Discover more from on hand
Jenny Lefcourt, co-founder, Jenny & François Selections
If you drink natural wines in the US, you have Jenny to thank.
Why hello there! Welcome to on hand! If you’ve landed here and somehow aren’t subscribed, I got you:
If you drink natural wine in the United States, it’s basically because of Jenny Lefcourt and her company, Jenny & François Selections. Started in 2000 with her then-husband, the company was an early advocate of natural wine, and has been introducing Americans to wine makers from around the world for over two decades. What started as a side project while she was getting a PhD at Harvard, Jenny & François Selections now imports wine to every state in the US. We chatted about the early days of her company, why she has never wavered from her passion for natural wine, and where she thinks the next great wine regions are.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about your background and how you got into natural wine?
Jenny Lefcourt: I was in academia studying French literature and film and spent a lot of time in Paris, and got into food and wine. I kept coming back and forth from New York, where I’m originally from, and I didn't see any of the wines that I was enjoying in Paris, but I didn't really have a grasp on what I liked and why. And then one day I was literally waiting for the bus in front of a wine bar and there was a poster for a wine tasting. I went to the wine tasting out of interest that weekend and all the wines tasted like wines I had started to enjoy at certain friends' houses and certain bistros in Paris. And so I went around and asked a lot of questions, like, how do you make your wine?
At the time, none of the winemakers knew each other. There wasn't really the phrase “natural wine”. There wasn't a community for natural wine yet. But everyone had a similar story, which is that, "Well, I grow my grapes organically and I don't use any additives. I'm very hands off in my wine making. Everyone in my village thinks I'm crazy. This is how I'm doing it because of X, Y, or Z reason." So that was fascinating. And so I thought this maybe has something to do with why these wines seem different and delicious from anything else I had tried up until that point.
One day, I was driving south and drove near a winemaker I knew, he was like, "Sure, come on up to the winery." It was one of my first big experiences tasting in a winery that he really explained the technique of everything he did. He walked through the vines, opened bottles from all of his friends — which is rare for a winemaker to do. We just had the best of time and I still work with him today.
I was carrying bottles back to the US in my bag and opening them for a few people I had met in the industry and getting positive feedback and that gave me the confidence to dive in, which was crazy when I think of it now. I had actually never worked in wine, never worked in hospitality, never worked in a wine shop. It's like the crazy things you do when you're young. There was no natural wine movement at the time but it was the beginnings of it.
I think what was incredibly exciting and pushed me to move forward in this world is that it felt like the beginning of something. It felt like there was starting to be conversations, these tastings where people would exchange ideas and share information, and that it was just the beginnings of a movement. So that was thrilling.
We spent a ton of time in the Loire Valley, harvesting, sleeping at people's houses, camping out, just trying to get involved, and then bringing wine in my bag back to New York and sharing them. My uncle introduced me to somebody who imported wine and I asked if he would help me clear some of the wines while I figured out how it all worked, show me the ropes a little. He sort of acted as a clearing house for me.
It reminds me why I love doing what I do. We started by shipping direct to the stores, building up a little bit of funds, investing in more wine. We didn't have any wine in stock for years. We just shipped stuff over. I started with no financing, no money, no partners. I lived in France in a small studio apartment and flew back and forth like a million times a year.
Now here we are 23 years later with an office. I have 16 employees and we're in every state in the US.
Brianna Plaza: Without an existing market for natural wine in the United States, what made you continue on a natural wine path vs pivoting to a more traditional style of wine?
Jenny Lefcourt: It was very much a starry-eyed conviction that, "This is it." For me, it was a mission. There was no other wine and there is no other wine today I want to work with, I just would not do this job otherwise. I've always thought we have to have a lot of wines that are affordable and not just expensive gems. I'm not interested in a company that only has wine for people who can pay $50 for a bottle of wine. I'm very interested in finding inexpensive, organic wines that are delicious and affordable and natural. I think finding delicious, affordable, natural wines is part of my mission. It also allows us to do the whole gamut of harder-to-sell wines and easier-to-sell wines.
Brianna Plaza: You've had this company for 23 years, but it feels like natural wine has only become a bigger thing in the last few years. Why do you think it took so long for natural wine to take off in a meaningful way?
Jenny Lefcourt: I mean, it was really tough in the beginning. We were way ahead of the curve. When I started, there were not nearly the amount of wine shops as today. It was very much these old world wine shops. There weren't a million shops owned by women. Everything's changed. But in the beginning, people tasted our wines and were reminded why they were in the business. It was like, "Oh, this is so delicious. I totally want this for my store." And I was just bowled over. So I think we did a lot of educating and explaining.
I think the wine world is still young in many ways. My father-in-law collected wines in the '70s, but that was super rare. It's really a young wine world, and so many people now have become educated about wine, drink wine, study wine, travel for wine. That was so much more rare when I started out, and it was so much more of a man's world as well.
I think partly just being a woman in the wine world and also just fighting for natural wines, I felt like I was on this mission that I didn't question. But it was really, really hard for so many years. It was so hard. But I come from a family that is activists and lefty political. But I thought of it as fighting for something, but also feeling guilty that I wasn't actually working with migrants or something better. I think that the excitement of finding allies has never stopped being exciting. It's just thrilling to be able to share the love with people.
So it took a long time. I think had I come in with a lot of funding, maybe it would've gone a lot faster and maybe the whole movement would've developed more quickly. But I was sleeping in the back of a car in the southwest of France and then sleeping on my brother's floor in Williamsburg. I didn't have money for marketing or a website, so it was a really slow process. But then we had more allies and there were wine bars who served all-natural wine, wine stores that were buying natural wine. Astor Wines was one of my early, early supporters. I owe them so much. I really do. They gave cards out to all their customers and emailed their customer. They were really, really helpful getting things going.
Brianna Plaza: How was you endeavor received in the broader wine space?
Jenny Lefcourt: All of the stores, they didn’t really have to know that it was natural wine or how it’s made, they just had to taste it and love it. That's what reassured me — that very knowledgeable wine people were responding in a positive way to the wines.
Sometimes in red wines, there’s a little extra CO2, which is produced during fermentation and acts as a natural preservative. In Paris, wine bars would realize it’s part of production and just decant the wines. But in the US, instead of decanting people would just return it. So that made it really hard to advance. It meant a lot if somebody returned something, so that was rough.
We also had allies here in the city. We had our friend Dominique who ran the long-closed Bistro St. Mark’s in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. We would go there, pour him some wine, and he would feed us. You just have to build your network of allies and friends over time.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me how you think about who you work with?
Jenny Lefcourt: It really depends on the moment in time. I mean, the economy is so weird right now. We're selling a lot more of the less expensive wines more easily. And so this came along. For example, these wine makers had been writing me for years, and I get so many emails that I never really noticed. Then I took a look and I was like, "Wow, they're biodynamic, the wines are inexpensive, the label is okay. Sure, I'll try them. Send samples." So they sent samples, I tried the wines, and I love the wines for the price and the label. And so we brought them in. It all has to work together.
It's sort of these random … we get so much solicitation. And there's more and more natural wine. So we taste a lot of wine and if something sparks an interest, then I look. I look at how they farm, who works at the winery, how they're treating their land, how they're treating their people. Then I think about price. I think about the label. I think about the rest of our portfolio and make a decision.
Brianna Plaza: What are the up-and-coming US States or countries for natural wine production?
Jenny Lefcourt: We picked up a producer this year from Vermont, Ellison Estate. The wines are absolutely gorgeous. They're a lovely family. They camped out in a trailer on this spot with a bunch of vines they brought back from being abandoned, pretty much. But they're working with a lot of hybrids, which is one way to deal with global warming. So that's super interesting. And then, I mean, in the world, we've been leaning towards Central Europe for the last bunch of years because there's cooler climate wines with good acidity. And even there, things are heating up. But we found a lot of wonderful ones from Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria.