Jonathan Ross of Legend - Australian Wine Imports

Wine as Place: A Conversation with Jonathan Ross of LEGEND

Jonathan Ross and Jane Lopes don’t want to flip the script, they want to rewrite it. Whether we’re talking about natural wine, or the Australian wine scene, there are no shortage of hot, well-informed takes to be had from the owners of LEGEND Imports. Take, for instance, how Jonathan treats the phrases “old world” and “new world” wine: “I kind of want to get to the point where I say that Australia is the old world, but I don't think people are ready for that."

Whether or not the world is ready for the conversations, Jonathan and Jane are having them. Legend Imports is an outfit that brings small to midsize producers of responsibly made, Australian wine to the USA. It’s just under two years old and began when they moved back to the U.S.A. from Australia in 2020. They have a collective 40 years in the wine industry — they’re both sommeliers — and six working in Australia’s best restaurants as well as prestigious U.S. eateries.

Their book is small — right now, 19 producers — and their wines can be found in just 14 states. Note that we don’t say “naturally made”: While all their producers could be classified as natural — and fit Dedalus’s definition of natural wine — Jonathan and Jane eschew the term.

They also just spent the last year conducting interviews with over 100 winemakers and growers for a book they’re writing on Australian wine. On top of that, Jonathan makes his own wines under the label Micro Wines — although he hasn’t been able to get back into Australia for harvest since the borders closed during the first wave of COVID-19.

We sat down with Jonathan to discuss his thoughts on natural wine, the challenges of growing in Australia, and how wine is more than a product of place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Natural wine” has become “99 points.” I don't think that that was ever its intention, but it's where it's gone.

                                                   — Jon Ross

Sadie: So I guess the first question off the bat is, what does the phrase natural wine mean to you?

Jonathan: When a consumer talks about natural wine, for me, it shows it shows me some interest. Here’s a consumer who's been bitten by the bug and is excited about wine, who wants to hear more about it. I think that the word “natural” or the category “natural wine” has done wine a service in that respect, but I think it's time for us to move beyond that label and have more nuanced conversations. “Natural wine” has become “99 points.” I don't think that that was ever its intention, but it's where it's gone.

Jane and I distill [natural wine]  down to four different buckets — or tenets. I think you have the aesthetic — packaging, and maybe the way the wine looks in that package. It's very simple to buy the poorest quality, machine-harvested fruit and turn that into a hazy orange wine with a neon package, and sell it as natural wine. 

Then there are farming practices, and there are a ton of people that do not [identify with] the natural wine community that farm in ways that the natural wine community might believe to be a required tenet for natural wine. You know,  Louis Roederer is the largest biodynamic farmer of champagne. We would never consider that natural wine. And it's more natural than half of the natural wines on shelves around the world. 

Then you also have the way wine interacts with people. So whether it's labor practices, or whether it's relationships to local indigenous communities, I think that there's a people component that the natural wine world has opened the wine world's eyes to. And that’s probably the most important contribution that natural wine has made to our industry.

And then you know, you have a flavor profile, and I think flavor profile goes in and dovetails into winemaking practices, the process behind making the wine.

There are a lot of producers that have interesting mixes of those things. I’ll use a producer in Australia named Cullen as an example, a second-generation estate in Margaret River. They just had their 50th anniversary, they’re a carbon-positive, biodynamic, regenerative farm. They are an absolute leader in that space. They have incredible relationships with the local Wadandi nation in the Margaret River, to the point where they actually operate on a six-season calendar, which is what most really ancient cultures operate on. However, their labels are very traditional and no one would ever call these wines natural wines. We don't think of it [as natural] because it's missing a lot of volatility, or a tie-dye label.

Sadie: I've never heard somebody tackle it from the perspective of, “This is an indicator of interest,” and I think that's a really awesome perspective.

Jonathan: You know, it's funny. There's a small boutique-y hotel that's not far from us and they have a bar there, but they have a pop-up wine bar and it's run by a person who’s been in the wine community here for quite some time. She's awesome, and it's a natural wine bar.  And she goes, “It’s natural, but it's not funky. It's not like this. It's like this.” 

Now, natural wine conversations have to come with a ton of disclaimers to say what it isn't. And I think we're at the point now where we need to move beyond the word “natural” and say, “This wine is funky. This wine is farmed biodynamically. This one is made without preservatives,” and actually talk about what it is about the wine that's important to us rather than using some kind of ambiguous word that requires further definition.

Sadie: So, do you make wine that some people would consider natural? And what would you call the wine that you make?

Jonathan: So for me, wine is not natural. Nothing about wine is natural. A vineyard is the opposite of the environment that a vine wants to be in. The reason why vineyards produce ripe fruit is because the vine is doing the only thing it can to move away from that place. So for me, there's nothing natural about it.

But so, you know, I make a Cinsault.  It's biodynamically farmed. There's nothing added to it except for a tiny bit of sulfur. It has a black and hot pink label because I think that's what the wine tastes like. It's unfined, unfiltered, and I could sell it as natural wine anywhere I want to. But I want to sell it as Cinsault, farmed biodynamically, from an 80-year-old vineyard, in this very specific place. And I think that the word “natural” takes away from all of those things. I just think that it overshadows and takes away from conversations about people and place, and that's what is the most important thing in wine for me. 

Sadie: So do you communicate that on your labels, “farmed biodynamically?”

Jonathan: For me, I put the place and that's it. I've not been one to communicate a lot on labels. But in the past year and a half of selling wine, wholesale to retailers and restaurants, I’m realizing that greater communication on labels would be helpful. The two changes that I am making to my own labels currently are communication or acknowledgment of country, of the original and still traditional custodians of those lands, and working on finding a labeler that will print labels with Braille and with QR codes for low-vision consumers. 

Sadie: What are the unique challenges of farming in Australia, the way some of the people in your portfolio farm — whether it’s biodynamically, organically, sustainably — what are the unique challenges you face farming in that kind of minimal impact way.

Jonathan: From a farming perspective, I fully believe in the removal of synthetics, but I believe more in doing whatever allows a specific piece of land and business to sustain itself. So, an example there is a producer in our portfolio, Chalmers, who is just a really unique story. They started off as a bulk wine grape grower and nursery in a pretty warm area that's typically irrigated and in the 90s, a lot of their research brought them to transition from the continental European French grapes to Mediterranean grapes and specifically Italian grapes. And today, they have imported over 75 different clones of Italian grape varieties. They say the switch to Mediterranean varieties meant that they didn't have to irrigate as much. Because the climate is much more suited to that.

Chalmers

For them, their biggest issue is under-vine competition for moisture — so, the grass under vine is taking up moisture that would be for the vine. The traditional way to farm that would be to incorporate a bunch of synthetic herbicides to kill weeds and grass, and you see what most vineyards looked like throughout the world in the 80s —it was just dirt and vines, and irrigation wires or lines. That's not what they want to do. 

So there are three approaches to getting rid of all these weeds. They can hand weed and mow the lawn, but the wine would be really expensive and they would never sell it [because of Australia’s high minimum wage]. 

And because they don't want to run tractors, they [could have taken] the organic approach — and they did this for a while — and spray vinegar on all the grass and weeds. But it’s an application that needed to be done eight to 12 times a year. So they were starting to change the pH of their soil, which started to degrade the positive growth in the soils, and they were using a ton of water to do it, it cost them about $200 a ton more to farm, and the wines weren’t as good. 

So today, what they use is a synthetic — it's essentially like rock salt, dissolved. It's nonresidual, it burns off in the sun, but you spray it on weeds once and they go away and that's it. They don't use up a bunch of water to do it. So because they do that currently — and they're looking for a different organic approach — they can't be certified organic anymore. But it is so obviously more sustainable for them to farm that way, than to just adhere to a certification that really was written for a continental European climate.

 Bruce Chalmers

Sadie: Thank you for sharing these perspectives. Do you have anything else that you would want to share with us? Anything else about why you're doing what you're doing or bringing Australian wine to the U.S.?

Jonathan:  Indigenous culture, in Australia, references country a lot. So we might say that we're on, you know, Cadigal land, or we talked about an indigenous community, that's been there for a long time. And we name [the indigenous population] as the traditional owners of the land, but they look at it as custodianship.  But the word “country” encompasses everything, whether it's people, cosmos, other living things — everything is connected.

I used to think that wine was a very true example of place, right? Then after being in Australia for a while, I kind of really just thought that wine is more of a lens or a product of people's connection to place and how they care for it. 

But then kind of very recently…there's a curator of the South Australian Museum of Aboriginal history and Australia and he just published a book called “Balgo: Creating Country,” and it was very much about uncovering lost art and so on. But he talks about how the artwork itself isn't an example of country, or an example of place, or a product of people in place, but that it is country. When you think of the energy, emotion, resources, and intention that someone in a place puts forth to create something. All of those things are part of that place.

And I think that what we've realized is that wine is not “of a place” or, you know, “a sense of place.” It's not “a lens into a place”. It's not a lens or product of a connection to a place. It is that place, because it is a result of people's resources, intention, and emotion, and work in it. It's as much of a part of a place as a tree or a rock, and if anything more so, because so many other things have come together to create it. 

And I think that if we start looking at wine as part of a place or an extension of a place and not, you know, a product or result of things that happened in that place, I think we'll get away from a one-size-fits-all approach to wine.