Step one: Listen to this (really loud).
I tasted a vin naturel for the first time on January 13th, 2005 at L'Amuse Vin, Rue de Charonne, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. I was 24 years old, and after a couple of hours and half a dozen bottles (including Domaine de Peyra, Jean Foillard's Cote du Py, and Marcel Lapierre's Morgon sans soufre), I was not only "sold" on vin naturel but all of a sudden was a serious devotee.
I fell in love with both the idea and the taste. I had never cared for wine before, yet overnight it became an obsession. I was in Paris for six months or so at that point, and I spent them going between all the known cavistes to snatch more and more bottles and learn as much as I could. My go-to Gramenon was five or six euros, Lapierre was eight or nine. Natural wine, as it was explained to me then, was the opposition party to the governing party that was conventional wine. It was a young movement with few leaders. Lapierre, Puzelat, Gramenon, Peyra were the ones I was lucky to drink first. Pretty quickly my obsession turned into a trade. I came back to the US with the idea of bringing to San Francisco what I'd learned in Paris, the energy I’d felt there. In November 2007, with the help of a couple friends, we opened "Terroir Natural Wine Merchant" in the SOMA district.
The players were the same, plus many more. I was very eager to learn, taste, and discover -- maybe too eager. I looked for wine in places I shouldn't have, made a lot of mistakes, and was misled plenty, but it came from an honest place. Jacques Puffeney was natural to me, his importer told me so himself. Raveneau too, he was in my "guide des vins naturels" from Jean Paul Rocher, and so was Chateau Rayas. These were missteps, of course. The knowledge in general wasn't very good, there were very few resources then, only a handful of books available to us, most of them talking about Nicolas Joly and a couple Alsaciens that adopted Biodynamics early on. It was both a blessing and a curse. A curse because we did carry a lot of wines that shouldn't have made it to the list, but a blessing because we had access to wines you wouldn't dream of today. I think the first year of business we moved about a hundred cases of Lapierre, not much less of Foillard. We sold Clos Rougeard for $27, same for Overnoy's Poulsard. I argued like an asshole with Jenny Lefcourt when she sent me less than the whole pallet of Tavel Rose from L'Anglore she'd delivered the previous vintage. It was crazy.
By 2009, when I sold my shares of the wine bar, Ten Bells had opened, The Punchdown was about to, Jenny and Dressner were now distributed in California, and Farm Wine Imports was distributing solely natural wine there too. Savio Soares had distribution with Amy Atwood who was about to become a major player in Southern California, Lou was running his bar with great success.
It was mostly a result of Terroir's luck or success (outside of Ten Bells, whose influence lies with the likes of 360 and Ici, the real trailblazers of natural wine in the US). By 2010, Selection Massale was bringing our firsts pallets, Frantz Saumon's wines from Montlouis and the Chinons of Alain et Jerome Lenoir, followed not long after by Edouard Laffitte's "Le Bout du Monde" glou glou from the Roussillon and Etienne Thiebaud's Arbois and Vin de Pays de Franche Comte in the Jura.
I've been on the road since then, about four months out of every year, listening to the stories, visiting the new kids and the old legends. In about 12 years of travel, I've seen a lot of these guys and heard a lot of the stories. I've watched our world change. I've seen the prices rise, the labels get colorful, the new generation get more radical. I've seen the movement evolve quite a bit. What was true then might not be today.
I've slowly fallen out of love with it. Not because "it was better then," I've always hated that thinking, but I must admit that I just don't see myself in it anymore. I started feeling at odds with "the movement" as soon as it became truly commercially viable, I guess, even though I make my own living selling bottles. Once people had to fight for allocations of those niche wines, once cynicism settled in. Once natural wine bars started popping up in every town and the demand became insatiable and gluttonous.
Overnoy is now $400 a pop and only served to an elite group. The only conversations to have are about how much sulfur is not used, and how much of a communist a winemaker is. The dirtier the wine the better, honing your trade is of no value anymore, deliciousness is only a sign that you must be cheating, that your wine isn't natural enough.
To me, natural wine is becoming a parody of itself. The useful con of believing that zero zero won't give you a hangover, that a movement fueled by rappers overeating rare animals on YouTube and hipsters chain-smoking Parliaments is about health and anti-establishment ideals. This isn't to say that I've fallen out of love with the makers, with the trade per se, because I haven't. But I've fallen out of love with everything those makers do being distilled down into cute labels, and with honest wines that cost 10 euros selling for 40 times that amount to 20-something financiers.
I'll keep on selling wines made by farmers, organically certified, that work toward making delicious wine with as little additives as they can manage. But my love for the movement is gone. I started writing this as a joke, with Jacques Brel's "L'amour est mort" in my head, and I'll finish this piece with a famous line from Pierre Desproges, "Quand on est plus de quatre on est une bande de cons. A fortiori, moins de deux, c'est l'ideal."
-Guilhaume Gerard, French wine importer, lover of bygone days