• Laura Milnes

Doug Wregg: an OG of natural wine


Photo: Doug Wregg

We sometimes find connection in odd or unexpected ways - even if it is virtually.


I came across a few of Doug Wregg's works while scrolling Instagram recently, and was immediately intrigued. (His "The Real Alternative Wine Glossary" has since been added to my collection.)


Working as a freelance writer, it's typical to have queries ignored - such is the game. When I emailed Doug, I didn't get too attached to the thought he'd reply.


The response I received was not only prompt, but incredibly thoughtful and curious. Doug is an OG in the natural wine community - having played a significant role in the evolution of wine over the last 30 years through his work with importing agency Les Caves de Pyrene. The thought was not lost on me that Doug is a very busy and heralded man. The blogosphere has become ubiquitous with fluff - it's a daily battle to be taken seriously - so when I have the opportunity to speak at length with someone of Doug's stature, I take it.


Doug and I went on to exchange a number of emails, discussing our personal experience in the wine trade and sharing fond wine memories.


LM: Tell me about your background, and how you came to work in the wine industry.


DW: Born in New York, we emigrated when I was young and lived among other places on Abbey Road whilst the Beatles were recording the eponymous album there. I studied English literature at university and thought I wanted to be a teacher (in reality I would have preferred to stay on and do a DPhil) Drifted between part time teaching and ended up working as the manager at a restaurant run by my mum and a friend of hers. I was given the wine list to manage - I knew diddley squat, so it was a steep learning curve. We managed to win best wine list in London in that year. I then worked as a sommelier in a fish restaurant and inherited an epic cellar of 800 bins including such wonders as Margaux 55, Cheval Blanc 82, DRC Richebourg, Stag's Leap and Opus 1 from the 1970s. Everything was ridiculously affordable and I was got to taste some of the finest wines imaginable. After that more restaurants, more wine lists, wine consultancy and eventually ended up working for Les Caves de Pyrene in 1995. When I joined there were four of us and a turnover of 300 k. Now including our restaurants and sister companies we employ around 150 people and turn over 35 million k. All without any investment.


LM: How did you become passionate about natural wine? What are some tropes you'd wish would go away?

DW: It was an epiphany. It is always an epiphany. I was in a Parisian wine bar and the owner gave me a bottle of Olivier Cousin Chardonnay, followed by a Macon Cruzille Aragonite from Clos des Vignes du Maynes. They were not like anything I tasted before. The wine seemed to explore parts of my palate that I didn't know existed. They had a wild energy to them, they danced, I wanted more. At that moment I fantasized that we we would import more of these wines and open a wine bar dedicated to them in London. And lo it came to pass. I became passionate because of the taste of the wines and then I understood that they came from a good place, were the result of sympathetic and sustainable farming and low intervention winemaking, I wasn't blind to their faults, although I felt that many of the faults were really flaws and very much a matter of personal taste. Because we were the first UK company to import these wines in any significant quantities and had opened an avowedly natural wine bar, I felt I also should defend the growers, the wines (and ourselves) from the constant attacks in the press by those who thought the whole natural wine thing was a marketing scam/emperor's new clothes/ephemeral trend.


If you mean natural wine tropes I would rather people not judge wines (positively or negatively) until they spend an evening with a wine. The other night I posted in a wine forum on a bottle of Pierre Frick's Pinot Noir., It was heavenly and utterly satisfying. Some guy responded that all the Frick wines had loads of VA and if you don't like ethyl acetate you should avoid them. I still love the uncertainty of pulling a cork and seeing what the wine will do. And then being surprised. I feel that people want to parade their ownership of the wines, whereas what they are doing is showing that they have strong opinions. 


I am bored with the argument that wine cannot be natural because vines have to be farmed and wine has to be made. Semantic and straw man arguments are so tedious!


LM: How do we get the average civilian drinking better wine? Is that a pipe dream?


DW: Expose people to the wines. Sure it is a hand sell. Sure we have to tell the stories. But people (in my experience) love hearing about where food and wine comes from; it gives them a closer connection to what they are consuming. At the moment the natural wine scene is concentrated in the cities (Paris, Tokyo, London, NY, Montreal, Berlin, Melbourne...) because of the proliferation of wine bars, but the growth of natty wine retail specialists means that everyone has access to these wines. The now ubiquitous wine fairs draw in curious consumers as well as experts. Blogs, wine clubs, social media all contribute to a growth in awareness of the existence of natural wines. I am pretty sure that sales of natural wines have increased exponentially in the last five years. 


LM: What are some emerging regions you'd like to see better distribution of? 


DW: I think that most regions have the exposure they deserve. In the UK, for example, you can taste natural wines from some 25 + countries and over 500 growers. If the wines are good enough they will end up being represented. I love the wines of Slovenia, Austria and Georgia, but they are no longer the mystery they were.


LM: What's your opinion on climate change ?


DW: It's a catastrophe, because it is a mix of gradual change and extreme events - fires, droughts, torrential rain. It is forcing growers to be more proactive in the vineyard (which is not a bad thing), but with global heating, the vineyards are not having the opportunity to become dormant. 


LM: How have you see wine styles change in your career? What would you like to see more of, and less of ?


DW: I grew up with old fashioned Bordeaux and Burgundy, then saw the rise of new oak and longer hang time, extraction and high alcohol. The pendulum has swung back to finesse and freshness. The biggest change is the growth of amber/skin contact wines. Even those vignerons who don't make them as a rule will have an experimental cuvee. Skin contact when done well gives wines another taste and texture dimension. I do love this as a style of wine, although it has to be an integral part of the wine. In terms of natural wine I am not a fan of carbonic maceration.  Semi carbonic wines are fine, especially those that have seen some barrel ageing to flesh them out. Over the years we've seen less handling of the juice, less and zero batonnage or racking, using gravity to bottle and less and zero filtration. Also, amazing to think that a few years ago, no-one would have known what a pet nat was!


LM: How do you think we can get the consumer to pay attention to farming and soil health, and sourcing higher quality products?


DW: This is the key for me. We should honour and respect our environment and ensure (in terms of wine) that we are not taking out more than we are putting back in. The more we encourage farmers to look after the microbiological health of the soil, protect biodiversity, etc the better. We must be prepared to pay a higher price for the wines. Governments can encourage this by outlawing certain chemicals, by giving grants to farmers who will work the land organically. They can also help by introducing minimum alcohol pricing to ensure that price differentials (which are artificial) are minimized - no deep discounting, no special deals. The cost of production has to be recognized.


LM: What's a funny wine memory you have? 


DW: I have a lot of funny memories from working in restaurants. I was always on the rotation to work on Valentine's day for my sins. It was invariably excruciating, All those tables of two, men trying to impress women, other couples with nothing to say to each other, I recall variously one guy trying to impress his girlfriend by patronizing me. He ordered an expensive bottle of Morgon and then beckoned me over. "This wine is corked. Please replace it." Normally, I would happily settle for a quiet life, but this time I picked up his glass and sniffed it. The wine is perfectly fine, but let us please let the lady decide, I handed the glass to his girlfriend., "It tastes find to me", she said, I flashed her a huge smile, said thank you and left him purple with embarrassment.


On another time, I had a bet with a regular customer that I could not sell six bottles of the most obscure wine on the list., He chose the wine - an Abymes from Savoie, I had not sold a single bottle for three months. (The bet was a free dinner versus a bottle of expensive Pomerol from his cellar). I dashed upstairs, reprinted all the food menus with the addition of the Abymes in big bold letters and house wine of the day, I sold my 6 bottles and collected my bet! T


The funniest wine memory was from my first trip to Georgia. It was super hot that day and we were invited to a supra at a well known grower called Iago Bitarishvili (we import his wines). There were 30 of us stuffing ourselves with gorgeous local specialties and drinking, drinking, drinking. Then the toasts started. A friend and I were enjoined to link arms and drink out of a horn. Instead of the normal-sized cow's horns, we were given a massive bull horn filled to the brim with amber wine. There must have been the best part of a bottle in it. I drank it like it was water and thought to my amazement that I had finished it, when I heard a glugging sound and the rest of the liquid came gushing out all over my face. After that we went to see a qvevri maker (more food, more wine), another grower (more wine) and ended up in Kutaisi (second city of Georgia) for another supra. There were 5 burly Georgian growers who were behind a long table. One of them said: "There are thirty of you, five of us, and behind us 100 litres of our wines (in plastic petrol cans). The evening does not finish until these wines are finished. The table was groaning with another banquet-load of food; en masse we were groaning also. The highlight of the evening was when two Japanese photographers physically attacked a French wine bar owner who had made a particularly insensitive remark about their sexuality, They screamed, one poured the inkiest Saperavi over his head - he was cowering on the floor, a supplicant, whilst Japanese curses rained down on his head. And there was much more. Besides, everyone who witnessed the spectacle still talks about it,


Anyway, I was in Portland, Oregon, two years later and having dinner with two people in the wine trade, who I had just met for the first time. They had just come back from Georgia and were recounting this legendary dinner that the locals were still talking about. At the end of their story, I smiled and said: "Let me tell you what REALLY happened!"


LM: Who is the most underrated winemaker or professional you've come across?


DW: Andreas Tscheppe in Austria makes brilliant wines. For some reason he doesn't receive the same acclaim as others in his group. Kelley Fox in Oregon is remarkable; intuitive in the vineyard and utterly professional in her approach. She lives for her vines. There are so many that I have utter respect for.


LM: What are some movements, or trends, that you feel have been beneficial to the wine industry? 


DW: I sometimes wonder whether movements or trends are overrated and part of our desire to create a structure around a series of events. Trends, by definition, are short term. When we think of natural wine, we are talking about a sustainable movement, one that has put down roots which are growing deeper year after year. Everything has its time. Wine bars were pretty moribund until natural wine versions came along to gave them a shot in the arm. Wine is being served by people who are passionate about the subject and interested in sharing their knowledge. Natural wine fairs, meanwhile, have reinvented the wine tasting. There are still loads of generic tastings with brand ambassadors; but now there are so many growers' fairs where the people who farm the vines and make the wine are pouring the wines. The informality and spontaneity of bars and wine fairs are a positive; they are associated with a certain generosity.


If interested in purchasing Doug's book, you can email his team here: shop@lescaves.co.uk

Follow Doug on Instagram @dwregg.


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