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Dave’s Great Adventure to a French Wine Showcase

Dave's Great Adventure to a French Wine Showcase | The Latest | RedThumb Natural Wines

I recently attended Millesime Bio, a trade show in Montpellier, France, which has been exhibiting 100% organic wines every January since 1993. It was truly massive, with four convention halls full of wine from over 20 countries. I was there to taste and learn, and to hopefully find an opportunity to source new varietals for RedThumb.  

Heading in, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Sourcing new wines is a challenge for any company [the import market can be pretty competitive], but our requirements make things a little trickier. When we initially came up with the concept for RedThumb six years ago, we identified three key values that our wines needed to have: quality, accessibility, and product standards. These are the three legs to our stool, and without all of them, the product doesn’t work.

Quality wine, always

When we first started this project, quality was the first hurdle. That’s always the first thing: the taste. It has to be, because unlike a breakfast cereal or protein drink, people won’t drink a wine they don’t enjoy just because they think it’s healthy, or they believe in a company’s mission. In those early days we tried a lot of characterless wines. By that, I mean wine that, while nothing particularly is “wrong” with it, is not unique or interesting in any way. This often is the case with bulk wines, as they can lack flavors that can only come from a specific place. 

Other wines we tasted were damaged, often as a result of shoddy winemaking practices. I’m happy to report that none of the wines I tried at Millesime Bio were “bad.” Some were boring or forgettable, but none had the offensive flavor profiles [think barnyard manure] that I’ve come to associate with large commercial producers dipping their toes into the organic wine market. The quality was the best I’ve encountered at any trade show in memory, organic or otherwise.

Accessibility to our customers

The next stumbling block is accessibility. This comes down to two main characteristics: price and availability. We aim to be on shelf at retail for around $20, and we want to have enough wine available that we never have gaps in the supply chain between vintages. 

As natural wine has grown in popularity, the prices have increased as well [ask anyone who fell in love with Beaujolais ten years ago]. Of the wines that had the quality I was looking for, most were too expensive to fit RedThumb’s criteria. Some had the right price, but could only offer a small quantity of wine every year. Some, however, are so good [a particular small production cab franc comes to mind] that we’re exploring ways of working with these producers in the future.

RedThumb Natural Wine standards: do no harm

A handful of wines passed the first two tests and were now up against the trickiest part, our product standards. These self-imposed standards are our biggest source of pride when selling our wines, but the bane of our existence when sourcing. 

I expected to have an easier time at Millésime Bio because the focus of the show is on natural and organic wine. All of the wines there are made with organic grapes, and most are vegan friendly, use minimal preservatives, and use no added sugars or sugar substitutes. They even rewarded winemakers committed to biodiversity with a contest, “La Biodiversité, c’est mon domaine!” However, wines using only native yeast fermentation and employing dry farming methods were surprisingly difficult to find. 

I understand the inability to dry farm; some locations just don’t have enough water naturally to make it possible. However, this is a standard that we are deeply passionate about, as water usage is going to be a major issue over the coming years, if not the major issue, and maintaining responsible water usage in winemaking is non-negotiable. 

As things progress, we may consider allowing other responsible watering options like flood irrigation [notably used in Mendoza, Argentina, which takes advantage of yearly snowcap melt], but we’re going to stick with dry farming for as long as possible. 

Native yeast fermentation is also somewhat site dependent, as some vineyards’ natural yeasts simply don’t have what it takes to complete a good fermentation. As the brand grows, and we expand into new regions for production, both of these standards will become more difficult to maintain. Our goal is to not waiver on either, and so far we have been able to do that while also planning expansion. 

Growth and future of organic wine 

All in, of the hundreds of wines I tasted, only a handful were able to support all three legs of the stool. That tells me we’re doing something right, as the only value in a brand like ours is the due diligence we exercise on behalf of our customers. That it is difficult to find wines that fit our criteria means there is real value in what we’re doing; unlike some other brands, we’re not simply repackaging bulk wine. 

The best part of this trip [other than spending time in charming, walkable, delicious Montpellier] was seeing and tasting just how far the organic wine world has come in the last few years. While 10 years ago there were only around 100 exhibitors, this year there were nearly 1,500. 

The supply is beginning to meet the demand, so I’m confident that in a few years we’ll be buried in wines that meet all of our requirements. Then the fun part becomes a much bigger aspect of the job: picking from the tastiest, most exciting wines to enjoy ourselves, to share with our customers, and to expand our lineup. Stay tuned.