Rebel Alliance: Jenny & Olivier

Rebel Alliance: Jenny & Olivier

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Rebel Alliance: Jenny & Olivier

The Waves goes underground with friends and fellow rule-breakers Jenny Lefcourt and Olivier Cousin, who helped spark the global natural wine movement’s first wave.

BY JOSH DAUBE
PHOTO BY ANDY COMER

Lately everyone seems to be asking: How did natural wine go from an obscure fad to a worldwide revolution? The truth is that before industrial agriculture intervened with artificial yeasts, pesticides, and chemical additives, all wine was made naturally. As such, natural wine wasn’t invented in the 20th century: it was re-born. This re-birth is often summarized in just two names: Jules Chauvet and Marcel Lapierre. While these winemaking titans from France’s Beaujolais region—located in Eastern France—are no doubt important dramatis vitae to the natural wine movement’s beginnings, neither Frenchman lived to see the full scope of its global turn.

From roughly the late 1980s to the 2000s, natural wine’s unofficial command center shifted away from Beaujolais, moving north-west to the Loire Valley’s fertile vineyards. It was from the Loire region that the gospel of natural winemaking truly went global, spreading first to the rest of Europe, and then to Japan, New York, and beyond. Many individuals helped spread the good word, but no single role was as important as the influence of the Loire River. Running from the Ardèche region in southeastern France westward to the Atlantic Ocean, the Loire River gives its surrounding valleys an unrivaled international gateway. Through this maritime portal, French goods and ideas have, for centuries, flowed outwards from the country’s heartland, to influence the rest of the world.

The history of Loire natural wine, and its global exportation, has many layers. At the heart of its American chapter lies the story of a friendship, formed in the early 2000s between two modern legends in the natural wine pantheon. Jenny Lefcourt is the founder and CEO of landmark importerJenny & François Selections, a company that’s heralded—alongsideLouis/Dressner Selections—as spearheading the first wave of American natural wine imports. Her partner in crime is Olivier Cousin, winemaker at the eponymous Domaine Cousin-Leduc in the Loire Valleyappellation of Anjou, a region renowned for making delicious wines with outspoken and uncompromising ethics. Since first meeting in 2000, their collaboration as friends and business partners has produced effects nothing short of revolutionary in the natural wine community. While Olivier has been making wine since 1987—all the while galvanizing a like-minded community of natural producers—his work both as a winemaker and natural wine activist took on new, international significance only after working alongside Jenny.

Recently, The Waves team traveled with Jenny to Olivier’s home in the Loire, to learn more about how they worked together to help nurture the natural wine movement from seed to harvest.

In Martigné-Briand, a feast is being prepared. Silverware is laid out, oysters are shucked, a wheel of Tomme is shaved, fresh pappardelle is boiled, and a venison ragú—which will soon be served to squeals of delight—simmers in a huge cauldron. The forelegs of the meal’s unlucky centerpiece are passed around our table and, as I take the small, furry hooves in my hands, I feel something like awe. “He was eating in the vines this morning,” Olivier reveals. He speaks a soft, matter-of-fact French, which Jenny translates for the sake of her American guests, laughing often and elaborating occasionally. Olivier uses his weathered hands to indicate the deer’s height, before turning back to the bubbling ragú. Around the table, the American guests cautiously nibble the hors d’oeuvres, but the locals wait knowingly. Once everyone is seated, they beckon us all to link hands. A cry goes up, “Bon! A! Pe! Tit!” The locals laugh at our confusion. Everyone starts to dig in. “Since meeting Olivier, we now chant ‘Bon Appetit’ before dinner at my house,” Jenny laughs.

"For me, the Loire was the beginning of everything. The love of community, and the love of sharing food and wine … Coming from New York where everyone is so segmented—it’s such a different lifestyle and it blew my mind. Just the fact that you can live this way, if you choose." -Jenny Lefcourt

Olivier raises a toast. Everything on the table, from the pasta to the wine, was made by someone present, or a friend. Meanwhile, I’ve just arrived from New York (land of supermarket produce and takeout containers), and am stunned when I contemplate the deeply holistic nature of tonight’s table d’hote. As it turns out, Jenny invited us all to Olivier’s house because it was this exact experience of hyper-local paysan living that first inspired her career change over 20 years ago. “For me, the Loire was the beginning of everything,” admits Jenny. “The love of community, and the love of sharing food and wine … Coming from New York where everyone is so segmented, so separate—it’s such a different lifestyle and it blew my mind. Just the fact that youcan live this way, if you choose.”

In the late 1990s, Jenny was living in Paris. She had just finished her PhD in French Literature at Harvard, and was contemplating her next move. For a grad student at that time, a teaching position might require relocating to a remote Midwestern campus, “and those were the good jobs!” she exclaims. As an affable and literary ex-pat, she had found an exciting scene brewing in the Parisian bistros and wine bars.

At the time, disgusted by the heavy-handed, industrial methods which had dominated winemaking since the 1980s, intrepid French vignerons and restaurateurs had begun to gravitate towards alternatives. Fueled by the writings of biodynamics godfather Rudolf Steiner, the research pioneered by minimal intervention oenologist Jules Chauvet, and the bottles produced by the Beaujolais “Gang of Four,” Jura natural legend Pierre Overnoy, and Loire Valley pioneers like Theirry Puzelat, Clos Roche Blanche, and Catherine and Pierre Breton, an informal natural wine canon began to take shape. In Paris, Jenny noticed a number of ideological threads holding these winemakers and their drinkers together: an aversion to pesticides, excessive sulfur, and manipulative cellar tactics. Most apparent was that all the wines were fermented with native yeasts, contra the industrialized standard of artificially inoculating the wine must to begin fermentation. These days, Jenny considers native yeast fermentation the bare minimum criteria for a natural wine—which is to say, a wine that she’d import.

These days, Jenny considers native yeast fermentation the bare minimum criteria for a natural wine—which is to say, a wine that she’d import.

Photo by George Padilla.

While natural wine was becoming increasingly common in 1990s Paris, the movement had not yet broken stateside. Forsaking academia, Jenny made it her mission to try and sell the bottles she loved in her native home of New York City. To bring the wines from Paris, Jenny would schlep the bottles in her carry-on baggage with then-husband François Ecot (Jenny bought out his ownership in 2008, after their divorce).

That first line-up of Jenny & François wines is a now-legendary list of mostly Loire producers such as Domaine Mosse, Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Souhaut and, of course, Olivier Cousin. And while those names might get a lot of attention from sommeliers, buyers, and drinkers today, in the early 2000s Jenny was struggling to make ends meet. “The first ten years, nobody cared about natural wine,” she recalls. “It was very hard and happened little by little by little—talking, explaining, trying to find folks who had the same taste as us. I was constantly crashing on my brother’s couch.” A faraway look comes into Jenny’s eyes, “I remember knocking … just knocking …” She laughs off the memory.

Over the course of the next decade, Jenny began to find allies. “There was Thierry Bruno, who was a wine rep at Polaner. He sent me and François to meet someone named Arnaud Erhart, who was opening a restaurant in Red Hook," she recalls. "That restaurant was 360, and it became the first natural wine bar in New York City. So after my brother’s couch, that became where I’d stay: Arnaud’s couch.” While 360 only lasted a few years, it had an outsize impact on the shape of natural wine to come. “Shortly after I met Arnaud, we invited him and Jorge [Riera, wine director at Frenchette and Le Rock], along with the guys from the Bao restaurants, we invited them all to France in 2003, to visit Domaine Mosse, Vins Conté, Domaine du Moulin [Hervé Villemade], and Olivier Cousin,” says Jenny. “They had gotten into those types of wines with Jonathan Nossiter at Balthazar, but it wasn’t quite ‘natural wine’ at Balthazar, it was just like ‘independent, good producers.’ But then we brought them all to France, where they met Olivier … That was really the beginning of the revolution in New York.”

Olivier started making wine as Domaine Cousin-Leduc in 1987 when he inherited his family’s Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, and Chenin Blanc vineyards. Following his grandfather’s approach, he worked the land by plowing rows of gnarled vines with draft horses, and using zero chemical interventions in either vineyard or cellar. Like Olivier himself, the wines make no apologies for their rustic origins. While he technically retired from winemaking in 2012, Olivier continues to farm about two hectares of Cabernet Franc, his favorite grape, from which he makes just two cuveés, Pûr Breton and Le Cousin. Both speak in crystal-clear terms about the land from which they come and the man who makes them, as if they were one and the same organism.

"That first line-up of Jenny & François wines is a now-legendary list of mostly Loire producers such as Domaine Mosse, Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Souhaut, and Olivier Cousin. And while those names might get a lot of attention today, in the early 2000s Jenny was struggling to make ends meet."

Olivier’s life is inseparable from his home, his vines, his horses—in a word, his terroir. But, far from remaining cloistered on his property, what really interests Olivier—as he reps Martigné-Briand—is that his work at the winery enables him to connect with a broader, more international community; producing wine has enabled Olivier to make friends far beyond the bounds of his farm. Jenny summed up the relationship between Olivier’s hyper-local identity and his passion for internationalism by saying that, “Olivier is defending the history and traditions of a place, but only as a means with which to connect to the world… Olivier says ‘here’s what I have to give—it comes from my home and my land, and I want to share it with everyone.’”

Following his grandfather’s approach, Olivier Cousin works his land by plowing with draft horses. Photo by George Padilla.

Speaking with Olivier himself, it’s clear that he’s more passionate about wine’s human context than in analyzing its aesthetics—and much less still, in making money. “Wine is beautiful because you make it with friends,” he notes. “The real story is who made it, who harvested it, and who transported it.” Money, for Olivier, seems to mostly be an inconvenient byproduct.

“What do we do with the money we make? We raise horses, we educate young people who want to work. We have no money in the bank—we spend it, we invest it,” he shares. It’s Olivier’s empathy that Jenny admires, “Olivier has such a big heart. For him, it’s never about money or fame … or even wine. It’s about people and animals. Everything he does is for everyone else.” While Jenny was in no position to help Olivier when they first met, once she became his importer, she made it her mission to help him accomplish his goals. “If he needs money up front, he gets it. He’s like, ‘Hey Jenny … I want to sail around the world.’ And then he works with all these young producers and mentors them. It means so much to me to be a part of that. It’s the roots of what we do.”

Over the last 35 years, Olivier’s altruistic philosophy has made him a catalyst for the natural wine movement at large. His domaine has been an incubator, raising some of the Loire’s brightest young stars. Besides winemaking son Baptiste Cousin (literally raised at the Domaine), Olivier counts among former employees François St. Lo, Alexandre Bain, Sylvain Martinez, and Sebastien Riffault. Olivier inspired many of them, along with countless others, to adopt practices like plowing with draft horses. Olivier credits working with horses to his grandfather and, ever since he took charge, Olivier has spread the gospel of horse-plowing. He notes the many positive impacts that horses can have on a vineyard’s ecosystem: horses produce natural fertilizer, and propagate microorganisms in their hooves, all while compacting the soil between vines less than a tractor would. Less compaction allows earthworms to travel freely and aerates the soil. So while horse plowing was virtually non-existent in the 1980s, it is now a common practice for natural winemakers from California to Croatia (to be fair, Olivier is not the only reason for the resurgence of horses in vineyards—Loire biodynamic gurus Nicolas Joly and Mark Angeli deserve credit as well).

Photos by George Padilla.

Olivier Cousin started making wine as Domaine Cousin-Leduc in 1987 when he inherited his family’s Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, and Chenin Blanc vineyards. He uses zero chemical interventions in either vineyard or cellar.

Beyond his influence on winemaking methods, Olivier’s role as an anchor in the natural wine community is even more profound. Even at our relatively small dinner, a number of winemakers (Jura cool kids Etienne Thiebaud and Morgane Turlier, as well as Lazio legends Le Coste) showed up to hang and eat pasta, with bottles in tow. Welcoming guests is clearly the norm for Olivier and his wife Claire. Jenny notes that, “their door is always open.” It’s not surprising, then, that he has become a symbol of activism against the injustices of corporate winemaking, and a rallying point for the cause of small farmers and natural winemaking. Despite the quality of his wines, Olivier’s true legacy is perhaps as a revolutionary vanguard for the natural wine movement.

If you look at a recent wine label from Domaine Cousin-Leduc, you’ll notice that under Olivier’s name it reads simply “paysan Angevin,” meaning, “farmer from Anjou.” In the opposite corner, the label bears a strange ledger, “vin d’ici,” or, “wine from here.” Cryptic much? Before 2005, Olivier had used the common geographic nomenclature of the AOC system, “Appellation d’Anjou Contrôllée.” Yet, the result of a 2014 court case stripped his right to represent himself with the word “Anjou”—the region of his life’s work and his ancestral homeland. It took years of legal battles to designate that tiny difference in wording, from “Anjou” to “Angevin.” And while the court case was eventually decided against Olivier, his symbolic victory was a watershed moment for natural wine as a whole.

What was at stake when Olivier Cousin first went before a judge in 2014? In order for a Loire winemaker to attribute his/her bottles to a specific locale (an appellation), the individual must pay the InterLoire—the Loire wine lobby—a tax, known by the absurd name “Cotisation Volontaire Obligatoire” (Voluntary Compulsory Contribution). Olivier paid this tax for 25 years, before deciding it was a waste of money: InterLoire uses their funds to subsidize mass-produced, industrial wines, and then lobbies supermarkets to stock them. For a small paysan farmer working naturally, InterLoire affiliation not only confers zero benefits, but it actively funds the region’s worst offenders of environmental degradation, agricultural exploitation, and consumer manipulation. Olivier has fought against such practices his whole life.

At the trial, he told Decanter reporter Jim Budd, “I stopped because the AOC is for industrial wines as the rules permit everything: weed killers, huge yields, additives, etc.” The final straw was in 2003, when the AOC allowed winemakers to acidify (artificially lower a wine must’s pH with tartaric or malic acid) and chaptalize (adding sugar to a wine must to raise alcohol levels) their wines.

If you look at a recent wine label from Domaine Cousin-Leduc, you’ll notice that under Olivier’s name it reads simply “paysan Angevin,” meaning, “farmer from Anjou.”

Ultimately, it’s not illegal to discontinue paying your “Voluntary Compulsory Contribution”—although InterLoire doesn’t make it easy. It took Olivier from 1992 to 2005 to fully break free, after fighting successive lawsuits from appellation lawyers. Those lawsuits came because once a winemaker does stop paying the AOC, InterLoire bars the producer from listing the geographic origins or grape varietal on a label—instead, the winemaker must simply refer to the wine as a “Vin de France” or a “Vin de Table.”

The irony of the appellation system is immense and tragic. It’s often chemically-altered, homogenous swill that is deemed representative of local terroir. Meanwhile, multi-generational family farms are blacklisted from representation.

Olivier’s crime in 2014? Truthful labeling. After he stopped paying the tax, Olivier took off the AOC designation. However, he referred to one cuvée as Anjou Pûr Breton. Ironically, lawyers for InterLoire cited this as evidence of “misrepresentation.” Olivier could have simply removed the reference to his hometown “Anjou” (and he was eventually forced to do this), but he took the case to court on principle. This was to be Olivier’s last stand. His lawyer, Eric Morain, recalled to Alice Feiring, “We are not trying to prove he is innocent, he is not. Here the argument is about the spirit of the law, not the law itself. We can’t win the case, but we can win a reduced fine.”

As a tiny family farm with little liquid assets, standing up to InterLoire—a well-funded corporate lobbying apparatus—was an incredibly risky move. For his “crimes,” Olivier faced a possible fine of 37,500€, or up to two years imprisonment.

The irony of the appellation system is immense and tragic. It’s now the chemically-altered, homogenous swill that is deemed representative of local terroir.

The court case that followed was a pivotal moment in natural wine’s history. Jenny began a petition of support, and dozens of winemakers, importers, and journalists on Olivier's side showed up to the courthouse. The list of Olivier’s defenders is long and storied (essentially a who’s who of natural wine), and includes, of course, both Jenny and François, as well as Jean-Pierre Robinot, Richard Leroy, Didier Barrouillet, Sylvie Augereau, and many more. The protest atmosphere (one banner read “AOC: Acquitter Olivier Cousin”) was fueled by barrels of Olivier’s wine, brought by horse-drawn wagons to the steps of the courthouse. Even inside the court, Olivier had allies, “I knew the clerk, she was my friend. The appellation lawyers were shocked, but I told them, ‘but of course—this is my hometown!’” The court ruled Olivier “guilty without conviction,” and he was ordered to pay a fine: a single Euro.

Labeling natural wine as “Vin de France” to skirt appellation authorities is nothing new. What might have been the very first modern natural wine estate in the Loire was an unnamed property owned by siblings Anne, Joseph, and Françoise Hacquet; they had been making wine without sulfites since at least 1954. They notably labeled their bottles with no text, imagery, or branding whatsoever, save for a giant “Vin de Table” (the historic term which later became Vin de France) designation on the front.

The French natural wine community has long been aware of the AOC system’s absurdity. However, as small farmers, they felt helpless to battle the InterLoire: their opponent was too powerful, and there was too much to lose. Jenny says about Olivier’s case, “He was the sacrificial lamb. Nobody wanted to speak out against InterLoire because they feared the consequences. Olivier doesn’t care about money, so he had nothing to lose. The court case was for everyone.”

What might have been the very first modern natural wine estate in the Loire labeled their bottles with no text, imagery, or branding whatsoever, save for "Vin de Table," the historic term which later became "Vin de France." Photo by Derek Tolson.

For small producers, losing AOC status once seemed like the kiss of death: your appellation was your main marketing tool, a byword which would inform foreign audiences on what to expect when they popped the cork. But once the appellation system became bastardized by industry, that same designation became, at best, misleading and, at worst, a danger to genuine expressions of terroir.

In staging his high-profile revolt, Olivier shed light on the AOC system’s hypocrisy. Furthermore, in garnering support from international importers like Jenny & François, Olivier demonstrated that a wine humbly labeled Vin de Table could be financially viable as an export.

As Jenny has said, speaking with the podcast TBD in 2021, “I think what’s happened [since Olivier’s case] is that some [producers] are making the choice to leave the appellation, not fight to stay in it because it doesn’t actually matter to them any more—they’re recognized for their own name and the good wine they make. We [as importers] can all tell the story of their terroir, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be written on the bottle.

Context is crucial, and Jenny’s advocacy for Olivier—and natural wine at large—makes a world of difference. Now the wines of the tiny Domaine Cousin-Leduc sell out immediately, year after year. Those sales should cover Olivier’s 1€ court fine—and hopefully many more besides.

Olivier and Jenny have inspired a generation of winemakers to work honestly, humanely, and naturally, and to not sacrifice this principled style of winemaking for AOC status. As a result, when you walk into any decent wine shop nowadays (or log onto our site), you’ll find scores of Vin de France wines—even on the top shelf (or our Rare Bottle Room).

While the battle for true transparency in wine is ongoing, it’s clear that the first blow has been struck. Olivier’s lawyer Eric Morain has said, “The wine of France is the only food product that doesn’t have to list ingredients. Even mineral water has to have ingredients. If the five big chateaus had to list what they put in, this could threaten the whole wine establishment.” Threatening the big chateaus, and the agro-industrial wine establishment at large, seems to be exactly what Jenny and Olivier have set out to do together.

Wrapping up our time together, Olivier spoke in English for the first and only time that evening. With a wry smile, he concluded simply, “Small is beautiful.”

Dinner at Olivier's house. Photo by George Padilla.

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