You may never have heard of Joe Dressner. But if you live in the Triangle and care at all about wine, or eat in the area's better restaurants, you almost surely know Dressner in a peculiarly intimate way. You've virtually swallowed him, in fact.
Dressner, who died last month at age 60 after a long battle against brain cancer, was a wine importer. His New York-based company, Louis/Dressner, co-named with his wife and business partner, Denyse Louis, specializes in predominantly small-production French wines. Most cost less than $25. The Louis/Dressner label on the back of a bottle guarantees that what's inside contains no or minimal chemicals or mechanical manipulation; that it was made by people rather than by machines; and that it is a unique wine from a unique place, made by unique hands, mostly farmers and families. All of Louis/Dressner's wines have character—some of them, like Dressner, are characters—and you might not even like them all.
Louis/Dressner imports mostly "natural wines," although Joe Dressner was far from doctrinaire about that. Iconoclastic to the extreme, he delighted in denigrating the very term he helped popularize, and its ideological adherents. "The Natural Wine Movement abhors earnestness," Dressner once wrote. "Humorless activism to promote wine is an oxymoron. Getting smashed, eating well and laughing with good friends are key to our movement. We also enjoy being contemptuous of other people around us, somewhat randomly, particularly when we are on the second or third bottle."
That put-on flippancy masks serious commitment—indeed, earnestness and activism—on behalf of good wine, natural or not. Dressner went to law school, marched for Marx during Vietnam and had an early career as a freelance journalist. His background made him argumentative, committed to authentic means of production (and farming) and keenly attentive. He could be, well, sour grapes, airing grudges and disputes publicly (and needlessly). He fought with enemies and friends, competitors and allies, clients and winemakers, and he appared to love most of the people he fought with. His relationships with his vignerons were personal. He worried about their finances, but he also asked them hard questions, explored their vineyards, questioned their use of chemicals like sulfur dioxide.
Were his the grapes of wrath, then? No: "He didn't like wine to be too serious."
So says Nathan Vandergrift. About eight years ago, Vandergrift co-founded Centerba Selections, a Durham-based wine distribution company, with Ken Rosati. From the outset, they wanted to sell Louis/Dressner wines. Both Rosati and Vandergrift were veterans of the food and wine business. Rosati, who is from the Triangle, had been living in New York City and had come to know Dressner through Vandergrift. (Fittingly, both Rosati and Vandergrift recall getting into long arguments with Dressner, one of which got the latter two thrown out of a restaurant in France. "We continued to argue in the parking lot," Vandergrift says.)
Rosati returned to Durham with his family in 2003, "just when they were renovating the buildings in Durham, just when they were going to build the Durham Farmers' Market a pavilion." Rosati wanted to continue working in food and wine here—but not as a wine merchant.
"I was going to open a restaurant." Rosati wanted to serve Dressner's wines, which both improve, and are improved by, good, unpretentious food (in fact, as Rosati put it, "wines are food"), moderate alcohol levels, balanced acidity and a shared naturalness.
"But all my friends said, 'Ken, get the wines first.' Centerba was predicated on working with Joe."
How did Dressner respond?
"He told us we were nuts."
Dressner had successful distribution in larger cities like New York and San Francisco, but he didn't think the Triangle was big enough to support his niche wines. Also, Rosati joked, "I think he was worried we were just going put all the wines in our cellar."
Rosati persisted, though, and not for his cellar's sake. "The Triangle has this population that's very educated. They support local farmers. They travel. The restaurants support the farmers, and the locals support the restaurants. These were the kinds of wines we wanted: wines from growers, from people. It was this local farming idea; we just had to go across the pond to get it. We were bringing local, grower wine here."
Dressner visited and that convinced him. "He ate at Vin Rouge and had the tartiflette there. He said, 'I don't believe this. You can't get tartiflette like this in France!'" Nor did it hurt that Vandergrift's family knew Dressner, and that Nathan's brother, John, would soon be opening Rue Cler, a pioneer in downtown Durham's food renaissance. For Rue Cler, he wanted an all-Louis/Dressner wine list.
"Joe had an eye for people," Rosati says. "He had a knack for knowing if people were doing what they said they would do. He had no place for pretenders."
Eight years later, Louis/Dressner is perhaps the official wine of Triangle gastronomy. (Centerba now supplies all of North Carolina, and Louis/Dressner provides about half of Centerba's portfolio.) That is not only a testament to the dedication of Centerba but also to the consanguinity of the regional food culture and the wines made by Louis/Dressner's vignerons: farm-driven, averse to overmanipulation, handcrafted and uncompromising. "They feel like their wines fit here," Rosati says.
The winemakers themselves fit here. One of them, Eric Texier, now takes a vacation in Durham every year. Earlier this year, Dressner agreed to include the Triangle, for the first time, in his producers' annual tour of the U.S. At Pop's in March, about 25 vignerons from France, Italy and Portugal set up at tables around the dining room, pouring their wines and talking about them to visitors, one by one—not as marketers but as farmers, as people. Dressner made the wines personal.
"All of Joe's relationships were personal," Rosati says, even when the relationship Dressner was building simply helped him market his wines. Yet there was no contradiction. As Nathan Vandergrift puts it, "even the self-promoting part of Joe was authentically Joe."
Joe Dressner survived more than two years past doctors' prognoses. He was stubborn and vivacious and surprisingly long-lived, just like his vignerons and their wines. (Spend about $17 on one of Domaine de la Pepière's muscadets, lose it in your cellar for a decade, be amazed). He died right around the time when most of his vignerons were picking the fruit from their vines. It's tempting to ferment some poetry out of that singular timing, but Dressner would surely have laughed off the corny suggestion that he, along with the grapes, had reached his natural harvest time.
The last words he wrote on his personal blog ("The Amazing Misadventures of Captain Tumor Man") were: "The wines and winemakers speak for themselves. They don't need fake posturing."
"Joe was known for drawing lines in the sand," Rosati says. "It turned out he didn't have any." He had only one posture, really, and it was a simple one, according to Vandergrift: "Wine is for drinking."