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Zev Rovine on the State of the Natural Wine Market

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When it came to New York, it used to be that natural wine was available for purchase in Red Hook, on Chambers Street, and also?well, that was about it. But from small beginnings the category has surged in recent years in the New York marketplace. Natural wines of one sort or another are now a common sight, not just on the edges of Brooklyn, but even in the august Manhattan institutions of big name chefs. Will the growth of natural wines continue to surge? Or will the enthusiasm taper off? Eater contacted Zev Rovine, a wine importer with a business built on a portfolio of natural wines to discuss whether the wines will have staying power in the marketplace and on restaurant lists.

Is natural wine a trend or is it here to stay?
People definitely do tend to say that. Especially people who are not into natural wine, they seem to see it kind of like how Brand Australia came and went — big growth and then a bust. I don't know if you remember that quote from Joe Dressner, where he said something like, "There are enough of us people around to keep this little thing going," because I do think it is still a little thing. When you think of it in terms of volume, it is fundamentally different than the Brand Australia boom because there isn't that much volume of natural wine. And I think that there are enough people who are into it that it could be a lasting thing. If you spend time in Europe visiting producers, they don't consider this something that they plan on doing for a little while. This is the way that they make wine.

They are not going to, like, all of sudden start changing what they do because it falls out of fashion. I think the foundation of it is something that is very sustainable. The foundation of it goes back to a historical way of making wine before the 1960s and 70s and the herbicides and pesticides. People can talk about sulphur all day long, but the basis of natural wine is really organic growing. And I think that that is a pretty good idea, and that enough people are into it that I think it will be lasting.

Back to trends again, I do think some things trend in and out of natural wine. I see a lot less carbonic maceration now than I did even three years ago. If you were going to call out a trend that is unsustainable, I think the attraction to carbonic maceration may be out of fashion now.

Do you see more producers involved with natural wine that you did three years ago?
Oh yeah. In terms of people in conversion to working like this, I see new producers all the time. One of things about natural wine is that there haven't been that many producers, and there are a whole bunch of importers. Most of it is grabbed up. A lot of the people that you can get these days are new producers. I run into new producers all the time. That's kind of the only way to pick up new natural wines. There are all sorts of regions that offer people the chance to start new domaines. Regions where it's not that expensive to start a small winery, like the Roussillon. A lot of these people come from cities, not from farmer backgrounds. They want to do things by hand. But the primary motivation is to make the highest quality wine possible. They do a lot of things that cost a lot more money, like not using herbicides and pesticides. There are a lot more labor costs involved. The primary reason is to get the best quality fruit. They aren't doing it to make it easier on themselves.

It's a big enough movement now that factions have come out of it. A lot of the strict no-sulphur people consider that that is what natural wine is. You see a lot of the people who add a little sulphur who are natural, they are not so into the no-sulphur stuff. You see Italians taking a much different approach than the French do. And what is happening in Spain. And California. It is hard to sum up natural wine into one thing. People conceive of it as one thing, but that is just a matter of exposure. Natural wine in the American market is still less well-understood in the details of how different people are working. Here you see a lot people opening restaurants and they are intrigued by natural wine because they've never tasted wines that taste like that before, but they are really just getting started with it.

So what does the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the rest of the boroughs map look like in terms of natural wine?
Certainly Brooklyn has the reputation for being a great natural wine market, and it certainly is. But it is also hard to classify Brooklyn that way, in general terms. 95 percent of the places in Brooklyn still don't serve natural wine. Yet, I see more and more places in Manhattan, and more and more high end places that are starting to serve natural wine. I was at Carbone recently, and I was able to find natural wine there, even though that is not their primary thing. It seems like most high end places now have a handful of natural wines, whether they know it or not. The thing that I see now more than anything is that instead of restaurants changing their lists to be more natural, I see places that are opening starting off with more natural wines. And I see that in Manhattan as well as Brooklyn. But there is no doubt that the Upper East and Upper West Side are more difficult, and certainly I don't sell any wine in Midtown.

Do you find that natural wine competes better at the under $50 a bottle wholesale level?
There is almost no natural wine that is that expensive, outside of Rougeard and top Burgundy stuff. I think where natural wine is super strong is at the $20 wholesale level, because that is even expensive for natural wine. Most of the natural wine I buy is five or six Euros a bottle. When you get into the better stuff, it is only eight, nine or 10 Euros and that translates into $20 wholesale or $60 on a restaurant list. I really don't think that you see a lot of conventional wine that is nearly as interesting for that price. I don't think you get that much conventional wine at $18 that is at least compelling, but that is the middle and upper end of our price range.

What do you think the level of growth has been for natural wine in the New York market?
From 2009 to 2012 our total sales grew by a factor of 10 times. What was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for us as a company is now in the millions. And New York accounts for 70 percent of that. But it is really about the producers. There are 400 natural wine producers in France and that is growing. Yet it doesn't take that many cases to sell out of what we get from a specific winery, because they individually don't make a lot of wine. I see natural wine as in a way protected by how diversified it is. It just doesn't take that many people to sell out of what we can get from a certain winery. We have Robinot for example, who is a six hectare producer. All I need to do is get four placements to sell those bottles. Only four wine buyers have to think that that wine is cool and we keep him alive doing what he does every year.
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