Our Advanced Sommelier Patrick Jobst recently chatted with Jenny Lefcourt, founder and owner of Jenny and Francois, regarding the upcoming event at Reserve Wine & Food. The transcript of that conversation, which includes the Jenny and Francois origin story, is below:
Patrick Jobst (PJ): I’m really excited to do this dinner, it’s going to be great!
Jenny Lefcourt (JL): It looks like a nice menu! I just got an email from someone who signed up for the dinner who asked where they could buy these wines…
PJ: Well, we are able to sell the wines retail as well!
JL: Oh, good! Wonderful.
PJ: So, getting right into it, how did Jenny & Francois get started, and what got you interested in natural wine specifically?
JL: Well, I was actually studying to do a PhD in french literature and film. I was going to be a professor, I finished the PhD, and I went to live in France to do some research and I began to discover the food and wine culture of France. There were a few friends who, when I went to their house, the wines they served seemed very alive, and they made me very curious. Then there were a few restaurants where I dined with wines that seemed really different and interesting. Then, one day, I was literally waiting for a bus in front of a bistro, and I looked up at the window and there was a little poster for a wine tasting. And this was the late 90s, so there wasn’t yet a name for natural wine, and there wasn’t such a community around it all. So I was looking at this poster and the owner of this bistro said “oh, you’re interested in wine? That’s a great tasting, you should go” and I said “ maybe I will” and he said “come in and taste something!” and he poured me this glass of very cloudy looking wine from the Loire Valley, which was Chenin Blanc, same grape variety as the Nouveau Nez you’re using for the dinner, and it was delicious and different, and I decided it was so good that I’m going to come back for dinner. So I went and got Francois, who was my partner in everything at the time, I bought him out a little more than five years ago now. We went to dinner and tasted a bunch of wines, and later that weekend went to the tasting. One of the people at that tasting was Herve Souhaut…
PJ: No way! That’s awesome.
JL: Yeah, you’ll be pouring his syrah! We tasted his wines, talked to him, and then later that summer, we were driving down south and saw that we were in St. Joseph ( in the Rhone Valley) and I thought “hey that’s where Herve Souhaut lives!” so we pulled over and I called him up and I said, “Hey we’re in the neighborhood off the highway, could we possibly come visit and taste?” and he said, “Sure, just head on up the mountain.” So we drove up this winding hill to his winery and we tasted all of his wines, then he started opening wines from all of his friends and basically began explaining natural wine to us, though he never used that term because it didn’t really exist at the time. But the big thing was, at this first tasting, the wines were so different and alive and I decided that if this is what wine is, then I love wine, and I had never had this sort of love for wine before. Not when I was back home being poured big, over extracted, monster wines. but I began to taste light reds from the Loire with high acid, and chenin blanc on that first day, or the Syrah from Herve Souhaut, which is just magical with all the violets and other sorts of lovely things.
But, I found at that tasting what I found that everyone had in common was “I grow my grapes organically” and the way the wine is made is that the grapes ferment and the wine is made. They weren’t using any of the 300+ additives that are permissible and legal in winemaking, which we never know about because they’re not required to be listed on the labels. Only sulfites are required to be listed, but there’s a huge difference between 20 mg of naturally occurring sulfites and 200 mg of added sulfites.
PJ: Of course, yeah.
JL: So, it seemed like everyone had a similar philosophy in the room that first time in the late 90s, and everyone also seemed like they were the only ones in the world making wine that way. Or at least they thought they were the only ones in their appellation or region, and they didn’t really know anyone working in a similar way. There wasn’t such a group and there certainly wasn’t the movement there is today.
PJ: Wow, so then what was the catalyst for you to start an import company?
JL: (Laughing) Well, so I was finishing my PHD and I thought there’s one really good job in the middle of the country where I don’t know anyone, after having lived in France and being from New York. Everyone in the field wanted this job and I was just not sure that I really wanted it, or if I was even going to apply for it. I wasn’t sure what to do and wine was just so interesting to me, and I guess I’m an eternal student. I like to learn. And so a great way to do that is to start doing something else. I also fell in love with the food and wine culture in France, and I wanted a way to integrate that into my life. So I brought some bottles home, in my bag, and I was looking around wine stores in NY and I couldn’t find any of the wines I had been drinking in France. I wanted to share them with my friends and family and I couldn’t find ANY of them, and it turned out that none of them were imported. So I brought the wines one day to someone named Josh Wesson, who had won Best Sommelier in New York. He was opening a retail shop called Best Cellars at the time, and I figured he’d know what he was doing. So I showed him the wines and he said, “These wines are great and they’re priced great,” and I said “If I import them would you buy them?” and he said, “Sure why not?” and that kind of gave me the confidence to say “Maybe I’m on to something, and maybe other people will agree that these are super interesting wines,” and it turned out they did.
PJ: So, starting with your love of French culture, you now have a decent collection of wines from Eastern Europe in your portfolio as well as other places. How were you exposed to those wines and what made you decide to bring them into the fold?
JL: It was an all-French company for a long time, and the natural wine movement was an all-French movement for a long time as well. Then, you know, as I got to know the wine world more, and tasted wines from outside of France, we started to look at them. I remember one day I tasted this wine from Tony Coturri, who was in his corner of the world making natural wine without knowing anyone else in the world was making wine like this, so that was one of the first non-French wines we picked up. So slowly, as the natural wine world grew and expanded, I figured I shouldn’t stay closed minded and just keep myself in France because there are so many good wines out there. So we slowly opened the floodgates and brought italian wines, and wines from california, so those were the first. And then, someone who works for me, his name is Phil Sareil, and in a way the whole natural wine movement in the US could be ascribed to him because he worked for Kermit Lynch and he brought back some wines from Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais to Kermit, and Kermit brought those in, thanks to Phil. Phil has been working with me for many years now, and his wife is from outside Prague. He let on that there might be some interesting wines near Prague, and asked if I would be open to tasting them. So we started bringing some of those wines in, and that’s how we discovered some of the wines in Austria, the Czech Republic, and that area of the world.
PJ: Do you have any advice for somebody new in the world of natural wine, as to where to start? The world of wine isn’t easy to navigate anyways, but natural wine can be even more difficult as a lot of natural producers aren’t worried about appellation names or certifications, and they’re off the beaten path a bit. So where should someone start when they want to get into natural wine?
JL: I think people like you guys, with your ability to sell retail and on premise…Well, I think the most important thing is understanding that there are lots of good reasons to start drinking natural wine. One, if you believe in eating organic and healthy in a way that is better for the earth, and then there’s taste profile. I think at this dinner for example, a big thing about learning about wine is remembering what you like, so that could be either a style, a region, a grape, a producer. If people are interested in exploring if they like natural wine, a really helpful way to do that is by looking at the back of the label for the importer. I think that I have a particular taste and if people are drawn to that, then people can start to understand what we, or other importers of natural wine, do and say “wow I do love whites from the Loire” or “I do love trying austrian skin contact wines,” or whatever it is. The best thing is when you have a store with someone who is interested in natural wine or a sommelier who likes natural wine and then you can say “I loved the Marc Pesnot at this dinner and I’d be interested in trying other things like it” you could try all the wines from one producer, one region, one grape, and form that memory of what you like to drink. Taking pictures of labels are huge so someone who has a broader knowledge, like a sommelier, can see that and help them discover new wines that they will love.
PJ: Last question, lots of people in the wine industry have epiphany wines, special bottles that were kind of an “aha!” moment for their journey in the wine world, what were a couple of yours?
JL: I think looking at the Herve Souhaut was such a completely eye opening experience that bowled me over. The other more recent winery for example is Strohmeier in Styria, Austria. I didn’t even know that people could grow grapes the way he does. Some of his vines are left wild! I had heard about it but had never seen it until I visited. He has found this balance, the grapes…usually you do have to prune and spray, and he just left them and figured it out from experimenting and it works! He is brilliant and really a visionary.
PJ: Well, Jenny, thank you so much for taking the time, I will report back with feedback and photos from the dinner!
JL: Thank you so much, I really wish I could be there, it looks like it’s going to be a fantastic event!
Be on the lookout for event announcements from the Reserve Wine & Food team on our Events page.