Paris Loves Natural Wine. Will It Fall For RAW?
Isabelle Legeron MW's wine fair has seen success introducing a notion of natural wine to underexposed export markets. Will it fly in Paris, where more radical natural wine is abundant and cheap?
Since 2012, the roving wine fair series - which produces events in seven cities, including New York, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Berlin - has seen success helping introduce a notion of natural wine to export markets where natural wine is somewhat scarce. In conversation, Legeron readily notes that RAW Wine is “not a natural wine event,”1 but this hasn’t stopped her fair series from becoming, for much of the Anglophone market, the most highly visible illustration of booming global interest in natural wine.
Paradoxically, for Legeron, a Cognac native who goes by the sobriquet “That Crazy French Woman,” organizing a RAW Wine fair in the French capital represents a step onto uncertain new terrain.
Paris differs from previous RAW Wine fair locations in that natural wine produced to a very radical standard remains abundant and relatively inexpensive here. The city is the ground zero of the natural wine movement, in a nation where the latter remains strongly tied to a heritage of peasant agriculture.
I found myself wondering how RAW Wine will fly here. Will French natural winemakers pay a significant table fee2 to exhibit wine in Paris, where most are already well-represented? What will Parisians, accustomed to salon entry fees of 7€-12€, make of the RAW Wine Paris’ 45€ per day general public entry fee? (It’s 15€ for wine trade.) Will the city’s natural wine trade - which comprises its most influential wine buyers - turn out for a salon that permits estates to present wines with up to 70mg/L of sulfites at final analysis?
The circumstances seem to call for a new approach. So I reached out to Legeron, who kindly agreed to chat about the unique challenges - and the unique opportunities - of bringing RAW Wine to the City of Light.
Subscribers can read the FULL INTERVIEW with ISABELLE LEGERON MW.
A CULTURAL DIVIDE
Is Isabelle Legeron MW natural wine's most dynamic international advocate, a pragmatist who prioritizes mass agricultural improvement over mandarin vinification disagreements?
Or is Legeron natural wine's Manchurian candidate, an ostensible leader in the field operating in close concert with estates seeking to obscure a strict definition of natural wine for the sake of maximum profit?
In the natural wine community, it’s an active debate.
“I’m sure there are people who are like, ‘RAW Wine, it’s all very commercial,’” acknowledges Legeron. “But that kind of conversation keeps the scene really small. If it was dependent on these kind of debates, natural wine wouldn’t be where it’s at nowadays.”
Small is not what Legeron is about. Her 2019 New York event, which she cites as the largest ever before COVID, draw over 3300 visitors over two days. This year she and her team will produce and promote seven events in as many different cities. But with the rapid growth of her business has come allegations of profiteering.
Paris-based US wine importer Joshua Eubank of Percy Selections considers RAW Wine’s business practices “shameless.” He notes that public entry to Brumaire, a salon he organizes occasionally with collaborators in Oakland, California, was just $30 at the last edition in 2020.
“At that price, we could still waive 100% of stand fees for all the winegrowers traveling from outside California,” he says, noting that Brumaire also paid for winemakers’ lodging, a winemaker dinner, free margaritas, and a mariachi band.
Legeron counters such criticism by noting that she’s one of few figures in the natural wine world whose primary revenue stream is organizing wine fairs.
“I have to look at this as more of a business,” she says. “I think I’m probably the only [fair organizer] with a full-time team, engaged on a yearly basis. So I have to create fairs of a certain size. It’s not just a part time job where I do it two days a week and it happens once a year and that’s it.”
Behind much criticism of RAW Wine’s business model lies a cultural divide.
For Eubank and other wine professionals who spend much of the year in European nations with peasant winemaking traditions, non-profit natural wine salons - organized and staffed by vignerons and volunteers - are a routine occurrence. It can’t help seeming strange when the same ritual is transposed to London, New York, and Miami, with budgets big enough for full-time staff and PR teams.
French wine journalist and publisher Antonin Iommi-Amunategui, who organizes yearly editions of his Sous Les Paves, La Vigne natural wine salon in Paris and Lyon, might be considered Legeron’s nearest French counterpart. But he, too, finds aspects of Legeron’s approach questionable.
“The entry fee bothers me a bit,” he says, referring to RAW Wine Paris’ 45€ per day general public tickets. “It encourages a somewhat elitist vision of natural wine, which is something I’ve been fighting against for a very long time. I think the French public won't go for such a high price, anyway.”
Conversely, for many wine professionals and wine lovers based in the late-capitalist economies of England and North America, where peasant agricultural tradition has long been eradicated, RAW Wine’s pricing model doesn’t seem weird at all. It’s just how business is done.
“Compared to salons abroad, RAW Wine is more expensive, for sure,” says Natalie Hekmat, owner of Los Angeles natural wine bar Voodoo Vin. “Do I still support the natural winemakers I know who participate? Yes. Do I meet new winemakers there who are natural in both the vineyard and the cellar? Definitely.”
For Caleb Leisure, a radical California natural winemaker who credits Legeron and RAW Wine with helping his career early on, the price for a stand at the fair is just about worth it.
“What with travel costs, accommodation, and nearly $1000 bucks for a table [for RAW fairs in the USA], it just doesn't make much sense for small, cash-strapped producers. And there's not much business sense in it for me, since I’m not hunting distribution,” he says. “But I do plan to attend at least one RAW event a year, if only to keep a presence in that community of organizers and producers.”
A TOUGH MARKET
Asked what RAW Wine can bring to a Paris already soaked in French natural wine, Legeron points to her fair’s deep roster of estates from outside France. No less than one-hundred estates from outside France will exhibit at RAW Wine Paris.
“I regularly send a survey about which cities to do next, and Paris was overwhelmingly the place the winegrowers wanted to come,” she says.
This reflects France’s influence in setting natural wine trends worldwide, as well as the abiding soft power of the French capital. But RAW Wine’s more conservative organic and biodynamic exhibitors might be in for a lukewarm reception from Paris’ natural wine community. It’s the oldest, most experienced, and cliquey of them all, dating back almost forty years, to quixotic aesthetes like François Morel and Bernard Pontonnier, who made Belleville a tiny enclave for vins sans soufre back in the mid-1980s.
“Natural wine is distinguished by the refusal of all additives from the vineyard until the end of vinification, save potentially a small dose of sulfites in the range of 10-20mg/L at bottling,” notes François Morel, who remains active in Paris wine circles. “The difference [between natural wine and organic wine and biodynamic wine] is real and concrete, whatever one might think of it, and there is no serious reason to maintain confusion about it - except for marketing purposes!”
Younger generations of natural wine buyers in the city have only grown more radical.
“I wouldn't call it natural wine if they tolerate up to 70 mg/L of sulfites at analysis. Even 30mg/L is too much,” says east Paris wine retailer and restaurateur Oliver Lomeli, who maintains two wine bars and a wine shop, all called Chambre Noire and specializing in radical, zero-zero natural wine. “I don't think RAW Wine targets buyers or winemakers with our philosophy. It’s not a place where I can find winemakers I’m interested in.”
For her part, Legeron considers radicalism about sulfite addition a distraction from environmental issues and farming standards.
“We have to get to as many consumers as possible,” she says. “We have to change the way they drink wine. They have to start thinking about the environment when they consume a glass of wine.”
On the surface, it’s an uncontroversial statement. But within it, I think, lies another cultural divide awaiting Legeron and RAW Wine in Paris.
Many winemakers from the USA and from the emerging wine cultures of Europe (as well as many winemakers in France) view natural wine’s popularity as a ripe opportunity to reach ever more consumers: as many as possible.
But there remains within French paysan natural wine culture a significant anti-capitalist wing that doesn’t necessarily share the same goal, or consider it worth compromising a strict standard of natural wine.
As Alsace vigneron Patrick Meyer drily remarked back in December, when I happened to mention the ubiquity, in the USA nowadays, of inexpensive natural wines from a certain Alsace négociant agency: “At some point, us working in natural wine, when we’re confronted with greater and greater demand, we have to learn to say no.”
NATURAL WINE COMMERCE
If RAW Wine sometimes attracts particular scorn from natural wine veterans, it’s probably because Legeron does more or less overtly what everyone else in the natural wine business - the majority of vignerons, importers, retailers, and so on - does covertly: she seeks to maximize profitable commerce in natural wine and natural-ish wine alike.
A fully nativized longtime resident of Britain, Legeron dispenses with the reflexive, coy anti-commercial posture (unanswered inquiries, disdain for social media, mistrust of wealth) practiced by many French natural vignerons and much of the distribution chain in France, right down to servers at Le Châteaubriand. Au contraire: Legeron’s biography on RAW Wine’s website includes her work as founder of “Bacchanalia, a private members wine club and investment portfolio for a select group of management consultants, lawyers, bankers and energy professionals in the City.”
How you feel about RAW Wine Paris may depend on whether you consider such ventures a merit or a demerit, when it comes to natural wine.
Where Legeron’s forthright commercialism falters - as in the RAW Wine website’s clunky database of producers and wines - it appears to be unintentional. She genuinely wants everyone involved in her fairs to make more money more efficiently.
“It’s true that it’s a big budget, compared to local salons. And the event does permit easy access for natural wine trend-surfers,” acknowledges Alsace-Lorraine natural wine vigneron-négociant Farid Yahimi of Sons of Wine, who vinifies without sulfite addition and who will be exhibiting at RAW Wine Paris. “But I find the work of the RAW team formidable and consistent. It offers visibility to distributors and importers, and we can’t dissociate exports from French natural wine. The survival of the pioneers of this movement depended principally on export to Japan and the USA.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Export markets remains critical to the project of natural wine in France. Influential winemakers like the Beaujolais’ Julie Balagny and the Roussillon’s Tom Lubbe profess to selling over 90% of their wines abroad. But many other radical French natural vignerons today tend to downplay the importance of export when dealing with clients and colleagues within France; the left hand generally claims to be unconcerned about what the right hand is doing.
It is in light of this dynamic that RAW Wine’s arrival in Paris could be a watershed moment. For Parisian natural wine fans willing to trek to Malakoff, it will offer a glimpse of how natural wine is being sold in the rest of the world.
“We’ve expanded the debate, and made it less about who adds 10mg/L of sulfites before bottling, or on the juice, all that,” says Legeron. “That doesn’t serve the bigger picture.”
For Legeron and her roster of mostly non-French estates, natural and natural-ish alike, the fair represents a wager that Paris is ready for natural wine to become bigger than France - perhaps even bigger than the accepted boundaries of natural wine itself.
RAW Wine Paris will take place March 12th and 13th at Espace Clacquesin, 18 Av. du Maréchal Leclerc, 92240 MALAKOFF.
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My full interview with Isabelle Legeron MW on bringing RAW Wine to Paris.
A handy calendar of Spring 2023 Natural Wine Salons.
A 2020 Zoom discussion organized by wine commentator Robert Joseph on the subject of natural wine certification, during which Isabelle Legeron underlines the fact that RAW Wine is not a natural wine event.
My report on Brumaire 2019.
RAW Wine’s website and marketing copy traffic heavily in the phrase “natural wine,” but the fair’s charter permits certain forms of filtration and sulfite levels significantly higher - 70mg/L - than those found in actual natural wines, of which the lightly sulfited ones tend to max out between 20-30mg/L at final analysis.
RAW Wine Paris’ 650€ stand fee is roughly in line with other fairs of similar size within Paris. But, as someone pointed out, RAW Wine Paris will actually occur in Malakoff, a nearby suburb where the cost of event space is presumably somewhat cheaper.