says Joe with a laugh, but he's one of his closest friend in the Loire. My own discovery of les Perrières was a great moment a few years ago, and this 1999 is a reminder. Still a young wine somehow, it has another few years ahead. Still a good tannicity. Joe says that he had several times bottles from 1947 from Pierre's grandfather and these wines were great. Pierre's father still has lots of 1947 and likes to open one for Joe and Denyse. I'll keep the taste of this Perrière in the mouth during the following hour, this was a great bottle, Joe...
__Maconnais white 2007. Just made its malo. Typical malolactic aromas. Mouth : beautiful freshness, fruit and vividness. The wine stays one year in bottles in the cellar. In winter, the vathouse and cellar gets colder so as to have a better precipitation of the lees, and the bottling takes place in spring. They sell a lot to people who come at the estate (30% of the sales are made here on the spot), even foreigners, Swiss, Germans or even Russians recently. The wines of Domaine de Roally cost about 10 Euro a bottle at the estate. They also sell their wines to many three-star restaurants in France. They export also, to the US of course through Louis Dressner Selections, but also to Japan through Luc Corporation. At some point of this impromptu tasting in the vathouse of Domaine de Roally, I notice that if Joe's dog doesn't fart like a certain other dog, he snorts quite loudly and seems not to be disturbed in his sleep by our comments and laughs, the only thing is I like to play with dogs and Buster responds well, see him as he pulls my leg [pic on left]...
__3rd wine is a Macon Viré Cléssé 2005, more greenish in its color and very clear at the same time. Onctuous mouth, the wine glides gently on the palate. Very gourmand. This 2005 wine was begun to be sold at the end of 2007. The 2006 will be put on the market around Christmas 2008. Joe says that the terroir on the 1ères Cotes de Maconnais is excellent and that good will would not be enough to replace it. As I smell my empty glass, I notice that it smells even better...
Gauthier says that the vinification here is very conservative and quiet : about a year. No stirring of the lees, never. They think that if they accelerate the vinification by any means, it would be a risk to throw the wine off balance in its later life. On domaine de Roally, the fastest alcoholic fermentations (the Macon-Villages young vines) are 8 months minimum, and the Viré Cléssé need 10 to 12 months. The malo-ferm either are made along the alcoholic ferm, or right after like for the 2007. The coops near here make the malo fermentation too but they use external yeasts for that, when here its all on the grapes and it starts freeely. Joe points to the fact that the vineyards around here are on a coteau, a slope, and the wines are never 100 % dry, there is often a bit of noble rot on the grapes and residual sugar in the wine, 2 or 3 grams. Joe says that Jean Thevenet opened once a bottle from 1921 a few years ago (they were not present when it happened) and it also had a bit of residual sugar, Gauthier adding that it was also very light, something like 2 or 3 grams. This makes the particular richness of the wines here on Viré-Cléssé. So, here it has always been such wines with a bit of residual sugar, but when the INAO along with the local grower syndicates edicted the rules for the newly created Viré-Cléssé Appellation in 1998, they somehow decided that the wine had to be dry here, and it was also due to the way people had changed their way to work, making much higher yields than in the past that their wine had lost this particular richness. Growers around here routinely have yields like 60/66 hectoliter/hectare when on Thevenet's vineyards they have 40 ho/ha. The Thevenet who never "industrialized" their growing and vinification style kept doing these traditional white wine with natural richness, were even subsequently refused the agreement once in and had to downgrade the wine as generic Macon-Villages, but coincidently and happilly, the heat-wave year of 2003 spread havoc on this intolerance and pushed the Appellation establishment to back-pedal on these rules and allow a bit of residual sugar in the Viré-Cléssé.
Speaking of sulphur, it was used in the past, this wine from this bottle of 1921 had been in contact with a sulphur wick. Joe adds that this is the irony here, the people who use no sulphur today often refer to Jules Chauvet, and Jean Thevenet happened to be working in close contact with Jean Thevenet, and sulphur use was never a problem between them.
The Dressners flew back to NY august 28th. They have two children who live and study in North America. Joe Dressner is a regular on Wine Therapy, the wine-geeks forum. I just learned today as I was publishing this story that winetherapy was somehow moved to winedisorder. Check this forum !
Here's a 12 minute-interview of Joe and Denyse. I start with a question about a possible new wine revolution in America, the first one being the work of Robert Mondavi, who made wine a mainstream thing in this country. The last fall edition of Wine & Spirits was about the "Rebels who rock the best in the World of Wine" (btw you may spot 4 pics that I sold to them, Pacalet, Lapierre, Jancou and Dard, plus a Jenny Lefcourt pic), featuring many interviews and articles about this natural wine movement around the world. Joe Dressner who plays a role is interviewed along with David Lillie. There's a feel that things are changing in the perception of natural wines and biodynamic farming these days when you read this W&S issue.
The recording level is pretty low and you may have to raise the volume to listen.