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De Fermo Interview
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Denyse Louis Interview
As dictated to Jules Dressner in the summer of 2017.
The first time Joe and I went to France was in the winter of 1983/1984. It was very cold and we spent Christmas with my family. We got married that March of 1984 in New York, then in France on July 7th. We stayed a bit after the wedding, but not for very long. I think we left in early August. The following summer, 1985, we decided to spend the entire summer in
During that summer (of 1985), we thought it would be nice to be able to come to France more often or even to live in France, and that we needed to come up with some sort of plan to do so. But what could we do? We both had a degree in journalism, and honestly neither of us was sure what we could do with it in this context. We were doing odd-jobs in NY; Joe did the catalog for his father’s clothing supply store, and some writing gigs, I was working in an office that represented French textile and clothing brands.
There were vines everywhere surrounding the village, so that gave us the idea to do something in wine. No one really cared about wine in my family. My paternal grandfather had a little
The following summer, right after you (Jules) were born, we returned for three months and decided the thing that would make the most sense was to work with the Cave de Lugny, as they were close and had a lot of wine to sell. They of course had a big importer in the US, but still told us they would be open to work with “our”
It was a failure, because
It was not very encouraging, but this experience made us realize a lot, namely how complicated getting wine to the United States is and how distribution channels work. We also realized that to sell wine, we would need to distinguish ourselves somehow. The
In 1987 we met Noël Perrin, almost as a joke. My great friend Solange would always spend part of her summer in Saint-Gengoux-le-National at her brother’s. We jokingly started comparing the two Saint-Gengoux: who had the best saucisson (Mr Métras vs Mr Chabridon), the best goat-cheese, etc… We’d bought the Hachette guide, Noël Perrin was written up and his postal code was in Saint-Gengoux-le-National. Joe said we absolutely HAD to meet a
We went to visit him in the
We came back to New York in the fall of 1987 with a small list essentially defined by Noël, who had put together a group of friends who would all help sell each other’s wines from their respective regions. Those were Jean Luc Mader in
But the summer of 1987 was also important because we had met Henri Goyard (Domaine de Roally). We were looking for local, independent
Getting back to the small list of producers, this was also a failure. I don’t believe we sold anything in 1987 or 1988. Joe had been working writing grant requests for non-profits, a part-time job, for a year, but he was terminated for going away to France for three months. Getting fired motivated him to persevere with wine.
1988 was also the year your sister (Alyce) was born, and her arrival made us rethink our approach: we would probably need wines from more prestigious regions to attract customers. I wrote a ton of letters (real letters) to
A distributor, Bernard Horstman, got interested. He was a really interesting guy who had grown up in China and we would always meet him in Chinatown, where he would order everything in Chinese. His partner was also Chinese. If I remember well, he sold mostly German wines, and this was his first foray into French wines.
We did our first tasting with him as our distributor at the French Commercial Council’s office with all the samples the growers had sent us. It was really complicated because they were not equipped to handle a wine tasting, for example cleaning the glasses and keeping the wines cool. Not very many people showed up, but there was another tasting happening nearby, so we got a few stragglers. Daniel Johnnes was there, but most importantly we met Kevin McKenna, who has been our partner since 1996. Kevin was the new buyer at Astor Wines, his predecessor had never bought anything but had been very helpful with her advice.
Horstman was clearing the wines, but his only sales were through contacts we’d established ourselves, so we also started working with Acker-Merrall, who had an import license. They asked for exclusivity at the shop for the wines they brought in. We’d also found Eric Fineman, who acted as an intermediary expediter. At the time we had no stock. We would purchase the wines based on US orders and collect a commission from the
Our first real distributor was Slocum & Sons in Connecticut. I believe that was 1989. We then met Silenus (now part of the Martignetti companies) in Massachusetts. We were cold-calling anyone we thought would be interested, and it slowly paid-off. Kevin McKenna was our first real NY supporter: I remember very well he wanted to buy some
In 1989 we started traveling a bit more. We finally visited Marc Ollivier, where we met André and Marie-Thérèse Iché of Château d’Oupia and almost all the winemakers in the Noël Perrin group. Then, during our first visit to Jean Thévenet, we met a Parisian
In spring of 1989 we received a belated answer from Machard de Gramont in
That year we added a lot of wines to our list. We spent much time in the
In the winter, we went to the Salon des Vignerons Indépendants in Paris, where we made some new contacts, for example the Lignères family of Château la Baronne in the
Business had started picking up in NY. After Kevin at Astor, Garnet Wines was one of our earliest big customers. The owner, JR Battipaglia, was responsible for the
I can’t remember the exact year, but we met Michael Skurnik at the very beginnings of his company, and he immediately started distributing Michel Juillot. As soon as we started working with more
Going back to David Lillie, his role was essential to our evolution as a company. Very soon after we’d met him, he and Joe went to the
At that point we began specializing more in
I also must mention our friendship with Robert Callahan, who became a very important source of advice. Robert was an enthusiastic wine lover who was working part-time in a shop in Queens while also a PHD student and employed by law firms as a legal briefs’ writer.
We became importers in 1996, when we started LDM Wines with Kevin.
At the beginning there was no philosophy. The idea was simply to spend more time in France. So that’s why the Cave de Lugny seemed like a good bet. It wasn’t very ambitious, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do or even what we could do. We had no idea of the myriad of legalities involved in getting wine to the US. We had everything to learn, and little by little, we got a clearer idea how everything worked.
In the summer of 1987, when we met Henri Goyard in Viré, we had never tasted a
1987 was also the summer we met Noël Perrin. As I mentioned earlier, he put us in touch and gave us samples from his group of
In 1988, the letters I wrote to winemakers got many answers, even from some really famous
This really leads us to our second “philosophical” point: nice people, growers we felt a personal connection with. We realized through extensive visits that we liked many of the wines we were tasting, but the people weren’t always very friendly, or we didn’t get good energy from them. Joe said right away: “If we are going to work with people in the long term, I don’t want to be in regular contact with them and dreading each visit.” It didn’t seem worth it.
For example, if you know Marc Ollivier, you know he is an incredibly warm, wonderful person. Pierre Breton was at the time very young, passionate and full of energy. Irma and Jeannot Raffault were a little more intense…
I think the major evolution in our way of approaching wine came from working with Catherine Roussel and Didier Barouillet from Clos Roche Blanche. At the time, they were working
Before starting with Clos Roche Blanche, we were already talking to our growers about how they worked in the vines and the
These series of conversations with
By the mid 90’s, we were convinced that specific criteria gave more to the wines. They were more vivacious, more interesting. We now had an established roster of growers, and it was through word of mouth, asking them if they knew people who worked in a similar fashion, that we found more and more like-minded producers. We were of course working with many producers who we knew were not
It was time to look back and make decisions. It could have made sense to drop anyone not working the way we wanted. But I’ll use the example of Marc Ollivier, again, who was not working
Another example is Olga Raffault. We loved their extremely complicated system of late-releasing wines. We never had any idea what was going on, but it amused us how they had created this hectic, indecipherable way of doing things. They weren’t
The other major development relates to
We then starting meeting growers who weren’t using it all, like René Mosse, Olivier Lemasson, Hervé Villemade, Christian Chaussard… A lot of wines were frankly all over the place. But we really liked the people, which again is something we place tremendous value in! We took a big risk bringing these wines in, and many did not travel well. Furthermore, there wasn’t really a clientele for the wines, save a few die-hards who were already entrenched in what is now called the
We met Pierre Overnoy in the early 2000’s, as well as Georges Descombes, two growers we often heard about working in a “
There was a paradigm shift at one point, where people started associating us with
On Italian Wine:
Later on, thanks to Kevin and Alessandra Bera, we started on a completely new adventure with Italian wines. Joe was upset that he could not pronounce, nor easily remember, most of the
Alessandra Bera was very close to many French growers we worked with, she was present at the very first
This foray into Italy would never have happened without Kevin. He spoke Italian fluently, knew Italian wines from all his years in the wine business and the year he has spent in Rome. Joe and I were total ignoramuses, we knew nothing about Italian wines.
The guiding idea was to build an Italian portfolio which would reflect what we had found in France: good people we liked, good, honest wines which spoke of their regions.
The list grew, quite slowly at first, but it turned out it was easier to grab great estates in Italy than it had been in France. We took several trips, went to shows around