Jenny Lefcourt - Founded Jenny & François Selections. Became most respected U.S. natural wine import
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I will be celebrating our twentieth anniversary with a big party in NYC on April 19. Everyone should sign up for our newsletter and join us! I started with my now ex-partner Francois, roaming the back roads of France and asking questions about how these wild and interesting wines we were drinking are made. I finished a PhD in French film, but decided to start importing wine instead of pursuing a career in academia. In the beginning, we had no money and were bringing bottles of wine in our carry-on luggage and trying to find retail homes for them in NYC.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Driving south one day, we called Hervé Souhaut in St. Joseph, the Northern Rhone. We tasted in his incredible cellar, heard about what natural winemaking really is, and then tasted wine made by all his friends. We literally couldn’t peel ourselves away.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Sharing wonderful wine and dinner at the homes of dear winemaker friends.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
In France, if a bunch of male professionals are tasting somewhere I am not known, they will hardly make room for me and the winemaker won’t make an effort to pour me a taste of wine unless I really push. There is an assumption that I am not as important as whatever shop owner is trying to taste a wine at a tasting. Of course, I am probably the one with the biggest buying power standing there. Usually I don’t mind because then if I don’t like the wine, I can just walk away. I put my “invisible” status as a woman towards saving time.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are harder/more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each and change that behavior?
Practicing kindness and generosity takes practice and effort in our busy world. As women in wine, we should do better to take the time to mentor others, to show support for women-owned businesses, and to be there for each other in general. I am a big believer in showing support for the underdog in any circumstance. If someone has power, whether a man or a woman, it is important to be aware of power imbalances and respect and listen to those with less power.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
As in other industries, the more women support and mentor women, the more companies think about equity, the more opportunities there will be, and we can work towards equal pay and more women-owned businesses.
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
For one, there is more awareness now of problems around sexual harrasment and abuse in the world of hospitality and wine. We need to push more for the hospitality industry to put better practices of protecting women in place (women not closing up alone with a man, women having an HR department to talk to, perhaps for smaller places if companies join together to hire a joint HR firm that can hear complaints. Looking at wine sales and the difficult situations women can find themselves in tasting wine with men. Talking about how to avoid certain situations as a woman. Having difficult and complex conversations where everyone feels safe to express themselves is important. And of course, having wider conversations with the LGBTQ community, better supporting minorities in the wine world.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
You can do anything you set your mind to. Dream big, work hard, and you will get where you want to go.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equal pay, equal opportunity, and more respect. To me, there has been a revolution in the wine world since I started working 20 years ago. There are many more women buyers and women sommeliers than there were back in the day. The next revolution is to see more minorities in the wine world with equal pay and equal respect.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I hope that people seeing a woman owner of a successful wine import business inspires young women to know that they can do anything they want in the wine world and beyond. I have a blast traveling to international wine tastings with ten powerful women wine professionals, and turning heads at some of the tastings, as people are still surprised by this. I think it changes ideas about what expertise in the wine world looks like.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
We have superhuman powers for sure.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Lee Campbell is someone I have known for 18 years. We figured it out the other night! She is one of the few African-American women in wine of my generation that I know who has been working as a wine professional for so many years. I admire her for her strength, professionalism, and the confidence she shows in any situation. She is one of the most charismatic people I know in the wine world. Everyone knows and loves her. Lorena Ascencios is another woman in wine I have known for just as long. She worked her way up to head buyer at Astor Wines over many years. We are philosophically aligned in wine and often in life. She gives the best mothering advice, and has given Jenny & Francois Selections unwavering support all these years. We did “Natural Winemakers’ Week” in partnership with Astor for 11 years, thanks to Lorena. Astor was home away from home to many natural winemakers coming to New York in the early years, before any of the other fairs came along. I truly owe her a lot, but she would never make me feel that way. She gives me her quiet and unwavering support, for which I am forever grateful. Lorena’s is the kind of kindness and support without which I never would have found my way to success.