Day 30: Let Mikey Try It: A Story of Marketing Natural Wine
Lyle Fass is the author of Rockssandfruit and a dedicated riesling fan
I had so many ideas of what to write for 32 Days of Natural Wine I could not wait to get started. First I was gonna write about Ganevat in the Jura, but my man proved impossible to get in touch with. He does not own a computer and I would have had to relay my questions via his importer to him and it proved to be big pain in the ass that I did not want to deal with. Still check his wines out. They are sick. Then I thought I could write about myself and how I came to like natural wines, but I thought that might be too self-indulgent and probably a bit of a lazy way out. So I was chatting with one of my long time friends/customers and he said “Why don’t you write about me?” And the light bulb appeared over my head. Not that I would write about my friend/client Michael, but I would write about the transmission of passion and knowledge of natural wines through people. It is a philosophy. Philosophy is transferred. This fact is undeniable as there are no regulatory boards or any of that like there is with organic and biodynamic wines, so a free-forming organically evolving philosophy is the way the information is relayed in the natural wine scene. So for me, in my journey and I’m sure many others, the first link in the chain is David Lillie. The Natural Wine High Priest of Chambers Street Wines and maybe more but I won’t get hyperbolic as I know David wouldn’t like it. But first a little history.
I live, breathe and sometimes even dream about wine retail. I have always loved sharing my passion for wine with people and helping them along their journey, which is also my journey. For my personality type (blowhard) retail has been a great venue. I’ve met tons of fantastic people that will be friends for life, including Michael.
Michael Robespierre wandered into the Wine Shop (sadly, now gone) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan 9 years ago during what was one of my first days on the job. I was fresh out of Boston, where I’d been to BU for 4 (okay, 5 years) and then stayed an extra 4 years to follow my passion, which turned out to be wine. I was a film major, but once I get something in my head, it is full force ahead. So wine it was. Wait a second, did I not say writing about me was self-indulgent? Skim over that previous part.
Michael walks into the Wine Shop, and seems on very good terms with the owner. He walks out with some high-octane Napa Cab, a high-scoring Aussie spooj bomb and three bottles of anonymous California Sauvignon Blanc. Soon, I’d figured out he was a regular and we became chummy. Yes he drank spoofy wine, but he always had an open mind and was never averse to trying anything. Getting him to try it though, through his own means, was a bit of a challenge. Michael, did not have that much confidence in his palate at that point, and was a very points driven wine-purchaser, so I nibbled a bit, but what I was peddling at that time (Burgundy, German/Austrian Riesling, Loire, Bordeaux, Piedmont) he did not drink. Add in the fact that the owner was the king of the cold call that would go something like this. “Hey, Michael, I got this great $50 Italian wine in and it’s 95 points Spectator. 95 points. $50. Outrageous.” And he would buy 6 bottles.
The cold call made him feel special, plus if you’re a pointy person, 95pts/$50 is a great QPR. He’d come in to pick it up and walk past the Clos Rougeard (a natural wine I carried and loved, but had no idea it was natural at the time) to grab a bottle of Pride Cabernet Franc along with his 6 pack of the “Sportoletti Rosso” from Villa Fidelia, which was the most spoofilated wine I have ever had from Italy, even to this day. The only way to really get him to try new wines was to open them on my dime or the store’s dime. Michael, happened to be the best non-professional chef I have ever encountered. Going to eat at his house was like going to a * or ** star Michelin restaurant every time. So that was my chosen venue to try and expand his horizons a bit. Had I known the monster I created, I might have thought twice before bringing a bottle of Rougeard over there. I kid, Michael, I kid, as he is reading this. And to protect Michael I have used a fake name if you have’t guessed yet. There were hints at these dinners of the transformation from wine ingenue to full on natural wine junky.
As I continued in my career, I left the Wine Shop and moved onto Chambers Steet Wines and Crush. The selection at these two stores was heavy on natural wine . Chambers Street, of course, being the temple of natural wine with David Lillie being the high priest. Crush, was kind of like Chambers Street North, but with the midtown glitz and glam and the hight ticket items that come with that. So when I got to CSW I had drunk Pepiere, Rougeard, Chidaine, Pinon and Huet but did not have the depth of experience and more importantly knowledge about natural wine quite yet. I loved Rougeard but had no clue it was natural. Neither did Michael. But we knew we loved it. The wine just had it all.
This is where the David-Lillie part of the story starts. Here’s this totally relaxed, even-tempered, jazz-playing, jazz-loving dude who knows more about wine, natural wine, organic wine, biodynamic wine than anyone I had ever met. It was a goldmine for someone who is a big-time seeker of knowledge and truths (if there can be any truths about wine) like me. And you pick and pick his brain and he would not care, he’d just happily talk and tell stories, and explain in detail of how he thought a wine should be made. Who worked good, who worked bad.
David taught me, most importantly, something that I think is the core concept of natural wine for me, which is the use of cultured vs. inoculated yeast. Every time we would taste with salespeople, no matter what wine, that was his first question. What’s the yeast situation? Soon it became my first question. The idea that an inoculated yeast could obscure terroir was for me, a profound concept that I had never quite thought about. The more I tasted with David, and figured out which wines were yeasted and which wines were not it really was something. I really noticed a difference. I was in. In deep. David had created a monster. The first bottle I took home on my first day, on David’s recommendation ,was the 2002 Domaine de la Belliviere Hommage a Louis Derre from the Coteaux de Loir. My first Pineau d’Aunis. An auspicious start as I did not like the wine. It was tannic as hell and I could not discern much else. I gave him a hard time the next day, and he told me, in classic David Lillie style, “Oh that wine takes three days to get going, try it tonight.” So I went home that night and, what do you know, this wine, made from some freakazoid grape I never even knew existed two days before was just slaying me. Freshness, purity along with a kind of mutant Pinot Noir flavors ad soaring freakish aromatics. The wine was just unbelievable. I never had anything like it. After that I was hooked. I chatted David up almost ad nauseum, spending half my paycheck each week on his recommendations. I discovered Clos Roche Blanche, Domaine de Peyra (R.I.P), Breton, Foillard, Jean-Paul Brun and many others. It was the definitive part of my wine evolution.
So what next? Michael had moved to California shortly after I left the Wine Shop and joined CSW. I wanted to share all of this new found information and sell him some of these wines. So slowly he would buy 6 packs, cases every now and then of this stuff I was drinking and he was slowly catching the natural wine bug. There were many phone calls though that went like this. Mike: This stuff smells horrible. Lyle: Give it time for the funk to blow off. Trust me. Mike: I don’t know. It smells like shit. Lyle: Gotta go call me in two hours. Two hours go by. Mike: Lyle, send me another case of the Cor en Continu. Lyle: (grinning) Sure. Mike, now has a growing tasting group in California where he sources natural wines and exposes the visigoths to the foreign, naturally made wines of Austria, Beaujolias, Burgundy and the Loire. All this was happening way before it really came on strong like it is now. 2003/2004 this was all taking place and I don’t even believe the term natural wine existed. Maybe we were better off then. This whole transference of passion and knowledge, via David to me to Mike and then to all his friends out in California is sacred. That is the only way I think about it.
So what next? Crush came. I opened Crush as wine director and stocked all the stuff I learned about at CSW. Plageoles, Clos Roche Blanche, Breton, Lapierre, Sablonettes, etc. I was thrilled to be turning upper east siders on to these types of wine. Michael was buying more and more and his palate had changed so much at this point he would rip on the Aussie spoof and high-octane Napa Cabs he used to drink with way more rancor that I could muster up, and that is saying a lot. A scorned wine drinker is almost worse than a scorned lover. I brought all the winemakers in multiple times for large tastings like the legendary ones at CSW. Of course they were not like the CSW ones, but their were what they were in their own unique style, introducing a whole new audience to these growers and their wines. Some more natural wine “marketing” going on there, which is really nothing except a sharing of passion and knowledge, no matter what others may have you think. These are small producers, that need people to yell from the rooftops, to get the word out, that these wines are first and foremost delicious, evoke terroir very convincingly and are pure and alive, just like the people who make them. It takes an act of life in its most pure, vivid way to spread the message of these wines. Word of mouth has never been so important. From David to me to Michael is one trajectory. A personal one to me. David to me to convincing Drew Nieporent he needed to sell these wines at Crush. That is a sacred trajectory. Drew gave me the tools, and after I have left Stephen Bitterolf and Joe Salamone have continued and excelled in bringing these great wines to an even larger audience. Now I am taking on a new challenge, selling natural wines to a new audience that has never seen these types of wines offered to them. It will never end for me. I also hope that I have influenced some people to create this knowledge, and pass it on. It’s only natural.
There is no marketing in Natural Wine. No Natural Wine Junkets. No Bullshit. So the most sacred thing is the sharing and passing on of knowledge from informed observers to others. That is how the movement has grown. It is a beautiful process. Almost natural in its own way.
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