The RAW awakening

Isabelle Legeron MW’s wine fair has become a global juggernaut. Simon Woolf reports.

Isabelle Legeron MW (right) at the London RAW WINE fair
Isabelle Legeron MW (right) at the London RAW WINE fair, Photos: RAW WINE

The room bustles with hundreds of wine buyers, restaurateurs, sommeliers and natural wine fans. More than 100 growers from all corners of the globe pour their wines, silhouetted against a moody November sky which still manages to stream light into the chic glass-walled, designer-industrial warehouse. The more well-known cult names have hordes fanning out from their tasting tables, but the entire space buzzes with life.

There are no corporate stands and no suits. There are also no tickets to be had, at any price. RAW WINE, arguably the world’s most significant organiser of natural wine fairs, has hit Montréal, the gourmet capital of Québec. It looks and feels like a hugely hyped insider event, yet it was organised last-minute and sold out just as quickly. 

The beginnings

RAW WINE is the brainchild of Isabelle Legeron, renegade Master of Wine, natural wine spokesperson and agitator at large. Legeron created the brand (which has recently been subtly tweaked to the more all-encompassing Raw Wine World) in 2012, out of the ashes of a loose grouping of five wine importers who co-organised London’s first Natural Wine Fair in 2011. As she puts it, “the collaboration between importers just didn’t really work, so the following year we decided it was better to be independent”.

Legeron’s fair quickly became a raging success, building on the relatively modest attendance figures of the 2011 event (about 900 visitors a day) to reach 3,000 attendees by 2013 and almost 5,000 by 2016. Most were from the wine trade, who made up 75% of the total numbers in 2016. Those visitors could choose wines (plus a few other artisanal fermented products) from more than 200 producers and 1,000 labels.

Interviewed in 2014, Legeron talked about opening a natural wine bar in London as her next big project. She also joked about the event’s success, saying: “If I’d known it would become this big, I might not have done it!” She had no idea what the following years would bring. A small, one-off edition of RAW in Vienna that summer prompted growers and natural wine aficionados from other parts of the world to clamour for more international events.

The Vienna event wasn’t repeated, but from 2015 onwards RAW mounted a sizeable fair with about 100 growers in Berlin. Then in 2016, the first RAW WINE New York took place, appropriately enough in an industrial Brooklyn location. In 2017, Los Angeles was added to the roster, and in 2018 Montréal became the third North American location. From organising a single event a year, the RAW team now has five annual celebrations of natural wine to coordinate.

Impressively, this rapid global expansion has retained a consistent feel across all its locations. It certainly helps that Legeron and her small team, including her partner Deborah Lambert, are present at every event, unlike most global franchises. Their choices of venue feel carefully curated – always gritty enough to provide differentiation from more conventional fairs, but without neglecting the practicalities (abundant water, spittoons and areas for eating and relaxing).

RAW WINE New York was an instant hit in its first year, especially with the growers, as Legeron explains: “Most growers who go to New York without an importer find an importer – and that’s a huge deal, for us and for them.” Inevitably with New York up and running, the West Coast wanted in, although she notes, “Los Angeles is a very different scene. It’s still quieter and much more relaxed than New York, which is pretty brutal.”

Montréal might not have seemed the obvious next step after the US, but its gastronomy scene has led the charge for natural wines, and it has a very vibrant on-trade environment in general. Charles Landreville, owner of import business Agence Boires and the Huis Clos wine bar, has followed the scene’s development closely: “Around 2010, it was clear that some restaurants and sommeliers were starting to use and promote the term natural wine. It was still marginal but not underground any more. In today’s Montréal restaurant scene, it’s hardly possible to be recognised if you put up a wine list promoting inoculated, often corrected, commercial wines.”

Legeron’s experience on her first visit to Montréal in May 2018 bears this out: “When I came here, I was amazed at the amount of restaurants and wine bars where you can drink natural wine – there are dozens of them. I saw more places with dedicated wine lists here than in London.” She notes however that it’s “a completely different kettle of fish” to the other locations.

Much of this difference is due to Québec State’s alcohol monopoly, the Société des Alcools du Québec or SAQ. Similar to the Systembolaget in Sweden, the SAQ handles virtually all direct sales of alcohol to consumers, via its network of retail outlets. While in theory this means only the monopoly can be the buyer, in practice a network of private importers has grown up to serve niches not covered by the SAQ. These independent importers or agencies discover and broker deals with winemakers and take a cut, selling almost exclusively to the on-trade, with storage and logistics handled by the SAQ.
This gave the Montréal event a different feel with, according to Legeron, a significantly higher proportion of on-trade professionals (sommeliers, restaurant and wine bar managers and buyers) than the other fairs attract. She notes with some pride that “there are even some buyers from SAQ here today”.

An unexpected development of RAW’s expansion into North America has been that visitors to the fairs now travel in both directions across the Atlantic, as Legeron notes: “Before we did New York, we had a lot of visitors from the US coming to London. But now what we’re starting to see is people coming from Europe to the American fairs.” The attraction is the local talent on show. “For example, in Los Angeles we’ve got about 30 growers from California, Oregon, the Finger Lakes and Vermont, and a lot of people are travelling from France to come and taste these wines.”

While London is still the largest of the fairs, and the broadest in reach, Montréal and Berlin each have regional flavour – central European producers (Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic) in the case of Berlin, and Québécois producers in Montréal. Visitors to Montréal 2018 could sample fascinating cool-climate wines from Sperling Vineyards, Négondos, Domaine du Nival or Vignoble Les Pervenches. Notable by their absence were growers from Canada’s other winemaking regions such as British Columbia, Ontario and Niagara. As a European, it’s easy to forget that Canada is the world’s second largest country after Russia. Travel distances are formidable.

Growing pains

Perhaps inevitably, RAW’s swift expansion has invited criticism. Some NYC-based wine professionals grumble that the fair is now so popular that it is well-nigh impossible to taste in comfort. Photos from the opening Sunday at NYC 2018 resembled a cattle pen more than anything else, with visitors crammed in so tight that getting a sample from a producer required strong elbows and a liking for mortal combat.

With similar capacity issues in London, RAW introduced an entrance charge for wine trade visitors in March 2018 – previously, only consumers paid an entrance fee. London’s natural wine pundits were predictably enraged, with some suggesting that it would “gouge trade attendance”. But anyone who was expecting visitor numbers to be down, or anticipating the schadenfreude of Instagram photos showing an empty room, was disappointed. The event was as full and energetic as ever. RAW appears to be vindicated that charging the trade was necessary in order to ensure that the most dedicated and focused participants were those who got the tickets.

RAW’s entrance criteria for growers also continues to attract disparagement. Perhaps in 2012 its stated upper limit of 70mg per L of total sulphites still felt low, but natural wine has since developed into many more factions and sub-philosophies. The growth in importance of wine fairs such as La Dive Bouteille, where virtually all participating growers work completely without the use of added sulphites, and grower organisations such as Les Vins S.A.I.N.S., which bans sulphite use altogether, has left RAW seeming almost mainstream.

Legeron’s response is measured, with perhaps a tinge of frustration: “The most important thing is the farming. The fight for me is not ‘do I add sulphites or do I not add sulphites’, the question is ‘am I preserving the environment for the next generation or am I not doing that?’” She also points out that RAW’s hard limit of 70mg per L, plus its other conditions for viticulture and viniculture, already narrow the field considerably: “If you look at the global proportion of wine produced, and you take away people who are not organic, take away people who are adding yeasts for fermentation, take away people who are adding 100mg of sulphur even if they’re following Demeter rules, you’re not left with that many producers.”

She’s also keen that RAW keeps a sense of inclusion, welcoming producers who are working hard to reduce reliance on sulphites or other additives, but who may not yet feel confident to dispense with SO2 altogether.

Her focus on the farming throws up another problematic part of the RAW charter. Although RAW states in its conditions for inclusion that: “The entirety of the domaine from which the grapes are issued must be farmed organically and/or biodynamically,” it does not insist on certification to back up those claims. How can visitors to the fairs be sure they’re really getting what they expect?

“Everyone has neighbours,” says Legeron. “If somebody really isn’t working organically, or using pesticides, I get to hear about it. When a new grower applies, I ask people I trust to go and have a look at what’s going on.” She also points out that “certification is not perfect – if people want to cheat then they’re going to cheat”.

Inevitably, Legeron will find it harder and harder to police the growing number of winemakers who want to attend RAW fairs, if the enterprise keeps growing. Can she and her team expand any further beyond their current five destinations? Legeron laughs. “I think we’re going to stay put next year, maybe try to grow Montréal  a bit more – but I am looking for maybe two more locations after that. And yes I still want to open a wine bar!” 

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