Boketto Moment with Ryan Nottingham of Terroirizer
Where’d you grew up and what was the food/drink culture like?
Andy and I both grew up in Virginia Beach and there wasn't much of a food/drink culture there per se. Virginia Beach definitely isn't known for being cutting edge in any culinary sense. People drink Bud Light. There's this one drink that VB put on the map called an Orange Crush that's a mix of orange vodka, triple sec, sprite, and orange juice, but that's about as fancy as VB would allow itself to get for a long time. On the food side, the cuisine was, for the most part, equally lackluster. Lots of seafood spots that just deep-fry everything and use a lot of imported seafood, which is insane to me since we were right on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and had access to some of the best seafood the world has to offer, but most restaurants didn't use it. As for wine, not many people there drink it and when they do, it's usually really crappy ten-buck-chuck from a chain grocery store or big, conventional, oaky California Cabs and buttery Chardonnays that have god knows how many chemical additives in them.
Luckily, things are slowly beginning to change with a few of the newer, hipper spots in VB beginning to push more locally-sourced seafood, produce, and natural wine. The main place that comes to mind is Love Song, which was opened at the oceanfront by a few of our closest friends last year. I always get a kick out of going to Love Song and watching VB natives light up with their first taste of natural wine. They taste how expressive and energetic a wine can be when it's not bogged down with chemicals and too many added sulfites. It's hard to go back to drinking dead wines once you've had a taste of the living energy that's in natural wine. My dad only drinks natural wine exclusively now and has been turning all of his friends onto it. I think there's hope for the scene in VB to improve. It just takes time and for those who are passionate about quality food and real wine to put in the effort to spread the word.
Can you say more about how you got into wine, and natural wine, specifically?
Fast forward a couple of years, Andy and I had moved to Richmond and were living together (just a few blocks from Boketto!). I was going to school at VCU and did a summer study abroad program in France. I lived with a host family and wine was a quintessential part of their everyday life. They would nonchalantly drink a bottle or two at lunch and easily three or four bottles at dinner. While I don't think the wines they were drinking were natural, they were far better than the Carlo Rossi that had haunted me for years, and I took an immediate interest in partaking. At first, I just thought it was cool for people to drink so casually over there. I was 20 years old and, like most kids that age, I liked to party. But my excuse to drink with my host family quickly morphed into a genuine curiosity about wine. I became very interested in learning about the different grape varieties, regions, and styles of the wines we were drinking.
When I returned home, I had become hooked on two things: A determination to move back to France and a fascination with wine. The next decade of my life can be summed up by my pursuit of those two things. I got a job as a server at Can Can Brasserie while I figured out how I was going to get myself back to France. Can Can had the most extensive wine program of any restaurant in Richmond at the time. The wine director, Bob Talcott, took a quick liking to me because of my desire to learn as much as I could about wine. He'd often hold wine classes for staff and there were times when I was the only one to show up. Bob would regularly come up to me with a glass of wine, have me smell it and take a taste, and then grill me for as many details I could give him about what was in the glass. Although all the wines that Bob curated were conventional (he thought natural wine was a hipster fad), I learned a ton working with him and my time at Can Can was a catalyst for my broader journey into wine.
Fast forward again a couple of years, I had lived in France for a few years and while living there, I was always dead broke, but luckily wine was cheaper than beer, so my passion for exploring wine continued. In 2014, I went up to Paris for a long weekend and while at a little bistro, I heard a server refer to the wines they were pouring as "natural". With my interest piqued, I gave them a wave and asked for a glass of what they were pouring. The wine was 2013 Poivre et Sel by Olivier Lemasson, a blend of mostly Pineau d'Aunis with a little Gamay from the Loire Valley. I was blown away. The electric energy in the wine was unlike anything I had ever had before. It was so fresh, so expressive, and it seemed to zap my lips with each sip and then dance around on my tongue with a zippy playfulness I'd never experienced before. The wine was alive and it made me question everything I thought I knew about wine. That was it. With that one glass, I had caught the natural wine bug. I had fallen headfirst down the natural wine wormhole, never to be satisfied by a muted, dead wine ever again. I'm still happily falling down that wormhole and just like a drop on a roller coaster, discovering new natural wine with that same energy still gives me butterflies.
If someone asks to define natural wine, you’d say…
To quote one of my favorite natural wine writers, Alice Feiring, "Natural wine is wine without shit in it." I think when people ask what natural wine is, it’s important to first consider what natural wine isn't. When thinking about wine production, I like to break it down into two parts: 1) the farming of the grapes and 2) the cellar work of turning grapes into wine. On the farming side, conventional winemakers employ all sorts of harmful chemicals to try to make Mother Nature bend her knee to their will. Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are all commonly sprayed in conventional wine grape farming to fight off challenges posed by nature and to increase yields to drive up profits. At this point, I think most people agree that we don't want our produce sprayed with harmful chemicals. Most of us opt for organic produce at the grocery store, yet when we walk over to the wine aisle, we quickly forget that the wine on display started out as grape juice, so why do so many people buy organic grapes to eat, but then pay no mind to whether or not the grapes in their glass were held to the same farming standards? There's a disconnect. First and foremost, natural wine must come from organic or biodynamic grapes.
As for the cellar work of turning grapes into wine, most people don't realize that there are over 75 chemical additives that are legally allowed to be put into wine without any disclosure of them on the bottle. From seemingly less harmful additives, like added sugar or oak chips, to strange ones, like fish bladders and egg whites, to downright toxic ones, like dimethyl dicarbonate, which is so toxic that it must be applied by specialists in hazmat suits, there is a lot of weird stuff that people add to wine in conventional winemaking. I don't know about you, but if someone needs to wear a hazmat suit during any step of producing something I'm going to consume, wine or otherwise, it's a hard pass for me. Natural wine is made without any of these additives.
Lastly, natural wine is always made with native yeasts. For most, a primary objective of making a natural wine is to form a connection with nature, which means respecting the biodiversity of where the grapes are grown, even on a microscopic level. There are tons of different lab-made yeasts out there that conventional winemakers buy and use to emphasize flavors and aromas they desire. Natural wine isn’t about manipulating nature into giving us what we want. It’s about collaborating with nature, finding harmony between her actions and ours, so that she can show us the natural beauty she’s capable of creating.
The one additive that is permitted in natural wine is a minuscule amount of added sulfites, only when necessary of course. Sulfites exist in all wine as a byproduct of the natural fermentation process, but sometimes a very small additional amount is needed to bring a wine together and stabilize it. In conventional wines, sulfite levels are allowed to be as high as 210 ppm (parts per million) for whites and 160 ppm for reds. The maximum amount added to most natural wines is 20 to 30 ppm, and often even a lot less. The ultimate goal, in my opinion, is to make a wine with zero added sulfites, but this just simply isn’t always possible and requires optimal climate conditions, a perfect harvest, and an extremely skilled winemaker in the cellar. When a wine has zero additions in the vineyard and zero additions in the cellar, we call the wine zero/zero. The vast majority of my favorite wines are zero/zero, but I wouldn’t say I love a wine because it’s zero/zero. I love it because the climate conditions were so great and the winemaker so skilled that they were able to make the wine zero/zero. A subtle, but important difference.TL;DR: Natural wine is wine made by real people from organic grapes, using native yeasts, and with no additives other than a minuscule amount of sulfites when absolutely necessary.
Describe the moment you decided to create Terroirizer?
I’ve fallen so far down the natural wine wormhole that starting a shop has felt like a logical progression for a long time. I’ve shared my love of wine with a lot of friends and over the years I’ve been nudged by many of them to open a shop. For a long time, I didn’t want to turn my passion into a business, but then I slowly started to think that maybe my passion for natural wine is exactly the reason why I should do something like Terroirizer. I just never wanted natural wine to not be fun anymore, and I worried that starting a business around it could become stressful or feel like a chore. But after all, sharing wine with people is my favorite pastime and I think with Terroirizer, we try to have such a lighthearted and playful vibe that perhaps I’ve shielded myself from ever taking it too seriously.
The moment it really clicked was one day at band practice I announced that I was thinking about starting a wine shop and, without hesitation, Andy looked up and said, “I’ll do that with you!”, and here we are. I’m so glad he did because I couldn’t have ever done this without him. I’m the one with the wine knowledge, but he’s everything else from Operations to IT, creative design, and Marketing. We complement each other well and working on Terroirizer often feels like we’re just kids again trying to make something cool like we have with music projects and other creative outlets together for so many years.
Looking at your website, I see you’re a fan of a curse word and middle finger. Is it fair to say it’s an intentional part of your brand?
Haha! Yes, it’s totally intentional. Wine shops have a tendency to be some of the stuffiest places on earth. I’ve had friends tell me stories about them going to a wine shop and having some old man make them feel stupid for not knowing exactly what they’re looking for, so they ended up leaving and just bought some beer instead. There shouldn’t be a learning curve that someone has to overcome in order to buy and enjoy a bottle of wine. We’ve branded Terroirizer in a way that hopefully brings a welcomed lightheartedness to the wine buying experience. We want to make wine more approachable and demystify the notion that you have to have a ton of classical training and a sommelier pin on a blazer in order to know about wine. We want to make it fun.
Likewise, Terroirizer is meant to be rebellious. Natural winemakers are often rebels in their own right, putting up their proverbial middle finger to the industrial wine complex. Natural wine producers have received a ton of pressure over the years to adopt more conventional practices. Whether it be pressure from neighboring winemakers to spray their vines with pesticides or pressure from governing bodies to make their wines taste more conventional so they can get certifications that help wines sell faster and for higher prices, natural winemakers put up with a lot of ridicule and sacrifice bigger profit margins just so they can stay true to their values and principles. There’s a lot of alignment between what the natural wine movement is doing and punk rock values, and Terroirizer aims to capture that with our look and feel.
How do you figure what bottles of wine to feature in your Wine Club and online shop?
For the online shop, everything has to be natural and it has to taste good. There’s a lot of dishonest wine out there, like “clean wine" gimmicks and fraudulent wine companies that claim their wine is natural when it isn’t, so it’s important that we know how to navigate around any spoof and only bring in legit, real wines. I’m sure Boketto can relate with that since there’s a lot of snake oil in the wellness industry too! One of the best ways to know that a wine is truly natural is to turn the bottle around and see who imported it. We work with a number of importers we know to be trustworthy. Furthermore, any wine we sell has to come from a distributor first and our favorites are Native Selections and Plant Wines. They’re the best and we couldn’t exist without them.
As for the wine club, we curate the true gems from our selection. I try to keep a theme for each month’s club wines because I think exploring wines that have a common thread is a great way to form connections to wine and learn. I’ve been working with my friend Shawn at Native Selections on a few direct imports that have been and will continue to be featured in the club. Each year I go to France and Spain to visit producers and I’ve formed some really great friendships with winemakers along the way. Thierry Diaz was our first direct import together. I met Thierry in 2019 and we quickly formed a friendship. It just so happened that he’s an incredibly talented winemaker and was looking to break into the US market. Shawn and I imported his wines and now Terroirizer is the only shop in the US that carries them. We have a few more of these direct imports with different producers arriving soon and it’s exciting to us that Terroirizer will be able to help spread the word about these incredible wines that are hitting the US market for the first time. We keep the wine club fun by offering music pairings, recipes from our talented friends in the restaurant industry, and more detailed write-ups on the featured producers and wines. I’m passionate about all the wines we carry in the shop, but the wine club is what I really pour my heart into.
What makes a certain wine a favorite— for you, personally?
Energy and freshness. Freshness refers to the sensation of how a wine’s acidity interplays with flavor components like the fruit profiles, earthy tones, or savory notes in a wine. Energy is, well, tough to explain. When a wine has energy, you can just feel it. I recognize that both of these terms are a bit heady to contemplate, but so are my favorite wines! In order for a wine to become a favorite of mine, it usually has to have great complexity, yet simplicity at the same time. Like an orchestra of a hundred musicians all playing different instruments and parts, but finding harmony together in a song. You can find wines like this in any style, whether it be a red, white, orange, or even rosé, but to get super specific, I love a red that shows a bit of barnyard funk, with really ripe brooking fruit laced in, and nice acidity to give it lift and bring everything together. When I find a wine like this it stops me dead in my tracks.
If you could have a glass of wine with any person, past/present/fictional, who would it be? Which bottle would you bring to the table for them?
During one of my stints living in France, I was going to school in a southern town on the Mediterranean called Montpellier. I was 23 years old and dead broke. I could rarely afford to drink in bars so I’d buy cheap wine or beers and hang out with friends in parks and public squares. I met and became close friends with this guy Ruben who was a vagrant drifter with a heart of gold. He came from a super rich family and had become jaded by capitalist society and peoples’ thirst for material possessions, so he threw everything away and began busking for change that afforded him a simpler life on his own terms, refusing to work for “the man.” Ruben and I looked out for one another and had a ton of fun, often playing songs drunkenly in the streets until the early morning hours for spare change that would afford us another beer or a cheap meal. We felt like true Dharma bums. I learned a lot from him about life, more than I ever learned in any classroom, and I’ll always look back on those times with Ruben very fondly.
I eventually had to say goodbye to Ruben and move back to the US when my visa expired. A few years passed and one day I found myself back in Richmond in a wine shop searching for a natural wine with energy like the one I had tasted in that Parisian bistro. On the shelf, I spotted a bottle of wine called Ruben, a 2013 Cabernet Franc by Domaine Bobinet, and knew it was the one. I brought it home, pulled the cork, and to my delight it was one of the greatest, most lively and beautiful bottles I’ve ever had. The real deal natural stuff. Sadly, I received word a few years ago that Ruben has moved on into Spain, but no one from our clique is sure of where. Ruben certainly isn’t keen on social media, so I’m left not knowing if our paths will ever cross again. If I could drink any bottle of wine with anyone, I’d find Ruben and bring a bottle of 2013 Ruben to the table, or the street corner, as it would be more appropriate. I’ve got one bottle of 2013 Ruben left and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to open it. Luckily, Terroirizer is stocked up on 2019 Ruben, so I still get to enjoy the wine and it remains one of my favorites.
Fun fact: Ruben was the subject of a documentary that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 called Down & Out in Cannes. A truly eccentric and beautiful figure, Ruben was larger than life.
What does a moment of rest, recharging, or nourishment look like for you? (aka: your Boketto Moment…)
My wife owns a yoga studio here in Richmond, The Yoga Dojo, and she practices a number of wellness techniques like meridian therapy, cupping, and Gua Sha. When I've had a particularly long day, she'll often guide me through restorative yoga or practice any of those techniques on me. I especially love the Gua Sha and cupping she does, but my favorite is when I'm feeling anxious and having a hard time getting to sleep, she'll give me a face massage using Marie Veronique oils that she gets from Boketto and I always sleep like a baby afterwards. I'm very spoiled in the personal wellness department! Another favorite self-care practice of mine is going to Boketto to see my friend, Nic Pitts, of Onward Acupuncture. Nic is insanely talented and has taken the time to really connect with me on a human level. I'm super thankful that I have her and Boketto to go to when I need to reset.
Join Terroirizer Wine Club or buy a bottle (case), here.
Learn more about natural wine via The Wine Zine, here.