The world of wine lost one of its real originals this weekend when Joe Dressner, the New York-based importer, died after a three-year battle with brain cancer. Joe was a leading proponent of natural winemaking and defined his business by bringing in wines from producers, mainly from France and Italy, who didn’t overly manipulate their wines and who usually followed organic or biodynamic methods. Joe believed in honesty in winemaking and honesty in the wine business. I was struck, not long ago, by a thread on Twitter in which he took on someone in the business he perceived as not being transparent. Joe was outspoken and could be direct, although he never made me feel uncomfortable in a number of conversations and meetings we had over the years. Joe was passionate. He was interesting, and so are his wines, which, for me, is the best thing a wine can be. Opulent fruit was far less important to him than a expression of place and vintage that give soul to a wine.
I think I was introduced to Joe’s wines many years ago by David Lillie, now a proprietor of Chambers Street Wines in New York. I called David this afternoon for a thought or two about his close friend. “He was extremely faithful with his friendships and very loyal to people,” David recalled. As for his evolution in wine, “Joe just started to realize what kind of wine he liked. And that was accelerated by our trips to the Loire Valley and Beaujolais.” It was in those regions that both men came to appreciate the wines of such producers as Jean-Paul Brun and Marc Olivier, among others, who emphasized good work in the vineyard, non-intervention, reliance on wild yeasts for fermentation and organic growing. “Joe realized that those were the wines he enjoyed the most and those were the people he enjoyed the most.” I remember running into Joe at a large tasting in the Loire Valley last year and then, a few days later, at Charles de Gaulle where he was waiting for the flight back to New York with his wife and business partner, Denyse Louie. He looked okay and seemed to be fighting the good fight against his cancer. But he was more interested in how I had been and what I was up to. That’s the kind of guy Joe Dressner was.