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At Work with Jenny Lefcourt and François Ecot

by Bruce Novak

Jenny, how did you and François meet and get started in the wine business?

As an undergraduate at Cornell, I fell in love with French culture. I went to France junior year and went back while working on my master’s and Ph.D. Somewhere along the way, I became really passionate about wine and realized I didn’t want to be an academic. François was a musician—we met in France—and he loved wine, too. We both noticed that the wines we loved to drink at bistros and wine bars were natural wines. The wines that were most interesting, with the most personality were all made the same way—and they were not available here. So we started the business in 2000.

So the wines came first and the recognition that they were organic followed?

I’ve always been a big supporter of organic farming. It fits into my view of the world, from an ethical and political standpoint. But we wouldn’t have decided to import natural and organic wine for only that reason. There had to be an element of quality, and we love the taste of the wines.

What special talents do you each bring to the business?

François spends a lot of time on the road visiting cellars, tasting each vintage and cu-vee, and reporting back. He has an amazing palate and a talent for scouting out what’s going to become great wine. I am more involved in the business side, though we really share a lot of the final decisions about what we’ll be importing together. I spend a lot more time in New York working with our salespeople, while he is based in France.

Can you explain the differences between natural, organic, and biodynamic practices and what effect each has on the wine?

In France, organic and biodynamic wine means there were no chemicals used in the vines. Natural is a term invented by the winemakers and by those of us who sell wine. We needed some way to distinguish it from organic or biodynamic, because natural means more than organic or biodynamic. Organic and biodynamic are only about what happens in the vines, while natural also refers to what you do or don’t do to the wine in the cellar. In terms of health, it’s better not only to drink wine made from organically grown grapes, but a natural wine, because it has the benefits of not having lots of sul-fites (preservatives that kill off the bacteria) and chemicals added to it. French certifica-tion, for example, there are 200 products you can add to a wine—including sulfites—and still have it certified organic.

Clearly, a lot of your producers feel close to the land, and they’re interested in letting nature make the wine. Would you say your vignerons tend to be low-tech?

Absolutely. There’s one winemaker, Olivier Cousin, who plows with a horse in the vines. He takes young winemakers under his wing, they all meet about once a month with their horses, and he teaches them about working the vines this way. It’s less ex-pensive than plowing with a tractor and it doesn’t compact the earth 42 organic spa Magazine | March–April 2009 like a tractor does, but it’s a lifestyle choice because it takes a lot of time to care for those horses!

What are the benefits of making wine in a natural way?

The decision to plow instead of using herbicides to get rid of weeds in the vineyard actually makes a huge difference in the health and the balance of the grapes. Probably over 95 percent of French producers use herbicides. But when you plow, you cut the small, surface roots so the big roots can dive deep down into the earth and there’s more of an exchange between the soil and the vines. They pick up more of the minerals that way. I believe the only way to express the terroir [the particular soil, exposure, and mi-croclimate of a vineyard site] is by plowing and having low yields. If you have high yields you’re going to have rot, and diluted grapes, and you’re not going to be able to make a natural wine in the end, because you’re going to have to add sulfites. But if you have healthy grapes, when you harvest you don’t have to put sulfites directly on the harvest, which is how most people make wine.

Are a lot of your wines especially food-friendly? Do they tend to go well with lighter cuisines?

Many go really well with lighter foods because they have nice acidity. Acidity is what allows a wine to age, but it’s also what makes you want to taste a glassful again; natural wine is not going to tire out your palate or weigh it down with too many heavy tannins or too much alcohol. It’s going to liven things up. As you drink and taste it with food, it evolves and changes, and your perception of it will change.

Have many of your producers been organic for a long time? Or is there a movement afoot for people to convert?

Both. When we started out, nobody asked about things like indigenous yeast versus lab yeast, or sulfites. People couldn’t care less. Now, there’s a greater awareness and—as with anything else organic—there’s no turning back.

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