The Natural Wine Legacy of Jenny & François Selections

jenny and francois wine
jenny and francois wine
Photo credit: James Robinson Pictures.

SevenFifty Daily originally published this story.

Operating out of unofficial office spaces carved from their residences in France and New York City, Jenny Lefcourt and her husband, François Ecot, launched Jenny & François Selections as a side project in 2000 to import and distribute natural wines from France to a handful of New York restaurants and shops.

Ecot, who grew up on the outskirts of Paris, and whose family had a house in Burgundy, had studied winemaking in Beaune and was inspired by the new natural wine movement in French viticulture. Lefcourt wanted to use the nascent movement as a springboard for the import company while she was pursuing her Ph.D. in French cinema and literature at Harvard. By 2004, not long after completing her dissertation, Lefcourt had abandoned academia for the nomadic life of a wine-importing entrepreneur.

In the 18 years since it was created, the company has grown dramatically. Jenny & François now sells 279 wines from 71 producers in 10 countries to 42 states. The company distributes its own wines in New York, and sells the wine in its portfolio through other distributors throughout the rest of the country. Lefcourt and Ecot are no longer married, and Lefcourt bought out Ecot’s portion of the business in 2013.

The growth rate for cases sold annually hovers around 30 percent, and Lefcourt says she doesn’t see it slowing down anytime soon. She adds that about half of the growth can be attributed to increasing the number of producers in Jenny & François’s portfolio and that the other half comes from adding on- and off-premise buyers through the company’s network of distributors. Getting there, she admits, was a combination of timing, luck and hard work.

Gaining a Foothold

“There is no way anyone today could launch a small business with such a specific vision, without investors, and turn it into a national operation the way we did in 2000,” Lefcourt says. “When we were getting established, I would actually bring a suitcase of sample bottles from wineries we wanted to import as my carry-on luggage from France to New York.”

When she landed in New York, she hit the ground running. Her father, who often picked her up at JFK, would serve as her chauffeur, driving her around Manhattan and Brooklyn so she could visit venues with her samples. (Now, with so many regulations post-9/11, such a whimsical mode of operation would crumble under the strain of the TSA’s draconian Liquids Rule alone.)

Lefcourt says that the initial goals she and Ecot set for the company were conservative and vague in terms of the logistics and breadth of its early imports and sales but that they were precise and rather lofty with regard to the type of wines the couple wanted to import and where they were produced.

“We only wanted wines from grapes grown by organic and biodynamic producers who also used organic methods in the cellar,” explains Lefcourt. That meant no laboratory yeasts, enzymes, sugar, artificial concentrations, acidification or sulfites during fermentation—and no stabilizers or excess filtering or sulfites added during bottling or aging.

Wineries that hew to such stringent methods tend to focus all their resources in the vineyard and don’t usually possess splashy websites or have a staff member devoted to spreading the word on social media. To grow the Jenny & François portfolio, Lefcourt says she and Ecot needed to spend a considerable amount of time on the road, seeking out esoteric vineyards. Within a year, they realized they needed to hire a salesperson to handle the ever-increasing volume of buyers in New York.

Because as it turns out, the buyers Lefcourt met in New York loved what she had in her carry-on. “No one knew what natural wine was when we started out,” she says. “So while we were focused on the philosophy, they were just focused on the taste.”

In the early aughts, wines imported by Jenny & François landed on some of the most influential wine lists in Manhattan—including those at the revered Veritas and Gramercy Tavern—and other sommeliers took note. The couple also earned entrée almost immediately with the team at Astor Wines & Spirits, Garnet Wines & Liquors’ owner and head buyer J.R. Battipaglia, and Williamsburg’s Uva Wines & Spirits.

“[Lefcourt’s] wines were like no wines I had ever tasted before,” says Lorena Ascencios, the head wine buyer at Astor, adding that they were quirky but very good, raw but intriguing. “Without a doubt,” she says, “Jenny & François has made an indelible mark on the New York wine industry, and her wines have always sold incredibly well here at Astor.” Astor carries about 70 wines from Jenny & François at any given time—some are kept in temperature-controlled conditions to maintain stability.

Focusing on Education

Once Lefcourt began making some headway at on- and off-premise venues, she increased her focus on education. “In 2000 the concept of natural wine didn’t really exist in the U.S., so we spent a lot of time talking about microclimates, organic-versus-conventional growing practices, and the 200 additives that are legal in winemaking but are not listed on the label,” she says, adding that the willingness of leading sommeliers and retailers to listen to what she had to say about natural wines gave her great confidence in her company’s long-term viability.

Lefcourt and Astor teamed up for more than a decade on a yearly Natural Winemakers Week, a weeklong event designed to educate consumers and members of the trade about what Ascensios describes as the “interesting but polarizing” nature of some natural wines. They eventually pulled the plug on the event when more comprehensive natural wine-tasting events—like Raw Wine—rose to prominence in the U.S.

As an importer, Jenny & François has always been extremely selective about the types of wines it imports and sells, but the selection process is not as rigid as it once was. Says Lefcourt, “We do work with winemakers who do not farm all of their grapes organically.”

Domaine de la Patience in the Costières de Nîmes, for example, had one small plot of Merlot grapes that they didn’t spray, and Lefcourt says she was moved by how delicious the wine produced from that plot was. The domaine was considering going organic, and she encouraged them to stop spraying the rest of their vineyards, which they eventually did. “I’m really happy they decided to go 100 percent organic,” says Lefcourt, “and I think it’s partially because we showed them there was a market for it. Now their wines are some of the most successful in my book, and the before-and-after difference in taste is remarkable— they’re brighter, more balanced wines.”

jenny and francois wine
Photo credit: Eric Medsker.

Changing of the Guard

In the beginning, the business took on a life of its own fairly quickly. Once Lefcourt’s selections began appearing at important restaurants and retail shops, other venues started coming to her for natural wine. Distributors in other states approached her as well, including Amy Atwood from Amy Atwood Selections in California, who, Lefcourt says, has become one of her most important partners.

Lefcourt began bringing on more salespeople, averaging one every few years. Jenny & François now has five full-time sales staff members, a national sales manager, and three people to organize operations and logistics.

But during the growth of the business, her marriage faltered, Lefcourt says. She and Ecot had met during her junior year abroad, when she was enrolled as an undergraduate at Cornell. They fell in love, and after she graduated, she returned to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. She and Ecot then married. She returned to the U.S. to begin her Ph.D. program at Harvard, and the couple launched what became a global business.

“It was stressful having one home in New York and another in France,” Lefcourt says. “When we decided to separate and divorce, we tried to continue running the business together, and we did for a few years, but it became too complicated.”

A New Era

Five years ago, Lefcourt bought Ecot out. In addition to the move’s having relieved personal strain, Lefcourt says that it has simplified the business to have one person making all the final calls. In 2010, in the midst of that radical shift, Lefcourt brought on Phil Sareil to help her usher in a new era at Jenny & François.

Lefcourt had begun introducing some natural wines from Italy, Spain, and the U.S. into the portfolio, but Sareil, who had previously worked with Kermit Lynch as a regional sales manager, opened the floodgates. Over the last eight years, Sareil has added more than a dozen new wines—primarily from Central Europe—to the portfolio. “My wife is from Prague,” Sareil says, “and we spent five months together in the Czech Republic, discovering wines. For the first time, I understood how special Central European wines were.”

For winemakers like Richard Stávek, a natural wine pioneer in Moravia, with 4.5 hectares under vine, the opportunity to have his wines imported by Jenny & François has helped him grow his business significantly. “They are our first and exclusive distributor in the U.S.,” he says, “and having my wines appear on fine-dining restaurants and wine bars in New York City and Brooklyn is helping me in other markets as well.”

Sareil is particularly interested in importing natural wines from the Central European area that encompasses northeastern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. “When we began exploring the vineyards of [this area],” he says, referring to himself and Lefcourt, “we knew the wines would speak for themselves.”

Sareil also recently added the first cider to Jenny & François’s portfolio. It’s from a producer called Fruktstereo in Malmö, Sweden. The founder, Mikael Nypelius, praises Jenny & François for “the care and respect they have for producers and their products.”

Where will Jenny & François go next? It’s tough to say, even for Lefcourt.

“I have a six-year-old daughter,” she says of her child with her fiancé, James Robinson, “and in many ways, my approach to my child and my business is the same. I love every stage, and then looking back, I can’t believe how far we’ve come. I’ve given up on predicting what’s next, but I can’t wait to find out.”

Written by Kathleen Willcox. 

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