Isabelle Legeron, queen of natural wine

We spoke to the founder of Montreal’s Raw Wine fair, holding its second annual edition this week.

Raw Wine, the world’s largest natural wine fair, is back for its second edition in Montreal. Established in 2012, the event has been widely credited with jumpstarting the popular natural wine movement across the world. This year’s edition will feature some of the world’s best and most sought after producers, giving professionals and the public alike an opportunity to taste wines in the presence of the people who make them.

Raw Wine founder Isabelle Legeron has been an iconic voice in the world of natural wine, having written a book on the subject and, with her fairs, introduced the public to some of the finest winemakers the world has to offer. She spoke to me (from her homebase in London) about the fair, coming to Montreal and the future of natural wine. 

Clay Sandhu: Tell me a little bit about what Raw Wine is and what it’s all about.

Isabelle Legeron: Raw Wine was created to put under one roof some amazing wine producers who work naturally in the vineyard. The aim is really to connect [wine producers, wine professionals and lovers of wine] and also help growers set up their networks, meet more professionals and meet importers. It’s a place of business, but it’s also a place to learn a lot more about [natural wine] and a lot more about organic farming and natural winemaking. 

CS: We’re getting ready for the second edition of Raw Wine Montreal. How was the response to the event last year?

IL: Last year was amazing. We literally sold out a few days before the fair, which was incredible, even though it was only one day. I was really amazed by the response from wine drinkers. Natural wines are very popular in Montreal, more so than in a lot of other cities — there’s a strong, vibrant scene. The response was amazing, which is why we decided in year two to make the fair over two days. There is a lot of wine to taste and what amazed me in Montreal is people really took the time to taste, chat with the growers and were keen to taste as much as possible. 

CS: Montreal is now included alongside cities like London, New York, L.A. and Berlin as some of the world’s most important hubs for natural wine thanks to Raw, but why choose Montreal? Why not a city like Toronto or Vancouver where the natural wine scene is less developed?

IL: I’m actually thinking about Toronto as a next destination because you’re right, it’s important to develop the scene further and not just do it somewhere where there is already a very vibrant offering. The reason we picked Montreal is because there was a really strong demand and I think the members of the public were really keen to meet the growers. Beyond Toronto, I’m not really sure if we would do Vancouver. You need a critical mass — if the growers travel to come to the fair, we need to know that we can put people in front of them. So, there’s a balance to be reached between breaking new ground and being on the [right] path. 

CS: You mentioned that the fair is centred around introducing winemakers to importation agencies and wine buyers, but in Montreal, all winemakers showing their wines must already have representation in Quebec. Do you alter the fair’s model at all to help support the winemakers?

IL: This is a striking point for me: Montreal is the only fair we organize where we have not found a way of showcasing producers who are looking for an agent. We spent two months working on this. I had a huge list of people who wanted to come and I’ve worked with the SAQ, we’ve had a number of conversations trying to find a way but because we are not based in Canada, the paperwork was incredibly complex and we hit a wall. We managed to get a few growers to come via their embassy who did the paperwork for them. It is something I would really love to crack.

CS: Natural wine in the last five years has moved from a cultural niche product to something highly sought after. Some of the most important restaurants in the world feature strong natural wine lists and natural wine, not to mention the endorsements from celebrities like Action Bronson and the Bon Appétit team, who are constantly promoting natural wine. Do you think the perception of natural wine has changed since 2012 when you started the fair?

IL: [Laughs] Yeah I’ve run into [Action Bronson] a few times. When I first started the fair, no one was talking about natural wine, I was a real outsider and people in the wine industry told me I was completely crazy. We were way ahead of the curve. Now  — and I think your timeline is spot-on — the shift happened in the past four or five years. The scene is completely different, these wines are now extremely popular, they run out, they’re on allocation. It’s still very niche. I don’t think we can talk about a mainstream necessarily because the [limited] quantities will mean that it will always be a niche way under 1 per cent of the total [global wine] production. But I think natural wines are very powerful and they make a lot of noise. 

CS: The environment and the protection of the environment have increasingly become issues of major global focus. Does wine fit into this conversation?

IL: Hugely! For me, it’s the most important conversation. Natural wine is composed of two elements: farming and winemaking. The farming element is the most important. Natural growers are organic, they are biodynamic, they follow permaculture, they follow Fukuoka practices, they are incredibly aware of the environment and making sure that the way they farm leaves the soil richer in humus and biodiversity than when they found it. We’re also developing a way of measuring our own carbon footprint as an organization. When I organize the fair and I’ve got people flying from all over the world, how can I offset that? So the environment, for me, is the most important element and part of why we do what we do. Wine captures people’s imaginations. Wine can really have an impact, it can influence somebody’s choice and you can change the world a little bit one bottle at a time.

CS: Because the world of natural wine has essentially been a handshake agreement between like-minded producers on a philosophy towards winemaking, there’s never been an official set of rules to govern what is and is not natural. Do you think that there is or will ever be a need for a governing body for the realm of natural wine?

IL: Personally, I think we all need to decide in the trade what a natural wine is, because there is a tendency for people who are maybe not necessarily following a natural wine philosophy to want to make a natural wine because they see it’s very popular and it sells — it’s sexy. So you might see huge wineries who work completely conventionally — not even organic — launch a wine and call it a natural wine. So I think it would be useful to have some sort of agreement as to what a natural wine is. 

CS: What’s the future of natural wine? 

IL: I often ask myself the same question. You know, things have changed so much over the past five years and certainly in the past 10 years. I see so many young producers who feel energized by the fact that the market is buoyant. They set up shop and they know that if they make 10 or 20,000 bottles of respectful wine that they probably will sell it. [Natural wine] is really having an impact and I feel really happy that we are able to, at this point in the industry, have the possibility of actually transforming the environment, because the more growers embrace the philosophy, the more of an impact [on the environment] we can have. We just need to make sure that we control it a little bit so that [the term natural wine] remains meaningful. 

CS: And what’s in the future for you, and for RAW?

IL: For me I do want to expand a little bit. The growers would really like us to do something in Asia, so Japan, maybe China. We’ve [also] made so many changes to our website, it’s a bit of a beast, we’ve rebuilt it three times. As a wine professional, whenever I want to find information on a particular wine it’s very hard. A lot of growers don’t even have a website. If you have a place where all the growers input the information themselves at least you know the information is as correct as it can be. [The website] has a wealth of information and we do get about 50,000 unique visitors a month, so the website gets a huge amount of traffic. But I would like it to become even more used. For me my focus now is to make [the website] more of a tool and a resource for people. ■

Raw Wine Montreal is happening Oct. 24 and 25. See the event details here.