The minds behind L'Imparfait Négociant

L'Imparfait Negociant, Hinterland, Joe Beef, Jonas Newman, Vicki Samaras, Montreal, Prince Edward County

Partners Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras are best described as OG's of Prince Edward County, having purchased land in the early 2000's as a couple of eager, late 20 something's.

Now, at only 45 years of age, they've made an impressive mark on the industry, as a premier winery in Prince Edward County best known for sparkling wine. In recent years, they've expanded into still wines, producing heavily sought after labels.

I had the chance to chat with them via Zoom recently. We spoke about their latest project, L'Imparfait Négociant, their thoughts on the VQA and some heartfelt stories about their journey.

LM: How do you respond to commentary surrounding County wineries sourcing fruit from Niagara?

JN: If you snap a line from the top of Burgundy to the bottom - it's not as far as the crow flies between the County and Niagara. There's nobody here in the County with a whole whack of cash - it is tough. But when you get it right in the County - the results are magical - so despite the challenge, it's worth doing. We'll never be "big industry".

A big change has been switching to textiles. We had a very reasonable crop this past vintage because of the transition. We have been playing around with them for 4 years, and last year we jumped in and did the whole farm.

Not everything works out all the time. We talk about our problems as much as we talk about our successes with people like Lee Baker from Red Tail or Mackenzie Brisbois from Trail. There's a group of us in the County here who are pretty straight up.

Hope springs is eternal - there is always next year where you'll get it right. As a region, we're getting it more and more right every year, and textiles are helping that.

LM: Why sparkling?

JN: We trained at 13th Street - they always had the best sparkling. Even back to '98 or '97 - they were making traditional method before it was cool.

2007 was the first year we made wine, and we made the call to make it 100% sparkling. We always want to make good wine. We've never made any adjustments. There's always balance in the fruit by itself, which means we don't have to do much.

There weren't a lot of people making sparkling back then.

LM: Tell me about the L'Imparfait project.

JN: We connected with Dave McMillan (Joe Beef, Vin Papillon) on Twitter - he's been buying the wines for years. When we did our first shipment to Quebec, he bought it all.

Later, he started hanging around the County. We used to do an annual festival in February - a chef's cookoff. We asked him if he wanted to partake and to our surprise, he said yes. We spent the weekend with him and he circled back and asked us to find some organic Chardonnay to see what we could do and make a no-no wine.

I gave Paul Pender at Tawse a call, and picked up some organic Chardonnay. We did a completely no-no wine into big barrels - wild ferment, bottled it and that was it. It went well. Dave is super connected so he found us an agent in NYC and made a bit of a splash. We expanded huge the next year.

We're picking up all kinds of different varieties now - the key is to find the weirdest stuff we can, leave it be, and sometime in the spring, Dave will come down and taste, and put some cursory blends together.

It's a fun project. There was no reason for us to make these wines by ourselves - I've always wanted to - and at one point in time, we did have a label called Red Herring.

The intent has always been no rules and no VQA - we get to do whatever we want. Sadly, we disappoint a lot of licensees because we can't sell it to them and that's just the way it is - but hopefully that sparks some change.

LM: I'm glad you mentioned the VQA - in your opinion, how do we incite reform?

JN: We're too small, and honestly the VQA doesn't care. I've tried.

We need opportunity for people to be creative. It's time to take the training wheels off for the consumers. I'm all about truth in labelling. I'm happy to send my samples in. I've been in this business 22 years - I don't need some kid fresh out of George Brown who got a product consultant job at an LCBO to tell me what's good. It's not up to them to tell me what's good. It's up to my customers - and I learn pretty quickly if what I'm doing is not up to par.

They've shaped it as though they're protecting the client. We're all grownups and there's a lot worse you can do with $30 than buying a bottle of wine you don't like.

To be fair, Hinterland is VQA'd and we do have three skus at the LCBO. But with L'Imparfait, I'm never going to bother.

LM: The landscape is entirely different now - direct to consumer wine clubs, social media - there's a demand for this style. But people can't find it because they're going to the government liquor store. Let's give them other ways to access these styles.

JN: Our online store in the last year has blown up. People are learning. Vicki has been way ahead of the curve on this - we've had an online store since 2011. We have always kept a full time web person. We don't even have an assistant winemaker - but we have a web designer. When COVID went down - we were set. We had a website that was easy to navigate, we don't make too many skus and we've never released too many so it's not confusing.

It's the new way to buy wine.

The problem was not the sales - the problem was the fulfilment. You have to fulfill quickly so people trust you. If you don't deliver quickly, then they're never going to order from you again.

LM: Tell me about La Soupe Populaire. (Macerated orange wine, aged in stainless steel, La Soupe Populaire is equal parts Chardonnay Musqué, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer from the 2019 vintage.)

JN: We just wanted to find good fruit.

I like how fresh this vintage is - it's more summery. It's snappy and drinkable and best served ice cold. The last vintage was earthier, and more reminiscent of autumn.

The Gewurztraminer saw 21 days of skin contact, Pinot Gris 11 days and Chard Musque 11 days as well.

We like to call them "hands off wines". We do what we need to do. Always zero additions, old barrels and a bit of sulphur at bottling and natural malo.

We're a little safer with our sparkling, but that's where we hang our hat.

We don't filter - if we want a little more clarity, we'll rack a little. But generally, we do no filtration at all. Everything this year was spontaneous, except for our Charmats - selected yeasts. Traditional method and L'imparfait is wild.

LM: What's your opinion on orange wine not expressing terroir very well?

JN: I find that true about sparkling wine. We just released some 2012's. They tasted nutty, yeasty and bready like anywhere else in the world. The longer you age it - the more it tastes like the lees that it's sitting on, as opposed to the fruit and the vineyard that it came from. We're going to start disgorging earlier - 5 years instead of 7.

With respect to orange wine - once you put the skins on for awhile - it just tastes like skins.

LM: Tell me about La Famille. (Equal parts Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. A light red layered blend.)

JN: We took inspiration from Hayu Farms - they're doing a lot of aromatics with reds - mixing red and white varieties. We heard from a number of friends that their styles were the standout at the last Raw Wine Festival, so we took note.

We wanted to make a completely drinkable interpretation. It's fun - a total "why not" wine. It solves the turkey problem. It's juicy and super easy drinking.

Although it's a fun wine, we're always thoughtful like with any other wine we make. We have to care about these wines in the same way we would with any of our other styles. Natural wine isn't leaving it in a corner and forgetting about it.

LM: What do you think needs to change most in the Ontario wine industry?

JN: The problem is that trends like orange wine are not the answer. The whole approach needs to be applied to all wines. We've been "natural" since 2007 - with the exception of cultured yeast. The only thing I have in my lab is sulphur and it's always been that way. We stopped using cultured yeast three years ago.

What I learned at 13th Street - they were also making natural wine, not adding gum arabic or other additives - is just growing the nicest fruit possible and making it into great wine. I know it's a cliche, but it's exactly what we're doing.

LM: My dear friend Brent Rowland from Averill Creek always likes to say - it's a game of inches - you find the magic in the minutiae - a cumulation of small, incremental steps and lessons that add up over time. Would you agree with that?

JN: The learning curve is initially steep - but now it's a conversation surrounding precision and determining how to work tighter in both the vineyard and the winery. We're older now - our capacity for risk is a lot lower.

We're getting much better at what we do - now I'm like a chef - even dropping a cork - that's money. It all adds up - that's the margin. We're less sloppy than we used to be.

I feel like I have 15 more vintages in me - that'll make me 60. I've been doing it for awhile now - at what point am I going to pass this off and retire? I also think about it in two ways - I have 15 vintages left to do something extraordinary and I have 15 vintages left before I can just walk away. This is a big deal - this is my one shot. This is 1 in 15 shots to leave a mark.

I say this about our sparkling - on my death bed - bring me the wines and we'll taste it all - and maybe we'll have an understanding of what this farm is. We don't have enough data on this vineyard yet. We know we get good acidity and good characteristics. As cliched as it is, it's what pushes us to get up every morning.

Anyone who is really great is saying the same thing. If I want to be great, I need to take the same approach. They all speak the same language. Understanding your land and property more, doing less, as organically as you can. I hear that, and figure that's the approach I should take.

There are limited quantities left of L'Imparfait Négociant, and I highly recommend you give them a try. New skus have just launched on their online shop - including some Chardonnay, and their foray into hybrids, including a coveted variety of mine - La Crescent.

You can shop all Hinterland wine here.

Follow them on Instagram @limparfaitnegociant and @hinterlandwine

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