Isabelle Legeron MW is the founder and organizer of RAW Wine, a natural wine fair held annually in London, Berlin, and for the first time, in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov 6–7.
What led to your discovery and subsequent love of natural wine? Was it one moment (and one bottle), or a compilation of experiences?
I was brought up on a farm in Cognac foraging for mushrooms and raising pigs. I loved it, but I thought I needed to do something else. I went to university, got a job in London, but after a few years realized I was missing home and wine, except I didn’t know anything about wine. So I started working in the industry, doing small jobs and traveling. As I studied more and more, I realized, this isn’t what I want to do. This industry, which I thought would be cool and farmy, full of laid back people, was actually really serious, into scoring and visiting wineries, not the vineyards. I was completely disconnected.
Then, in the first year of studying for MW (Master of Wine), I went traveling in Hungary. I tasted a lineup of 200 local bottles so I could decide which producers I wanted to visit. I picked out two bottles and said, “Wow, I love these two. Can I go and meet their producers?” [I] was told, “Well, it’s actually just one producer.” It was Imre Kaló in Eger, who farms organically, never trained, and made wine for 10 years before showing it to anyone. He makes about 150 wines in a tiny two-room cellar with no equipment, just a few barrels and buckets and his intuition, and that’s it. I thought, “Shit, you don’t actually need anything to make wine.”
These wines were so different to what I’d been tasting. It made me look at the wine industry differently. I thought, “Actually, maybe there is something else that I haven’t encountered before.” Once I finished the MW, I closed the door on [conventional wine], and all I focused on was natural wine.
You are a fierce advocate of transparency in the wine world, requiring those winemakers interested in exhibiting at RAW to conform to a Charter of Quality and to provide laboratory testing results. Some would argue that this stringency goes against the very grassroots nature of the natural wine movement, which came into being, in part, as a reaction against over-regulation. What would you say to this?
When I chat to the growers, they are anal. Most of them are really serious, about the farming and winemaking—many own microscopes. They are really disciplined. And you have to be. If you are going to make really great natural wines that are completely sulfite-free, you cannot be sloppy. When asked for analysis, some of the growers grumble, but, in my opinion, they are quite happy about moving towards a definition for natural wine. I think they like that there is a structure. I don’t think producers are that anarchist. Even if they may smoke a joint sometimes, they still have their microscopes and are still very clean in the cellar.
I’ve had producers I’ve seen at other fairs who claim to make a natural wine and consumers think they do, and they apply to exhibit at RAW. I remind them we limit sulfur levels to 70 ppm (parts per million), which is actually quite generous, and they say, “Yes, of course, we’re way under that.” Then I see their analysis, and their levels are between 100–130ppm. As an industry, when are we going to start being a little clearer? You put on an event and ask people buy a ticket, they come and they think they are tasting something natural. We have a responsibility to them.
What about wine labeling? Unlike food, wine is not required to list any of the many additives that may have gone into it except for the cryptic, “contains sulfur.” You have been an advocate for stricter labeling requirements, but some feel that this would lead to confusion and too many logistical questions.
If you add 30–40 additives, you’re not really trying to make something that is artistic. It’s about having a regulatory body that says, “You have to tell me what you put in your wine.” Really, what we’re talking about is asking people who do add a lot of stuff to list all their ingredients. This is necessary for other commercial products. It bugs me that it is not necessary for wine.
Although it is progressing, the wine world is still a very male-dominated space. As the first French female Master of Wine, and as someone who has experienced many wine cultures, do you find that inherent sexism, whether subtle or obvious, exists in some wine societies more than others?
Yes. Mediterranean and Southern European countries tend to view wine as a man’s job. I remember once in Spain I took a group of people to a restaurant, and the wine was corked. I took it back and [the proprietor] said, “What do you mean the wine is corked? What do you know about wine, you’re a woman!” And he refused to take the bottle back. I had 20 people at dinner, so I didn’t want to fight with him. I just ordered another bottle. But that was blatantly sexist.
Go to Georgia. You’re barely allowed in a cellar because they think you’re going to jinx the whole thing. I’ve had times where people were like, “Hmm, I’m not sure you should be in there. You’re going to bring us bad luck.”
Personally, the more I evolve and the more we develop our brand and meet more senior people, I realize that fundamentally the world is really sexist. There’s not the same weight if you’re a woman saying something than if you’re a man saying it. But this is across everything in our lives.
On RAW’s website you state that the fair, “Celebrates wines with emotion; Wines that have a humanlike, or living, presence.” Can you describe what you mean by “living” wines?
“Living” for me is quite literal. The job of the grower is to preserve the microbiology—the flora and fauna—of the vineyard. Literally, to preserve its life. These wines change while you taste them. They’ll be different tomorrow and different next year. In a way, conventional winemaking doesn’t do that. Natural wines are an expression of the living versus wines which are sterile-filtered and sulfured to death. There’s nothing living in them any more.
On the one hand, the overall quality of natural wines seems to be on the rise. On the other, as an increasing number of natural wines are released young (some would say too young), with rough primary, still-fermenting flavors seem to be becoming commonplace. What have you observed?
I think the reason is purely pressure. I’ve never spoken to any grower who has said, “I want to release my wines early, because that’s what I want to do.” The most common pressure is money. Growers need to release their wines as quickly as possible to receive an income. They also need space. They often have small wineries and don’t necessarily have the capacity to keep wines for too long. Or they need the barrels or vats because they can’t afford to invest in more. Also, when you work naturally, there is a phenomenon where there is such energy in the cellar during vintage that the wines tend to referment, so some people are keen to get the wines out of there.
RAW has been a mainstay on the London wine calendar since 2012, Vienna in 2013, Berlin since 2015 and now New York City. Why New York, and why now?
It took me two years to get my head around it, and then suddenly, I thought, “Let’s just do it, because otherwise I’ll regret it.” But New York is a big deal. We’re terrified. It’s a new market, and we’re starting from scratch. It’s a big responsibility when there are over 120 growers who are paying a lot of money for their airfares, hotels and so on, and then it’s a big flop.
But we’ve taken a year to prepare it. We’re doing everything we can to make it a success. The energy here has been amazing, and it carries you. Everyone here is so supportive and lovely.
What does the future hold for RAW? Will you expand into more cities?
I always think, “Where else?” I really want to solidify our three current cities, but I do think RAW could work in the Nordic countries. Tokyo could be fun, or Hong Kong. I’d love to have a bar, probably in London, a home for the growers and the wines. It’s always been in the back of my mind. But right now we are at capacity in terms our ability to organize the three RAW fairs.