Andrew Jefford meets the duo behind Caves de Pyrene.
Like it or not (battalions to both sides, no man’s land between), the major wine development of the century so far has been the move towards ‘natural’ wine. Shortly before Christmas, I got together with Eric Narioo and Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, the British wine importer more closely associated with this groundswell than any other, to discuss that – and Les Caves’ strange success.
‘I wasn’t sure it would last. It nearly didn’t…’
Strange? The company was founded (as Santat Wines) by Narioo in 1988, and Wregg joined in 1996, by which time the name had changed. I interviewed them and wrote a piece about them in the London Evening Standard shortly afterwards. They weren’t typical wine traders. Narioo was a tall, fast-talking French nomad, only intermittently comprehensible, with fifteen ideas a minute; Wregg seemed more like an enthusiastic English literature professor who’d dozed off in a seminar room at Bangor University and woken up with a new life in a gastropub. I wasn’t sure it would last.
It nearly didn’t. “During the first fifteen years,” remembered Narioo, “were always a quarter behind with the VAT (sales tax). We never knew if we’d have enough to pay the staff or the growers at the end of the month. That’s why we grew; it was the only escape.”
Not only has it evaded the clutches of the VAT man, but Wregg and Narioo seem to have created a weird new business model based principally on “the journey”. It’s successfully transplanted itself to Italy (where, amazingly enough, Les Caves de Pyrene Italia is now the country’s leading distributor of artisan wines and ‘vini di territorio’, with around 17 reps on the road), Spain (La Cava de Pyrene) and Australia (Puncheon Bottles Pty).
Narioo and winemaker Anna Martens have six hectares of vineyard in Italy on Mount Etna (where else?) called Vino di Anna; Caves de Pyrene has a chain of wine-led restaurants (run as a separate company called Natural Wine Bars) in London, as well as similar joint-enterprises in Logroño and Melbourne; and Wregg and Narioo are the creators of The Real Wine Fair, the original natural/organic/biodynamic wine fair (the fifth edition will be 7-8 May 2017, at London’s Tobacco Dock). Caves de Pyrene is also, of course, a retail merchant in its own right – and the 400-page wine list (downloadable from the company website) is Wregg’s masterpiece; I hope somebody has saved a copy for the Bodleian Library. It’s packed with puns (he can pun like Grahm), quotations (everyone from Homer to Dolly Parton via Milton, Joyce, Neruda and Roland Barthes) and delicious disquisitions (busking in the best De Quincey tradition). There is nothing else in wine literature like it. It’s a treasure and if you’ve never spent an hour or two with it, make that one of your New Year resolutions.
I say ‘they’ – but the ownership of all of these ventures is a complicated one. “I started it all,” says Eric Narioo, “but whoever wanted then joined in. My idea was always to create a co-operative, but that doesn’t work because people don’t work at the same pace or put in the same effort. But the idea is still that if you want to take responsibility, you can.” Eleven of the 42 UK employees are shareholders, and all of the overseas ventures are partnerships. “The idea comes because the people are there. In Italy, we just allowed Christian Bucci (who had worked for us in the UK) to blossom. The only reason we started in Spain was because Alberto Ruiz was there. It’s the same with Christian McCabe and Patrick Sullivan in Australia. It’s not because we’re megalomaniac or like building an empire. What we like is taking a journey with people.”
There you are: the journey. Narioo is the only wine importer I have ever met who, when he wants to research a country, moves there first, on occasion uprooting his family – for three years in the case of Italy (where he still spends a quarter of the year) but for a few months in other places. “To us, wine wasn’t a business of selling; it was an activity that allowed us to have a journey and to travel the world. It was never about profit and dividends; it was always ‘let’s survive while we carry on doing what we like.’ Books are for sharing; music’s for sharing; wine’s no different. If you keep it to yourself, what’s the point?”
The same spirit animates the Real Wine Fair, which costs the company around £80,000 and takes up a quarter of Doug Wregg’s year, but which they regard as ‘an investment in communicating’. “I enjoy taking wines I really like and finding homes for them with people I really like,” says Wregg. “Forming a village community. Getting people in one place. Experiencing the whole thing. Putting back, to be sanctimonious about it.” Admirable – but all this can’t be easy. I don’t envy the company accountant.
And then came natural wines. These barely existed when I previously interviewed the wine trade’s odd couple. Many of the wines on the current list, too, are not made according to natural-wine tenets; Caves de Pyrene, happily, is not a fundamentalist wine merchant. But in any conversation you will soon come to realise that that is where the pair’s passion lies.
“There’s wine,” says Narioo, “and there’s chemical wine. My knowledge was built on chemical wines. And my palate; and my memory bank. When we began to move to wines that were not made in that way, I was thrown. But when I go down into my cellar now, I want to drink energy. Is the life and energy that exists in the vineyard allowed to go into the wine? Is it free wine? It’s such arrogance to believe that everything that matters about wine is what we’ve discovered in the last 50 years. What about the previous 4,000? Was it all rubbish wine? Of course not.” “The wheel is always turning,” adds Wregg. “Every revolution has a counter-revolution. Young growers like to be challenged. We ask them what would happen if they didn’t filter, or if they didn’t add sulphur. They say that it’s a good question; they try it. That’s our role. We can taste from tank or barrel, and commit to the wine. So the growers we are working with are changing all the time.”
Of course there have been plenty of ‘little accidents’ along the way. I recall the lament of another merchant: “If we sell a restaurant a wine like that, the sommelier rings us up and says it’s faulty. If he or she buys it from Cave de Pyrene, it’s great.”
Eric: At lunchtime today, I drank Chaffardon’s L’Incrédule – you remember, the wine we couldn’t sell. We’ve sat on it for five years now. ‘What can we do with this wine?’ we used to say. It was refermenting like mad; it was reduced – if you gave it to the cook to cook with, the cook would send it back.
Doug: Was that the ’09 or the ’10?
Eric: The `10.
Doug: Oh yes, because the `09 was actually sweet. And it had brett. And VA.
Eric: But when we opened the ‘10 at lunch: wow. Just delicious; really refreshing; so much energy in it; the wine had found its place.
Battle-weary old hands might sigh at all this, but you couldn’t have a successful wine business in four countries with wine bar, restaurant and wine fair bolt-ons without filling a need and providing customers with wines which excite them, which they feel are good value and which they want to drink and drink again. ‘Public’ palates, particularly young palates, are not as fixed and calibrated as those of professionals. And there is a growing cohort of consumers who want the powerfully attractive notion of ‘goodness’ in all of the products they buy. When that notion takes hold (you can call it purity or energy if you want), it adjusts all your parameters.
Anyway, things are changing. In my column in the current, January edition of Decanter magazine, I suggest that we may now need two different definitions of purity in wine (“the purity of sulphured and unsulphured wines may be parallel but not identical”). The purity of a traditionally made 9% Mosel Riesling Spätlese — with the spellbinding tension between sweetness and fruity acidity, its non-fruit flavours to which the word ‘mineral’ is often attached, and its astonishingly limpid fruit allusions — is a true purity; it cannot be attained without sulphur. But perhaps there is no less purity in a wine like the deep gold Kloster Ebernach 2014 Orange/Riesling from the Terrassenmosel which its winemaker Martin Cooper recently sent over to me: dry, tart, full of crab-apple invigoration. The two are just different.
Natural wine and other artisan wine styles represent an alternative reality, a parallel universe. We should continue to criticise their failures and scoundrelly impostures (springing from what another winemaking friend recently suggested to me should properly be called ‘non-winemaking’); what else will drive improvement? But we shouldn’t fail to recognise, as Narioo and Wregg insist, that there are historical forms of beauty we had forgotten about in this way of doing things. Truly skilled natural-wine practitioners can dazzle us. Perhaps, at some unspecified point far away in the future, the parallel universes will begin to elide.
And Caves de Pyrene (which you couldn’t predict, which by any business-school logic shouldn’t work, and which helped change everything) may still be journeying on. Narioo’s unsulphured, wild-yeast ferment of ideas, after all, continues to bubble. He has bulk wine in his sights next. You have been warned.
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