212: Organic Grapes | First Vine Wine Imports and blog | Tom Natan | Washington, DC

Tom Natan First Vine

first vine wine

Tom Natan from First Vine  Wine Imports has been very patient with my schedule and we are talking in August and I am just posting it today in February!

Thanks I’ve been listening to a few of the podcasts and its been really fun.

I’m gonna give the credit to my guests because I love podcasting. It’s so great to meet people who think like I do. It just seems like I have been meeting a lot of different people this year. I am in fourth grade this year and the kids just jumped on the composting. Our garden is in full bloom so I’ve been bringing in dragon’s tongue beans the kids have been loving and carrots and apples and zukes for staff and parents!

Tell us a little about yourself.

A chemical engineer by training after college I worked for a food product development company. So my work history at least initially was always about food and I’ve always loved cooking.

a little bit of knowledge

My dad came to US when he

taught us a little bit about it. He was also kind of a beer person. So it was kind of up to me to educate myself. After grad school I ended up in DC. I was working ofr and environmental consulting firm and then I worked for an environmental advocacy organization

I met people all over the world interested in the environment and

I met a woman who was  married to a vineyard in Provence

went to visit in 2002

don’t make it to the US. I don’t think people aren’t aware of how much wine is made all over the world.

In the Rhone Valley in SE France

6000 vineyards in an area the size of the boroughs of Manhattan. The majority of it isn’t gonna make it over here. The idea percolated for a lot of years to get the wines over

We started with 7 wines from 4 producers and it was really fun to get those first shipments. To see those pallets coming in. Then you have to figure out a way to sell them. The whole process of importing wine is full of admin details. A lot of people would find really tedious, but I love that part of the job. I’m not a natural born salesman so that is the toughest part for me

It allowed me to combine my education and work background to doing something completely different

environmental work

As everyone is aware politics is a cyclical thing. You work hard to get something done and the admin changes, they can for the most part can take a lot of it away

directing agencies not to enforce or not directing resources towards projects. Once something gets taken away it takes 2xs as long to get it back.

It was time to get out of that kind of merry-go-ground

Im kind of a bitter and cynical person and that was just making me more bitter and cynical.

by and large nobody’s in the wine business because they have to be

  • make the wine
  • families have been making wines for generations
  • people who drink it obviously they like it

The importer to consumer chain it’s filled with lots of nice people

I’ve really enjoyed it so far

My background has allowed me to delve into

  • fermentation I had to study as an
  • undergrad
  • also theories behind the agriculture
  • how they relate to the kinds of foods that we eat and know

I import wines from

  • france
  • spain
  • italy


definition of organic is different

  • biodynamic
  • sustainable

more and more as how food is produced

probably interested in how their wines are produced.

probably 5-6 years ago, I’m not sure people wouldn’t have given it that much thought

go to the farmer’s market buy some tomatoes and they shake the farmer’s hand at the farmer’s market and go home pick a bottle of wine from their wine rack and not think so much about how that wine was produced. That’s really changed a lot

wine industry

big industry next door in VA

see how wines are made

Laws in DC don’t allow wineries to pour wine at farmer’s markets. You can’t get a permit to sell wine at farmer’s markets

great way to learn more too. In the meantime I’m

  • blogging
  • talking to people
  • talking to customers

wine is an agriculture product. 

Isn’t it that the 27% of the chemicals in France are on the grapes.

yes and no

first of all

when we say pesticides

pesticides are insecticides

cover a whole range of chemicals

Most that get used on grapes at least outside the US are fungicides

big beautiful grape vines with their big beautiful leaves

if conditions are pretty wet then if they don’t dry out properly, if the grape growers don’t separate the leaves so they don’t get stuck together you can get a lot of fungus growing. 

So in very limited circumstances at least in France the growers are allowed to use a fungicide application that is closely regulated

if they don’t use it, usually a copper sulfate product, they have to get out their and separate the leaves by hand if they have had bad weather you can imagine how difficult that is to do when you have an enormous vineyard

By and large they are not allowed to

  • fertilize
  • insecticides
  • or irrigate

the idea


they are not allowed to irrigate

grape vines have enormously long roots

as they

they are not allowed to surface irrigate or even drip irrigate in most cases if they do that.

How come is there a water shortage?

Because they’ve determined it makes better wine. If the plants are stressed and the roots have to go way way down into the soil then you get more soil contact with the roots

they believe that’s what gives each village


I can taste enormous variation


terrain and soil

grapevines getting roots to find soil and water

There certainly are places in France where there are water shortage

But you wouldn’t be able to grow anything else in it for centuries

Some techniques were perfected by the knight’s back in the 12th century.


codified in the early 20th century..

what grapes would go into wines with particular names

Ag processes got more codified after WWII

WWI was extremely destructive to grape vines in France

WWII was less so

after WWII they really started focusing on higher quality production and minimal chemical intervention. 

crops of grapes

Youre right tho there is still a lot of pesticide use in France, mostly fungicide and the wine making sector did account for almost 20% of those chemicals. 

They’re trying to bring it down and they are experimenting with various ways to do that

Tougher process with some of them. In some cases you have centuries of tradition.

If they have centuries of tradition that’s before what we’re worried about today.

they’ve always

we’ve known about anti-fungal compounds  for many decades

back into the 19th century at least they knew about 

  • copper sulfate
  • other chemicals
  • that they started using on grape vines

They would have planted them differently .

part of the issue now

most with big ag

the density of planting encourages all kind of undesirable growth. That applies somewhat to grapes

  • trellis to keep vines off the ground
  • techniques they wouldn’t have had in the 19th century

I have a friend who is an agronomist who is studiing the old way of planting in grape vines which was 

  • planting in clusters
  • planting relatively far apart

As apposed to modern way

  • poles and metal wires
  • vines attached to the trellis’

Spain is making that kind of tradition now

it is having an affect on migratory birds. there are all sorts of things to consider about changing the way you grow wine.

Let’s talk about how you get to pick the places you get your wine.

I’m lucky enough to know people that do some scouting for me in various places.

I think people picture me as a wine importer that I arrive and get in a car dirt road to a battered sign and the wine maker carrying his baguette comes out to meet me.

First I get recommendations for friends

wine shows

  • invite importers to come and taste
  • lucky to go to a number of those
  • find something you like, find the price is right
  • by and large
  • latest producers have been at wine shows

still on the lookout

visit some place that is good

not available in the US

it might take a few years before I am able to taste it or bring it over here

there is luck involved definitely there’s also a lot of scouting

I drink a lot of wine, do you want to talk about different flavor wines? I kind of like dryer wines, not fruity wines.

The thing to remember is there’s no right thing. People get nervous because they think they are gonna get judged how they taste but if you like it that’s all that matters.

on their sweetness level

used to wine being named for the grape it contains

75% that grape can call it by that name

I like cabinet sauvignon

issue where it’s grown

The hotter the climate more intense it’s going to be. Once you know where it’s grown in Europe further and further south the wines get more robust. If you are looking at wines from southern Italy the southern wines are going to be more robust and fruitier. 

As far as dryness goes it has to do with how they make the wine

you have the sugar content, the sugar gets turned into alcohol

stop fermentation

you’re gonna have more sweetness

  • more sugar
  • more alcohol
  • farmer’s have to decide to pick grapes based on sugar content because if it gets to high they might not be able to ferment all the sugar into alcohol.

those are considerations

it really depends what you like

certain truisms

US wines tend to be fruitier then wines from Europe.

They do?

question of taste and also farming technique.

Zinfandel is the same grape as Primitivo in Italy but Primitivo tastes different because of the growing conditions

European styles of wine tends to taste earthier and less fruitier.

This is fascinating.

It’s really a question of preference and tradition for them.


I think you will find in the US we don’t have the same way of growing grapes

Napa and Sonoma valleys soil is beautiful. You could grow anything there. Most choose to grow wine because the soil is good for it.

When you have really really good soil, you don’t have to go as far down to get which means you don’t get quite as much earthiness which means the won’t be as earthy tasting. 

first vine wine vineyard photo


  • might do a little irrigation
  • wonderful soil

You get a really fruity taste to your zinfandel. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna sweet when I wine is fruity we have a perception of sweetness, might taste a little jammy.

If you go east to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you have terrain conditions more like the wine regions in Europe. A lot of the farmers in the foothills there, don’t use any irrigation.

  • no irrigation
  • complete dry farming
  • more like wines from Europe

Depends on where you grow

  • hotter
  • fruitier it could be

Sicilian wine

Southern Italy because of the climate there they are fruitier then wines form northern Italy

Same in France wines from Provence where it’s sunny and hot taste  little different then wines in the Loire Vally few hundred miles to the north

All of that is important

what you can do

once you identify what you like

  • flavors that you like
  • level dryness

You should be able to go into any good reasonably wine shop and they should be able to tell you the flavor and sweetness that your looking for.

I do want to say that sweetness in wine has gotten a bad rap.

White Zinfandel is an interesting thing. 

White Zinfandel

It is made with red grapes

Zinfandel got over planted in the 60s and 70s

they had all this fruit and they wanted to make something different out of it.

sugar level in the grapes

minimal contact with the skins in the grape you don’t get color in the wine. All of the color comes from the skin. If you peel it and look at it inside is green like the white grape

when you crush and don’t have contact with the juice you don’t get the color.

light pink colored wine. 

grape skin are all these other flavor compounds

You can really taste the alcohol. You were starting to get all these wines that were making you breathe fire when you drank them.

stop before all the fermentation

that’s why it tastes sweet

I think it gives sweet wines a bad name but a little bit of residual sugar in wine

spicy foods go good with a wine that has a little bit of residual sweetness

lovely lovely barely sweet wines


  • reisling
  • pinot blanc

There are some great Oregon Rieslings and some from NYState that go really well with some foods. If you taste those.

  • don’t taste cloyingly sweet
  • balanced by good acidity
  • lightly sweet wine

Off line I’ll give some recommendations if you have I can convert you to a little bit of residual sweetness.

Can I just ask you said they don’t put the skin in or they should?

red wine your always gonna have contact with the grape skin

come into the winery

they get crushed

  • crushed gently
  • less gently
  • more gently the less that the skins are going to rupture

drain the juice off right away that’s how you have minimal contact with the skin. That’s how you end up with rose’s – pink wines. 

Rosés are made

almost exclusively from red wine grapes

tastes like a red wine

strawberry cherry to it

never gonna get those flavors out of a white grape. They just don’t hppen. They come  with red grapes

A little bit of skin contact give you those light fruit flavors

fuller bodied red wines

stay in contact for weeks before the juice is drained off. 

what your gonna make

With white grapes they stay in contact with the juice for longer

full bodied white wines have a lot of skin contact

Depends on what you want to make and how you want it to look and taste


The more skin contact the more fruit flavors but then youre also gonna get the compounds called tannins that add bitter notes

  • help wines age in the bottle
  • get tannins from the grape stems
  • seeds too

depending on seeds too if you need to increase the tannins.

a lot of people don’t like red wines because of the perceived bitterness within them. That’s part of the deal

you can expose the wine to air, oxygen softens the tannins up and makes the wine smoother to drink…

open the bottle a little before you drink

oxygen makes the wine smoother to drink

  • eat protein with the wine
  • milk proteins like cheese
  • smooth out the tannins
  • meat proteins do the same thing
  • one of the reasons they say red wine with meat

the other thing you have to consider is that when your eating food with wine

relatively intensive

  • mild tasting fish
  • big hearty grilled steak
  • big red wines just like the flavor

in general

You don’t want your food stronger then wine

pairing wine and food

is a whole other discussion

I just wanted to say the compounds in the grape skin are some of the things that help to determine what’s gonna with the wine. 


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Now Let’s Get to the Root of Things!

I’ve got a few recipes

I’ve been posting recipes and wine pairings for about 8 years

ones that would

be interesting for people who grow their own food

one I developed over the years


photo by Eileen Kelly


Mike’s Green Garden Cucumber

Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers

submitted to the Washington Post a couple of years ago and it was a finalist in the contest

wanna get the ripest tomatoes The ones you think if I let these go another day they are gonna go in the compost. 

We all know that when they all of a sudden are super ripe.

  • Core them cut them in half through the equator
  • pick up that bowl pick up that half tomato
  • squeeze it gently
  • get out the bowl
  •  and catch all the seeds and gel stuff that the seeds are in
  • chop up remaining shells
  • 3 large tomatoes for a lb. of spaghetti
  • 2 medium sized cucumbers if you grow them yourself don’t have to take skin off – if you get them at the grocery store you might want to take the skins off
  • quarter lengthwise and take seeds out
  • cut into 3/4 inch slices throw them in too.

at this point

It depends on how tomatoes taste

if they are not as sweet as you’d like them to be add a teaspoon and half of 

  • balsamic vinerager
  • salt
  • pepper
  • red pepper flakes
  • onion
  • chopped scallions
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
  • finely mince a couple of cloves of garlic

let it sit for an hour

all the vegetables


  • bring your pot of water to boil
  • cook it
  • save a bit of pasta water in case you need it
  • toss cooked spaghetti in bowl with everything else
  • saved pasta water if it needs water, add a bit you probably won’t though 
  • vegetables get a lot of liquid out of them by sitting there
  • add parmesan and Romano cheese

Taste it

  • see if you need more salt
  • splash of vinegar – red wine or balsamic


  • if you have fresh basil
  • I like to do each serving
  • tastes a little better
  • toss in the bowl with spaghetti
  • a little bit of fresh oregano

Ours grows like crazy so we always have it!

Me too!

  • I think you have to be careful with fresh oregano
  • for a recipe like that
  • a wine that has a little acidity
  • really bright

Wine Pairs

  • sauvignon blanc
  • grape Verdejo
  • summer roses


In the summer time  you could also serve a rose with it

Rosé’s vary in level of acidity

if you find one that has a little bit of a tang to it when you drink it that would be better

I think Rosé’s look great on the table

I always encourage people to drink them

my producers drinkRosé all year long

does a lot of good things

I serve Rosé with Thanksgiving

The other thing with that recipe liquid

drink that like Gazpacho. 

Or soak it up with some bread!


Tomatoes and Eggplant – to salt or not to salt?

Something that I like to do with tomatoes and eggplant

well so the big deal with eggplant is do you have to salt it or not salt it to get the bitterness out

The only way to figure that out is to cut some up and taste it.

if it tastes really bitter to you you probably need to salt it.

if it doesn’t taste bitter

you probably don’t need to

It may seem funny to eat raw eggplant

really that’s the only way I can tell

if you stick to the smaller ones

I was gonna say, I like to pick zucchinis, eggplants smaller, like the size of a quarter, maybe a bit bigger for the eggplant.

eggplants that size

not gonna have any problem with bitterness

best things to do with eggplant is to either

roast it or grill it

I think it tastes better. go ahead if you have one of those non-stick mats for baking sheets

parchment paper works well too.

or just put a fair amount of oil on the baking sheet

parchment or non-stick mat I think that works a little bit better.

eggplants just soak up oil like crazy

  • keep absorbing it
  • less oil
  • non-stick mat
  • or paper

will help

  • brush with a little oil
  • alt and pepper
  • slices that are about 1/2 -3/4 inch
  • these will be done
  • take them out

make little stacks with

  • sliced tomatoes
  • eggplant
  • fresh mozzarella cheese is great

if you don’t have fresh mozzarella or you don’t like it 

not everybody does

plenty of other cheese

  • feta
  • something that melts a little bit like
  • swiss cheeses

make little stacks

  • eggplant
  • cheese
  • tomato
  • cheeses
  • eggplant

pop back in the oven to melt

  • drizzle with a little oil

Out they come and you can eat them right out of the oven or cool off a little bit

really delicious that way!

That does sound so good. Mozzarella you get in New York is delicious but my friend Eve who I interviewed  on the mountain who makes homemade mozzarella to die for. I was thinking ricotta would work

in order to


what you should do is put the ricotta take a sieve and line with

  • leave overnight
  • talking about lb. of ricotta
  • 1/2 cup of liquid out of that
  • can save it,
  • give to your pets don’t throw that away
  • use it in bread it’s delicious
  • drink it
  • give it to your pets
  • once the ricotta is drained it will whole hold together


I like to drain it a bit, especially if you’ve got a

good brand of supermarket ricotta they just tend to have more liquid.

Ricotta cheese is really expensive in Montana. IDK why. When I get to NY I’m like omgosh how cheap that is? That can’t be?

if they make mozzarella they probably make


means recooked

after mozzarella gets made they take the whey that’s left over

add some sort of acid or renett to it

make ricotta cheese from that

chances are if they’re making

if they’re not making

using milk and cream and making it that way which is delicious but a lot more expensive

raw material

I’m always surprised at how expensive dairy products are on the east side of the mountains which seems so counter intuitive because here I’m on the open plains and there’s tons of cows and it’s so much less expensive on the west side where we live. It all seems to come from Spokane produce so that might be why, more gas etc.

I want to give you more one more recipe tip but I want to make sure we talk about organic and biodynamic wines.


grate zucchini up

salt it

add it to all kinds of things

cous cous for example

grated zucchini, just saute it for a minute in olive oil and add it to your cous cous it adds great flavor. If you are adding rice, you do’t even have to cook your zucchini, stir it into your hot rice, adds incredible color and  a lot of flavor

  • it can be a little bland
  • even the tiny ones
  • after you get the water content out of them
  • scrambled eggs
  • with the zucchini
  • what you’re putting in
  • I put it in scrambled egss

you can put it in your pancakes too it doesn’t make them taste like vegetables but adds a savory component to your savory pancakes.

I think you should open a restaurant!

I don’t want to work that hard.

Were you going to tell us what kind of wine goes with the mozzarella eggplant stacks?

This is the time when you pull out the red wine

Eggplant goes very well with red wine and of course the mozzarella does too

fairly robust red wine, I tend to serve french red wines with eggplant

from the Rhone Valley in France

earthiness of wines they tend to be a bit earthier rather then fruity

sort of intense

  • meatish flavors
  • the earthiness of the eggplant has an earthier flavor
  • creaminess of the cheese

Scream out for a bigger red wine, if you can find

  • Cote-de-Rhones wines around you
  • red wines
  • try one
  • even the inexpensive ones would be perfect with something like that

If you’re looking for wine from California

happy to see about California wines

used to be 

There was a 20 year period all you could get was a chardonay or a cabernet sauvignon

people who first started making wine in California most were Italian

planted Italian varieties.


They’re making really good Sangiovese in California

find it mostly in northernItalian

Tuscany and what not

main grape in Chianti

bottle of Chianti and it’s gonna be mostly Sangiovese

California Sangiovese if you can find it 

With the zucchini

Pairing Secrets

A little secret about pairing wines with food a lot of times your pairing wine with the sauce.

we were talking about zucchini earlier

pairing wine with food secret

pairing with the sauce

  • rather then the featured product
  • you have chicken relatively mild in flavor
  • sauce that has lots of onion
  • caramelized onion and stock
  • more flavor

made your chicken and you’ve got a little lemon and parsley

then you’re probably gonna want a white wine with that

  • not only are you pairing wine with the protein 
  • sauce flavor is what your are going to taste so go with that.

A lot of Italian fish dishes have tomatoes in them

pair it with the sauce

those are a few hints

hours and hours about pairing food and wine

Their mouths are probably drooling like mine and thinking about food. You should do a cookbook!

been thinking about that


for so long


Organic wine in the us

labeled USDA has to not contain 10ppm

this leaves out almost every wine from Europe. They routinely add sulfites, they want it to last. 

want product to last


if I’m paying $20 for a bottle of wine and I forget it in my basement I don’t want it to spoil – I want it to be drinkable

plenty of people against adding sulfites that say it detracts from the natural character of the wine. I respect their opinion on it. I don’t feel the same way.

When you get wine from Europe that’s made under the standards satisfy grape growing

made with organic grapes they are not labeled organic wine

same thing occurs with US producers, if the grapes are grown organically it can be labeled organic grapes

It’s a small distinction but I think it’s an important one.

should know

I first of all that the USDA rules need to be changed for organic wine

talking about naturally occurring sulfites added to wine

It’s not a petroleum chemical. I’m not sure what the issue is with that. 

biodynamic wine

The other thing people might see is biodynamic wine

by and large made like organic wine

There are some tenants of biodynamics

to the casual observer that might seem a little odd.

Your winery should be oriented in a particular direction

lunar cycles in biodynamics

The thing most people find funniest is your supposed to bury cow horns with manure in your vineyards to help with grape production.

What I like is biodynamics really focuses on health of soil. I think people would believe that makes sense. 

Healthy soil is gonna make better grapes

agree that would make sense

healthier grapes comes from healthier soil.

I think that biodynamics is good concept

I lost the rest of the interview? Yikes! Sorry everyone?!

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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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