Marketplace pricing in the natural wine market

The internet’s greatest accomplishment is the flattening of the economic landscape, making the concept of a global local an economic reality for the artisanal maker market.

In the wine world this has empowered the smallest producer to build global markets of interest for their wines.

True for tiny, under the radar, producers like Christian Ducroux ,who I’ve never met, though buy my allocation every year. True for the most talented of the west coast natural winemakers who have fostered communities across the world with astoundingly small productions. Many whom I consider friends.

I’ve blogged about this often, and my passion for this approach, this community and the power of the web to tie this together is a common meme for me.

But it’s the cost plus pricing of the natural wine market and the resulting marketplace effect that has been getting my attention lately.

As a primer, all product pricing exists along the continuum of cost plus (what is costs to produce and what you need to live) and market driven (what the market is willing to pay at a premium).

The natural order of things is that prices go up as brands grow and value is more and more implied. People charge what they can. Think Porsche, Lululemon and of course the wines of Gannevat.

But more and more I find myself asking at tastings with small natural winemakers, Why don’t you charge more?

Natural wine is by definition an unscalable process.

Smaller plots, smaller yields and manual processes are the rule. And in the new world where land and grapes are both expensive, this is exacerbated. It’s an artisanal and resource intensive activity at its core

So what’s going on?

From an economic perspective of course this is counterintuitive.

Smaller producers with growing brands should create just the opposite. This should be creating allocations and a replaying of the Napa cult trends from the 90s.

Certainly some of the prices are creeping upwards and I see the beginning of price hikes in some of the most well known artisanal producers.

I had to step back  to marketplace economics rethought with web dynamics to understand what is going on.

There has been an artisanal revolution in wine. This is unarguable.

People are making wine naturally everywhere. Production per average producer is actually going down as the number of small producers gets larger.

And the quality of the product is increasing as information on best practices is shared and the palettes of the consumers become more sophisticated and demanding.

This is a perfect marketplace storm of supply and demand in the natural wine market.

Large and growing consumer demand on one side. More and more small producers charging just what they have to on the other feeding the supply chain.

The bar for quality, the competition for shelf space and mind share has on an average leveled the pricing.

So interesting.

So fascinating that what has been happening for a decade in the software and services market with open competition is happening in the luxury markets of the wine world

I am just starting to understand this.

Take a walk around your larger artisanal wine shop. Maybe what—2000 different skus across maybe 700 producers from around the world.

It is not a leveled pricing by any means. It’s a broader range with an average defined by the breadth of choices.

At the top end, you have producers like Ambyth and Els Jelipin where enthusiasts like myself put out their dollars to support these extreme and wonderful projects.

You will have the crazy low end of Ducroux and my newest find from Portugal, Filipa Pato selling for $12 a bottle.

And a huge spread in between of styles and prices.

From the garages in Berkeley and coops in Portland.  To impossibly small generational brands hanging onto the sculpted cliffs above the River Sil in Ribeira Sacra.  From the moon shaped spheres crafted out of volcanic stones in the Canary Islands.

From $12 to $80 a bottle.

I’ve know for a decade that there was a change happening in the tastes and ethos of the consuming wine loving public.

And we all know that we are living in the golden age of wine. Choices, diversity, quality, inventiveness and ubiquitous access everywhere. Down the street or online.

What I didn’t realize is that we were setting a marketplace effect in place.

That unfettered supply and demand was creating an open market effect in the most complex and regulated world of the wine and spirits distribution here in the states.

That cultural change made possible by the connecting threads of the web was transforming the economics of the very market itself.

Marketplace economics, community platforms, changing tastes and culture coming together to reshape the wine world.

How often is something this powerful good for everyone involved?

Consumers, producers, importers, distributors and retailers.

This is something we can all raise our glasses to.



Rethinking natural wine as a cultural phenomenon

Natural wine has been a true cultural movement over the last decade.

Epic in my imagination, replete with romance and an expanding cast of interesting and unique players.

It has also been a beacon of sorts, heralding a new approach to winemaking that paralleled a growing consumer ethos about the food they consume and their relationship to the planet itself.

It’s been happening everywhere at once at a dizzying speed.

From early renegades on hillsides from Beaujolais to Arbois. From Etna to the Sierra Foothills. From garages in Berkeley and Portland to the vineyards straddling Kras and Carso.

Some were quiet farmers just doing what felt right. Some like Salvo Foti and Frank Cornelissen were leaders in the truest sense of the word. Some like Sandi Skerk, simply geniuses at their craft.

This is the stuff of mythos.

In the early days, I blogged like crazy about it.

It was a fever of excitement.

Discovering a tiny producer making natural and wonderful Grillo in Marsala was an epiphany ripe for an outpouring of delight.

Some three years ago, for me at least, things changed.  The old school category haters were marginalized and the market had embraced the change.

Natural winemakers were popping up literally everywhere, making better quality and more interesting natural wine.

I grew sanguine, sat back and enjoyed the wine and new friends with more ease than excitement. I held court at tastings but was not as fired up to share.

In the past year though something has been pulling me back in.

There is something fresh going on, something naturally inventive that has taken the early and easy dogma of what is natural, to a new level.

So what’s really the difference?

Put aside that there is way more interesting, more varied and higher quality natural wine from small producers at better prices than every before.

Put aside the rise of the wine micro market where somehow, there is ample market buying power to support the most worthy–be they affordable and accessible from Bow & Arrow or the pricey yet staunchly mind boggling Grenache Blanc from Ambyth.

To me, there are two things happening in parallel, each feeding the other.

First is almost a rewriting of the almanac of winemaking itself.

After a generation of winemakers, many first timers, turning their backs on manipulation and focusing on the vineyard and experimentation, the game has changed.

This has unleashed a furor of creativity of what can be done in a natural environment–without adding sulfur, with a dizzying array of blends, methods, fermentation methods, not to mention the sleuthing out of the most obscure grape varieties and plots of ancient forgotten vines.

This is a renaissance of experimentation made possible by knowledge, by a sharing information. And a new canvas of taste made entirely with natural pigments.

The second is a leap so bear with me.

The new world never really had a true wine culture.

We had crazed geeks (me)—and everyone else. We grew into gaggles of enthusiasts, gathering at shops and restaurants. We had communities, most notably #winelovers, which exploded in size and influence bringing together producers and consumers for the first time.

But something more profound is happening.

Maybe because today, they make wine everywhere. Not just Sonoma or the Santa Ynez Valley—but in Virginia and New Jersey.

People—not geeks like myself—but everyone are tasting where they live and travel.  Local wine itself is at every Green Market across the country.

I remember a bunch of years ago, my friend Fabio from Vino Ambiz in Spain came out with a crazy wine label listing all the things he didn’t do to the wine.

He and hundreds of winemakers just went transparent about how and why they make their juice. The result of this producer driven disclosure has created a new, highly informed generation of wine lovers.

I stopped in at a wildly popular tasting at Chambers Street Wines where Jon Bonne was doing 45-minute speed seminars on the Jura.  Jon’s a great storyteller but he digs deep. He talks about soil and elevation, fermentation and Biodynamics, added sulpher and skin contact.

People simply got it.

People-the market middle itself-have become as educated about wine as they are about their food.

Not completely but it is getting there fast.

To me this is it.

Has natural wine crossed over? Yes and no.

It was a catalyst for this change certainly.

What has resulted is not a religious fervor as we had in the early days but a wine culture that is part of a cultural change generally towards food and wine and life.

One that is based on exposure and knowledge and a new standard of what we like and will support.

I find less people waving a natural wine flag as we did in the beginning.

I find an entire generation on producers and consumers, meeting with a new understanding.

For a long time now the discriminating market has demanded transparency in what we consume. Walk around your Green Market or your local Whole Foods.

The change is that wine is now part of that. It’s acculturation in the best sense of the idea.

As I spread out a dozen bottles this weekend for our holiday dinner, they will be from all over, of every type, many made by first generation winemakers.

All natural. All delicious.

We have the pioneering work of people like Christian Ducroux, Giusto Occhipinti and Frank Cornelissen to thank for this.

A New York Welcome to Isabelle Legeron

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.29.52 AM

I’m completely biased when it comes to discussions about natural wine.

As an approach to winemaking. As a recalibration of taste. As an ethos towards life and the agricultural products we choose to consume

I’m all in.

And I wear my passion on my sleeve.

I luckily wandered into Chambers Street Wine almost a decade ago, and under the tutelage of my friends David Lillie and Jamie Wolff, along with many of the staff there, have embraced the artisanal and natural wine world with abandon.

Chambers Street Wines has made a huge difference to me personally and to the community of wine lovers in New York and across the country by championing these small, unorthodox, often brilliant winemakers from across the globe.

Enter Isabelle Legeron.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.31.22 AMAlmost unknown here, she has done for many in Europe, London especially, what the team at Chambers Street have done here, albeit in a different way.

I got to know her initially online as That Crazy French Women a bunch of years ago.  Then personally when I made my first pilgrimage to her then fledgling RAW Faire in London.

She’s the real deal in the European wine world.

She has been a unstoppable and insistent change agent towards the acceptance of natural wine as a category and as an approach to winemaking.

The first Frenchwomen MW (Master of Wine), she is knowledgeable as they come, as graciously opinionated as can be with a huge heart (and smile) and unlimited chutzpah around her beliefs.

Isabelle is in New York next week for the first time in 20 years.

Chambers Street Wines is hosting a book signing for  “Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally” and a celebratory dinner with the New York wine community.

A quick word on Isabelle’s book.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.33.44 AMShe starts by sharing an epiphany.

While viewing the manicured landscape from her friend’s house in Cornwall one weekend, she realized that the perfect picture was truly an image of agricultural decline, not pristine beauty. An example of the destructive effects of monoculture to the natural health of the land. And our food and wine as well.

Her book is a rallying cry to the core benefits agricultural biodiversity. A dive into the science of the soil and a straight on debunking of a series of myths around the use of sulfur, cultured yeast and additives in wine making.

It drew me in from the start.

You may not agree with it all.  You will absolutely learn a great deal about agriculture and winemaking.

You will also be bowled over by her passion for the topic and her huge heart for the natural winemakers who are changing our view of what constitutes a great wine in today’s world.

And I promise you will be thankful for the section of the book with descriptions of over 100 recommended natural wines to track down and drink.

–>The Chambers Street Wine Natural Wine Events

There is a bit of poetic appropriateness that Chambers Street Wines is the host of her short visit to New York.

If anyone has opened the NY market to the fact that the very best wines in the world are indeed from these producers who embrace natural approaches, it is certainly them.  If anyone has done so for the European market it is certainly Isabelle.

–>A Natural Wine Tasting

Tuesday November 4th. 5-6.30PM at CSW. (No charge.)

This is to get us ready for Isabelle’s arrival.

She will not be here  till next week–but I certainly will be.

The first two commenters on this post get a signed copy of Isabelle’s book as a gift from me. All you need to do is to comment here then show up at any of the events.

–>Book Signing and Natural Wine Tasting

Thursday November 13th. 4:00 PM TO 7:00 PM at CSW.
Isabelle will be leading the tasting and signing books. (No charge except for the books!)

Rumor has it that the producers being poured will be:

Dirty and Rowdy, Werlitsch, Occhipinti,Vinos Ambiz and Clos Fantine.

Be there and look me up if you are downtown.

–>Natural Wine Gala Dinner with the New York Community and Isabelle Legeron

Thursday November 13th. Starts at 7PM at Contra.

Food by Chefs Jeramiah Stone & Fabian Von Hauske, wine hospitality from Wine Director Jorge Riera.

$180, which includes meal, wine, taxes, and gratuity.

The following are being poured:

Costadila Sparkles
, AmByth Grenache Blanc
, Terroir al Limit Terra de Cuques
, Courtois Racines
, Cornelissen Munjebel
, Salinia St. Marigold and Navarre Demi-Sec.

Great crowd and exception wines guaranteed.


I’ll admit that I introduced Isabelle to Jamie Wolff at CSW, so yes I will be at these events for certain.

The natural wine community in New York that spans shop and restaurant owners, the trade, winemakers, writers and bloggers and just lovers of wine means a great deal to me.

There is a joyousness around it that holds a special place in my life.

Hope to see many of you there!


Wine and food—separated at birth

Wine and food are naturally a pair.

As taste mates they play off of and bring out the best in each other.

It’s a damn celebration when they work perfectly together. In New York at least we love our sommeliers as much as the chefs at our favorite haunts.

Yet they live in separate worlds.

Food menus are like concrete poetry for the soul addressing food allergies and ethical eating beliefs all in one:

“A mix of organic baby lettuces lightly tossed with cold-pressed, biodynamic olive oil served with wild caught Icelandic salmon and hand-made gluten-free quinoa pasta.”

The wine, which often makes the dinner, is just well—for most everyone—a grape and place and price.

Even in the hands of the best wine writer—descriptions often feel like a stilted Tweet—smart, code like and holding back not by intent as much as by the narrowness of the language itself.

This post is about raising the issues of transparency and additives, about certificates and categories—about addressing wine from an ingredient perspective as we do with food as one part of its uniqueness.

About how by embracing the foodness quality of wine and market demands for disclosure, we bring into the discussion shared beliefs with the consumer on their own terms, and broaden, not narrow the conversations we can have.

Ground zero for this change are wine labels themselves.

Think about it.

When I pour something from Sandi Skerk in Carso with  friends, I get effusive about the taste, about the pure organic nature of the vineyard, the uniqueness of that grape and the ungrafted nature of the vines. The ineffable balance of climate, soil, grape and the winemaker’s decisions.

I’ll talk about the why of skin contact and whether there is added SO2. And if my guests are vegan, whether something is used in fining or in the vineyard that would concern them.

If I read on a label that this was a Vitovska from Carso, classified Organic, Sulfites Added it tells me almost nothing. It’s a line on a pill bottle not a descriptor that carries the same information on a menu as above.

This is a huge opportunity to create shared language with the consumers and the market.

It’s also a bit of a loaded topic.

Categories like GMOs, Vegan, Gluten free are core to the food we eat at the very best restaurants but devoid from the wine world and the vernacular of talking with winelovers.

It’s interesting as there are no rules here to guide us. We are talking not about what is required on labels (DOC, alcohol %) but about what we can put there if we desire.

This is not at all simple.

A bottle of wine is not a Jersey tomato or a gluten free Bialy with sprouted sunflower seeds. It’s more but it is still an agricultural product.

Understandably people in the trade are nervous about this.

I’m fully aware that what you say implies who you are and what you say, shouts what you aren’t.

If you state that your wine is made from organic grapes, hand harvested with nothing added except nature and your stewardship—what are you saying to your customers?

If you decide as my friend Fabio of Vinos Ambiz did on his new label and lay out his entire philosophy of winemaking, what’s the message?

What if you put on the label what Sophie of Sophie’s Glass says about Renaud Bruyere that he doesn’t make natural wine because of a philosophical belief but because he simply doesn’t need to add all that shit?

What if a few thousand natural winemakers decided to simply list what they add to the juice other than their own decisions—which in many cases in nothing–what will happen?

The times are already changing.

And at least two impacts will ricochet across the wine world over time.

First, by respecting the intelligence of the consumer, people will get smarter by exposure.

Most people will look at facts like some winemakers add sugar to increase the alcohol percent as an aha piece of information. How about that winemakers can legally add any one of over a hundred additives without disclosing anything to the buyer?  The consumer will get smarter faster and the more they understand, the broader the connections and conversations will become.

And second, this will turn on the spotlight brightly on those that don’t decide to disclose what they do add. It will also create clarity around certifications  like Organic that discloses nothing to what is really done or added once the grapes are picked.

This is goodness for everyone.  A gift in the form of a few square inches on the bottle to thousands of small wine producers selling millions dollars of wine to the enthusiast markets.

Wine is more than the sum of its parts certainly. And as food, more than the ingredients that compose it. Even more so of course.

But its overdue time for it to be seen at one level for what it is—an agricultural product–albeit a very special one.

This change is coming whether winemakers choose to drive it now, or forced on them later down the road in the form of government compromise, endless red tape and yet more certifications.

My thought–do it now.

Use it as an opportunity to give the consumer what they want in their language on your own terms.

In this instance, it is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.

The ethos of taste

People taste as much with their hearts and beliefs as they do with their palates.

I’ve been discovering this personally through my blog, around natural wine, for years.

Early on, it was just an attraction to the small producer. The artisan.

I remember hanging out with Bunny and Art Finklestein drinking wine and eating cheese while they were constructing their Howell Mountain vineyard 20+ years ago. Art talking about his gravity feed pump system and me understanding almost nothing.

But it connected these wonderful people, their stewardship of nature, their passion for the environment to the glass I was holding in my hand.

I used artisanal and natural as synonyms, rightly or wrongly.

I spent years thinking about why there was a magic connection between an approach to making wine naturally and a liveliness and effervescence in the glass? Why it was simply more interesting, more terroir forward in the best of bottles?  Why this was palpable and delicious and damn inspiring for the heart, the head and the body?

Natural wine to me was akin to what Alberto Giacometti said about his stone sculptures—that the truest most perfect forms are discovered with the least chisel strokes. Simple in the process, powerful in its impact.

I typified industrialized wines as the opposite, more a painting, created on a blank canvass to a preordained market profile created with additives as paints and a neutralized fruit as the base.

Something has changed for me—maybe moved up an evolutionary notch along with our modern culture itself.

There is a global cultural change around food in general, around wellness and health that has made me look at wine not differently as much as more layered.

Less about an absolute pursuit of natural taste than about understanding the parameters of these tastes, within an ethos of belief about agriculture and even larger—around ecology and our cultural responsibility for it.

This is everywhere in the food world.

Endless quality artisanal brands categorically under an umbrella of designators—local, organic, gmo and gluten free, free range, wild caught.

We expect great taste, within an umbrella of our beliefs. Within our ethos of what we feel comfortable eating and consuming. We as a market support it and empower it to happen with our dollars.

I simply never thought about it with wine until recently.

Ask yourself.

Why does AmByth Estates dry farm in the heat of Paso Robles? Why do winemakers in climates like Virginia work to make wines organically against climatic odds? Why are winemakers, sometime prematurely, just saying no to any added sulfur at all.

I can only answer from my perspective.

This is less about simply returning to the past, to a traditional, pre-industrial agricultural approach. Although that is part of it.

This is about ethos. About stewardship of the land as a responsibility.

About a belief that in nature, informed by science and understanding, we can create great products, be they wine or food. That are delicious to the taste. That connects to our hearts. And that challenges our understandings and intellects.

Not easy but it can be done. And it is being done everywhere. And with a global market to support it.

There are farmers producing just great wine in centuries old ways on land owned for generations. Naturally. Think of Christian Ducroux as a example.

There are new age winemakers who are accomplishing similar things, very differently.

Producers like La Clarine Farms, Broc, Dirty & Rowdy in California who are making astoundingly high quality, truly delicious wine, completely naturally.

Just as these producers believe in nature, I think they also rely on human nature, to provide a market for them.

And it does. The best sell out all the time. The best are happily bought even though the prices can be high.

We are drinking something that connects us to the ethos of the winemaker and the delight—even a celebration—that it can be done and done so well.

So—what’s the change here?

Five or so years ago, I had to search hard for really excellent natural wine. It was a stretch at scale.

Today, there is an endless supply. I can’t possibly taste it all—from Istria and Armenia, Slovenia and the Canary Islands to Greenpoint and the Sacramento foothills.

The reason is that the market and its beliefs, and those of the producers, have coalesced.

And with that have created a new scale of excellence along with an economy to support it.

This is a rare instance when what the market wants is also best for the consumer and the producer both.

And while it is a seriously huge stretch, glass of natural wine in hand, I’m happily believing that it is equally best for the planet as well.