A discussion with Jonathan Nossiter and Jenny Lefcourt
Early in Jonathan Nossiter’s new book, Cultural Insurrection: A Manifesto for the Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine, the writer and prize-winning director describes an interview with a journalist for the conservative French newspaper La Figaro, Sébastien Lapaque. The occasion was the release of Mondo Vino (2004), Nossitter’s documentary on the dual forces of homogenization and globalization in the wine world. When Lapaque opens their discussion with a disapproving tone, Nossiter expects to be called out for having gone too far in his critique of Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, and other champions of the voluptuous international-style that dominated wine at that moment. Instead, Lapaque accuses him of not having gone far enough. An early champion of natural wine, particularly the work of Marcel Lapierre in Morgon, Lapaque wanted to know why Nossiter hadn’t even mentioned the movement.
Until then, Nossiter had been agnostic on the topic. “I had already been serially experimenting with natural wine,” he recalls, “but I had yet to fully determine my feelings on the subject. I was convinced long before by organic and above all biodynamic farming. But the natural wine movement, which was even more rigorous in its pursuit of chemical-free purity, remained, like many of its wines, a little cloudy.”
After the interview, Nossiter began frequenting Verre Volé, a natural wine bar off the Canal St. Martin close to where he lived at the time. With steady immersion, he became a fan of the wines, their vitality, the way they refused to coddle consumers expectations. Their styles varied. The wines could be as elegant and traditional as the Chiantis of Giovanna Tiezzi at Pacina in Colli Senesi or as experimental and groundbreaking as the alpine wines of La Garagista in Barnard, Vermont. Still, he sensed that each of these taut reds and deeply-colored aromatic whites, “were renewing, in a contemporary idiom, a tradition stretching back at least eight thousand years, a tradition sundered only after WWII with the global imposition of chemical agriculture.”
He also noted the passion of Verre Volé’s youthful clientele, how they shared their discoveries and opinions about natural wine with the full-throated enthusiasm he recalled bibliophiles and cinephiles possessing decades earlier. If you’ve been to a Raw Wine Fair, or to wines bars like The Ten Bells in New York or The Drifters Wife in Portland, you can imagine the politically-engaged bohemia—though Nossiter might argue that the interest is more widespread and egalitarian in Europe where the wines are more accessibly priced.
With Cultural Insurrection, he touches lightly on the aesthetic merits of natural wines to focus on their importance as a cultural gesture. We listen as he shares his thoughts about why these wines speak to young people the way auteur-driven cinema did in his youth. Positioning himself as one of the children of the WWII generation who, “were marked by the profound moral and political issues faced by their fathers without ever having to face them themselves,” he looks at a world where soils have been impoverished and the menace of global warming looms ever larger and extols the utopian fringe that animates the natural wine world through the very personal lens of his experiences as a director, art student, historian, and critic of contemporary culture.
Listen in as he discusses his new work with Jenny Lefcourt, the owner and founder of Jenny & Francois Selections, who has pioneered natural wine in American markets for almost twenty years.
Menin: Have you two met?
Nossiter: Sort of. I’m a fan.
Lefcourt: You know the first time I met you, Jonathan, was at Romy’s restaurant Cendrillion in Soho.
Nossiter: Wow. That was a while ago.
Lefcourt: I was still lugging my own bag of wine around town and he always fed me lunch. You were having lunch there soon after it came out.
Menin: One of the reasons I hoped to bring you two together was that before importing natural wine, Jenny studied French theory and philosophy with Derrida. You reference him in the book as you offer examples from post-modernism, conceptual art, linguistics, and derivative markets to argue that urban culture has become disassociated from any concrete sense of reality. I would love to hear you two address how the natural wine movement speaks to this sense of abstraction.
Nossiter: To me, it’s quite simple. In another generation, people like Jenny would not be doing what she is doing now. In fact, there are many extremely well-educated people in natural wine who in another generation would have engaged in other activities. We’re all starving in a virtual world. Starving for something tangible, something deeply reflective. The natural wine world offers engagement in things which are carnal, physical, tactile, concrete, and of practical value, and with it comes as much cultural and intellectual stimulation as you could possibly desire. Jenny, do you agree?
Lefcourt: Yes, absolutely. I was in a French library studying when I went out into the street and talked to somebody who said, “Are you looking at our poster? You should come in and try some wine.” He invited me into a Natural Wine Fair, and I talked to people from different regions of France who spoke the language in different ways and discussed the harvest and their love for where they come from. There was an incredible sense of community and I thought, “I have to be a part of this life.”
I started importing in the early years of La Dive Bouteille an incredible moment for the natural wine movement, really the epicenter of where it all started. In the early 2000s, a man working in the French Ministry of Agriculture came and spoke to the winemakers. He started by saying, “Are there any journalists in the room? We need to keep this a secret.” Then he said, “We have to figure this out because you’re all being rejected from the AOC system, and the AOC system is supposed to be here to protect what you guys are doing. You are the best of the best. How is it possible that you’re being shunned because you’re no longer typical of your appellations? There are machine harvests, chemicals, overcropping, and manipulation of wine, and here you are making wines that speak of the terroir where you’re from and you’re being pushed out of our system. We have to do something to show that you’re the winemakers of excellence.” It was an incredible moment.
So, it’s always been a political act for me to sell these wines. It’s always been about defending the culture and the history of these people who are making the wines, and hoping I can help them stay where they are and do what they do. It is all the things that you talk about, so thank you for your book.
Nossiter: One of the key things that makes this movement so interesting is that it is completely transgressive in an entirely productive way. It’s not the transgression of an adolescent with an identity crisis who just wants to say, “I’m different.” These are serious farmers offering profound reflections on the history of their land, not as something fixed, but as something progressive. Whether they’re an old peasant family, an old aristocratic family, or a recently arrived Jewish photographer, they’re thinking about the fundamentally unethical nature of most contemporary wine legislation and have figured out a way to push the law. When the Loire winemaker Olivier Cousin deliberately gets himself arrested for labeling his wines Anjou (in response to regional rules he believed would lead to lower quality wine and increased pollution) it’s an act of civil disobedience. He wanted to direct attention to the fundamentally unjust AOC system, and this has a ripple effect.
Menin: In the book you propose re-imagining all aesthetic and political and cultural questions as ecological ones. What do you see as the role of the natural winemaker in what you call this ‘ecological existential’ moment?
Nossiter: I believe conventional urban cultural activity seems doomed to irrelevance in the world that we live in. People engaged in cultural activities as we understand them—painting, film, writing, journalism—no longer have any substantial impact. But if you go around in Paris or Berlin or London or Rome, you see a much wider demographic of young people drinking natural wine in a way that they might have gone to the cinema thirty years ago to see the new Hertzog or Fellini film. Even for people who aren’t necessarily interested in other aspects of culture, there is something about the natural wine movement that touches them, they see its vitality. What’s the purpose of culture anyway? It’s to nourish, right? Whether it’s agriculture or urban culture, the idea is to nourish body and soul.
Lefcourt: Jonathan, my main reaction to your book was, I can’t believe what a kindred spirit you are. This is how I think about what I do. I’m an academic and I come from a very political, activist family. My mom defended the Black Panthers, and so I sat there and thought, “After years of study, am I going to go be a professor at a university.” Then I came upon this incredible world, I thought, “This is so much more relevant to my life.”
Nossiter: What’s interesting about the natural wine phenomenon is that it wouldn’t be enough for there to be a Thierry Puzelat in Touraine, if there wasn’t a Jenny Lefcourt in New York and a Doug Wregg in London. The farmer’s rural gesture has found relevance in urban life. There’s a whole chain of people that unite countryside with city life in a way that is very exciting. It shows that there is a way of circumventing a system without having to directly do battle. I’m working on a film now that’s been five years worth of effort, and –
Menin: What’s the film about?
Nossiter: It’s an ecological fable set in 2086 about the last people on Earth, with Nick Nolte and Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgard. The most pressing issue of our day is whether biological life on this earth has a chance of survival. What we can say about the natural wine movement is that it is a functioning metaphor for all the most urgent questions. Unless we radically change the way we farm, the world’s soils will be devastated, global warming will continue, and there will be species extinction. Probably our own among the first.
Menin: This is a question for both of you. Do you think natural wine has the ability to scale? Or is it, by its nature, not scalable but a radical example that could shift the general conversation?
Lefcourt: Natural wine started out as a French movement and has become an international movement. More and more people are drawn to making these kinds of wines and I think there’s room for more growth. Many natural wine producers have become certified organic or biodynamic. That’s really important as things scale. Otherwise, there’s room for big companies to be dishonest and the last thing we want is confusion. At the same time, as Jonathan said, there’s a recognizable purity to these wines that you cannot imitate. The taste is there. A big vineyard cannot imitate it, but if there’s more organic viticulture, it’s only a good thing.
Nossiter: I think what Jenny says is right. The pioneering work of these tiny artisans, these artists making little paintings, can and should have an effect on larger industries. As with any cultural, artistic, or political movement, you want the pioneers to open up new discussions, new ways of seeing things. Then it’s up to other people, each one in their own activity, to take the lesson and apply it to themselves. Jenny, don’t you think that we’ve already seen that in the wine world? So-called conventional wine is greener and less processed than it was 15, 20 years ago.
Lefcourt: Yes, but what the natural wine producers are revealing – and what the industry leaders creating mythologies around wine want us to remain ignorant about – is that wineries are some of the biggest polluters out there. That’s why landscapes filled only with vines are not beautiful to me. What’s beautiful is biodiversity, keeping the fruit trees, and growing many different things, not wineries pouring Roundup on their land and destroying everything to produce more grapes.
In the US, thanks to Michael Pollan and others, people want to know the story behind their food production. The same awareness is not there for wine. The natural wine movement says, “There’s a problem with the way wine is labeled. We’re not told how it’s produced. We’re not told that wineries are huge polluters, and that needs to change.” We can’t forget there are huge battles to be waged. One of those battles is requiring wineries to write the additives they use on their back labels. I think if wineries had to list each of the 300 legal additives they use on their back labels, they wouldn’t use so many!
Nossiter: There has always been a mythology attached to wine. Throughout history, you can see its mythological power and function. You see it in the Bible and in ancient Greece. For me, wine is the pioneering mythological tip of the iceberg, but I’m interested in the iceberg. I’m interested in the entire gesture of farming and the culture of farming as a response to urban culture. Because of global warming, because of the devastation that we’re wreaking on the earth, because we’re in the countdown to the extinction of ice on the planet, anything that gets people to think, and to experience, literally internally, “What is the countryside to me?” is of huge value, and we can thank these joyously transgressive pioneer farmers for starting this conversation.
Want to try natural wine? Check out 10 Natural Wines We Love to get started.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Get the book from Indie Bound, a community of independent local bookstores. #loyaltolocal